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Chapter Four: Light sources and white balance

Hi there! It's Yuukon again, with a new chapter of Photography 101! 

If you are new to Photography 101, I recommend you to check out the first three chapters first:
Photography 101: Chapter 01: Basics - Looking
Photography101: Chapter 02: Composition - Location
Photography 101: Chapter 03: Lighting

So, today we will be talking about the various light sources you can use in photography. These are the three most used light sources that I will focus on:
  • Available Light
  • Natural Light
  • Flash
Next to that, we will also talk about the importance of white balance and how it affects a photograph. 

Paying close attention to lighting is perhaps one of the most important steps in improving your photography.With many landscapes, having a good natural lighting can be even more important than the choice of subject. Different kinds of light will also cause your photograph to look entirely different, even though they have the same light source.
Take a look at these two photographs I took:
Untitled by Yuukon Olet Uneni Kaunein by Yuukon
( Click to open! )

These two photographs were taken from nearly the exact same spot, one just zoomed in a bit more. The fog creates a mysterious, soft lighting, while the summer-sun creates harsh contrast and lighting.
These two photographs are the reason I always tell people no location is bad for photography, you just need the right circumstances to accompany you.  

Available light

In photography available light (ambient light) refers to any light source that is not provided by the photographer for the purpose of taking photos. Available light refers to sources of light that are already there, for example the sun, the moon, lighting or artificial lighting like lamps inside, street lamps, and so on.
Some examples of available light sources:
  •    Indoor
Light bulbs
Light coming from outside

  •    Outdoor
Street lights
Stars and the moon

And many, many, many more.

Available light is very difficult to predict, especially when you are outside.
I personally love working with available light simply because it is so unpredictable. No two photographs will be the same, and even slightly changing the angle can change the photograph as a whole. In my gallery, you can find many pictures taken with available light sources, this one, for instance:
Catch the Light by Yuukon
( Click to open! )
The set-up on this photograph was really quite simple. This is a water drop on a feather of my bird, put on a little stand. My light source here was the sun, which hit my background directly, causing the rainbows. No artificial light needed!
I learned working with available light before I got all the fancy gear I have now. I had no flashes, no handy lights I could position, and so on, which means I was depending on natural light, both outside and inside.  
The good thing about working with available light is that it will always be there. You will never need to “look” for a place to set up your lights, and I have learned it’s ideal for working with animals and children, as they can often get a bit jumpy from flashes.

So how do you learn to work with available light? Look at it, and use it to your advantage. Learn to anticipate. The key is to practice, and keep practicing, even if you think it’s not working out. You’ll get there.

Natural Light

I guess we can say that natural light is just as easily accessible as available light, you just need to go outside!
There are three things that will determine what a shot in natural light will look like:
  • Time of day
  • Camera direction
  • Weather

Even though all natural light comes from the sun (even at night, since the moon reflects the sunlight!), there are several elements to light:

  • Direct sunlight - warmer
Direct sunlight is warm, and creates a high contrast

  • Diffuse skylight - cooler
This is the light you will get on cloudy days, when the clouds act as a giant diffuser

  • Bounced light
This is light that “bounces” off objects around you. This is generally soft light.

Each of these light situations will require a different white balance to work with and each of
these will create a different contrast and atmosphere.

Natlight Gradient1c by Yuukon
  • Midday → Very high contrast, neutral white colours
  • Evening & Morning → High contrast, slightly warm colours
  • Golden Hour & Sunrise/Sunset → Medium contrast, warm colours
  • Twilight, Dawn & Dusk → Low contrast, cool pastel colours

Clear, midday sunshine is generally direct, downward sunlight. Light such as this has barely any chance to scatter or diffuse throughout the atmosphere or to bounce off and light the subject indirectly. Because of this it will create harsh lighting and shadows, and many photographers will avoid these light situations.

Evening and mid-morning light comes in from a different angle, and has the ability to “lift” your subject from its background. This will create a more 3-dimensional image.

The time around sunrise and sunset is often referred to as “golden hour”. This is typically one of the situations most people would favour for their photographs.
Golden hour, sunrise and sunset will give you a soft, warm light.

Twilight, dawn and dusk are the half hour before sunrise and the half hour after sunset. The sky is still bright, but there is no longer any direct sunlight. This time of day often creates a soft, multicolour lighting, warm colours combined with colder ones.

Shade and overcast lighting are typically very soft, since the light source is spread over the entire sky. This creates a cool lighting. This type of light will create much subtler textures and it is heavily influenced by light bouncing off from other objects, often giving the object a tint in the colour of the object shading it. For instance, underneath a green tree, the object the bounced light will hit will have a greenish tint.


Flash is something that is very widely used in photography, in many different ways and with many different devices.
Let’s learn something about flashes before we move on:
Studies of magnesium by Bunsen and Roscoe in 1859 showed that burning metal produced a light similar to daylight. Edward Sonstadt got inspired by this, and for the potential application of photography he researched methods of burning magnesium so that it would burn reliable enough for him to use.
From there on, Edward Sonstadt and his colleague William Mather created a flat, magnesium ribbon, which was said to burn consistent enough and giving a reliable illumination.
This is how our modern-day flashes got started. Photographers worked with (usually) harmless pyrotechnics to light their photographs.

