What is "Good Light" Anyway?


You often hear the term "good light' used in photography, but what does that really mean? Well, it can actually mean many different things to different people, but in this post I'll break down what it means to me. When I have a camera in hand, the first thing I am looking for is not an outstanding subject or even a great moment. First, I look for the light. Once I've spotted some "good light", then I try to see what can be created with it. Is there an interesting subject within that light? To me, without that "good light" I really don't have much of an image. Doesn't matter if the subject is incredible, if it's in flat, boring lighting, there isn't a great image. Photography is light. So look for the light first, then see what you can create in it!


Below are 5 types of "good light" I am always searching for. There are other types of "good light", but these are a few of my favorites.


1. High Contrast - Images with high contrast have significant difference in tonal range between the highlights and shadows. Meaning the highlights are very bright and the shadows are very dark. Photographers often try to avoid high contrast images, but it doesn't always have to be a negative thing. It all depends on the subject and the desired outcome. I love the drama of a correctly exposed high contrast image. But correctly exposing a high contrast image is critical. Exposing for the highlights is key. I lift the shadows in post production. Keep in mind, tonal contrast can often become even more dramatic when converted to black and white.


2. Backlight - The lighting comes from behind and can create a glowing effect on the edges of the subject. It is sometimes called a "rim light" and can form a silhouette. If the light source is coming directly at the camera and causing lens flare, try placing the light source at a 45 degree angle to the camera. The subject will still be backlit, but you can avoid lens flare. A lens hood can also help in this circumstance. Backlighting can produce a dramatic contrast between the subject and the background and add depth to an image. Exposing for a backlit subject can be tricky and using a spot meter will help.


3. Dappled or Patterns of Light - Patches of light filtered through something creating a mixture or pattern of light and shadow. Typically when there is a light pattern, I expose for the highlights and lift shadows in post production. This type of "good light" is often easy to spot since its so dramatic. It's another type of "good light" that photographers may try to avoid, since it can be more challenging to correctly expose, but dappled light can create high impact imagery when used creatively.


4. Sunburst - This type of "good light" involves capturing the sun so you can actually see the sun's rays. It is an optical occurrence that causes light to spread out over a lens' aperture blades. To create a sunburst you'll need to start by closing down your aperture to at least F16. This may in turn cause you to need a tripod due to a long shutter. The easiest way to capture a sunburst is if part of the rays are blocked out behind a cloud, mountain, etc. Don't forget to physically move around until you get into the exact spot that produces your desired sunburst effect.


5. Dark and Moody Light - A low key or dark and moody image is typically underexposed with dark colors or tones. No fancy equipment needed. It is a very simple technique, but can create drama and mystery. Dark images tend to show more texture. They can evoke emotion and feeling. You can quickly change the look and feel of an image by adding dark shadows and strong contrast.


Happy Shooting!

~ Jennifer Costello