The flashes we use today are thankfully a lot more safe than burning magnesium ribbons. We have various kinds of flashes, flashes built-in to our camera’s, flashes we can place on top of our camera’s and complete studio sets. Which you need depends on what you want to use it for.

Because flash is something very widely used, and it has so many options, today I will only talk about basics and set-ups. At a later point, flash will come back in this course and be much deeper.

Built-in flashes
Built-in flashes are the flash that is built in to your camera, and most modern day camera’s have one. With DSLR’s it usually pops up when you push a button, compact camera’s often have one on the front, and so on. These are also the flashes most photographers, myself included, will discourage you to use.
Because they are pointed directly at your subject, these built-in flashes often create a very flat photograph, harsh shadows and overexposed highlights, especially when you use it in a close-up.
BuiltinFlash-6253 by Yuukon
( Click to open! )

This is a photograph of one of my duckies that I took with the built-in flash on my camera. As you can see, the lighting is very harsh, quite unnatural and most of the detail in my ducks beak has gone. 

Speedlite or external flash
Speedlites, also known as external flashes, are flashes you sit on top of your camera in the hot-shoe. This is what they generally look like:
Canon 5296B002 Speedlite 600EX 847537 by Yuukon
( Click to open! )
You can move their heads into a different angle and bounce the flash off walls, ceilings, etc to achieve a soft lighting. This will give your subject a softer, and more three-dimensional feel. Speedlites are  very versatile, you can set the strength of the flash, the angle, you can use coloured gels to created a coloured lighting, and many, many more things.

SingleSpeedlite-6258 by Yuukon
( Click to open! )
This is a photograph I took with one speedlite, angled at the ceiling, which in turn bounced the light back on my duck. Soft light, soft shadows, and details are still there.

Multiple flashes/speedlites
This is a set-up often used when working in studios. If set up correctly, it can help reduce shadows on someone's face, when working with people, or your object.
Here is a  photograph I took with a dual-speedlite set-up:
DualFlash-6269 by Yuukon
( Click to open! )
As you can see, there are barely any shadows on the duck anymore, and the shadows that are there are very soft. Of course you need to know how to set up your flashes. Because in this case I wanted my duck to be illuminated correctly, I used one flash on the right side of the duck, the other on the left-front side. Untitled by Yuukon
( Click to open!)
I hope you can forgive me for my drawing skills, but this is how I set it up. The object in the middle is the duck, the other two are my flashes. The one in the front was on top of my camera this time, while the one of the right was tagging along on "slave" mode on it's own foot. Most modern flashes, both studio and speedlite, can be set up in slave mode. How this works all depends on your brand and model. My own modern flash has two slave modes, and it usually takes a little fiddling which one it's going to respond to, depending on the other devices I use. 

White Balance

White balance is the global adjustment of colours to make your photograph appear more natural. Things that are white in person, will appear white on your photograph as well when using the correct white balance. With the “wrong” white balance, they will look blue-ish or orange/yellowish.

White balance is all about colour temperature, which is measured in Kelvin, named after the man who discovered it, William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin (Lord Kelvin). He was a mathematical physicist and engineer, born in Belfast in 1824. He is also known for determining the lowest temperature possible, -273.15 in Celcius and -459.67 in Fahrenheit.
Unlike Celcius and Fahrenheit, Kelvin is not referred to as a degree. Kelvin is the primary unit of temperature measurement in the physical sciences (photography is also science!).

Colour temperature
Colour temperature describes the spectrum of light which is radiated from a “blackbody” with that surface temperature. A blackbody is an object which absorbs all light- it’s not reflecting it or allowing it to pass through. Let’s take a look at the diagram below…
White-balance-chart by Yuukon
As you can see in this diagram, the warmer the light, the lower the number in Kelvin. 5000 K is more or less neutral light, from a flash, for instance. 3000 K will be much more yellow/orange than 6000 K, for instant. Now, how does this translate to our photographs?
Even though photographers will never deal with “blackbodies”, light sources such as daylight and tungsten bulbs closely mimic the distribution of light by blackbodies, whereas fluorescent and “commercial” lighting are not similar at all. Since photographers never use colour temperature in referral to a blackbody light source, the term is implied to be a “correlated colour temperature” with a similarly coloured blackbody.
The diagram above is a rule of thumb to determine the colour temperature that goes with certain types of light.

Setting white balance
I mostly shoot with Auto White Balance on my own camera. Since I shoot in RAW, it is very easy to fix the white balance in the post processing process. This allows me to fully focus on my subject and exposure settings.
When you don’t shoot in RAW, it’s probably best to set the white balance as you are shooting, to make sure you get the correct colour temperature. Editing on .jpeg files is always less desirable than on RAW file formats (more on RAW in the next chapter!), as it manipulates pixels in jpeg, while, in essence, on raw, you just put on sticky notes and don’t touch the pixels.

Which white balance you need will depend on your light sources. If you’re outside, in daylight, you set it to daylight. If you are in shadows, you set it to shadows, and so on. Each white balance setting has their own symbol:
557925d477f23c86207d05e1d54cdd78 by Yuukon
Most camera’s only show these symbols, it’s a pretty universal thing. Sometimes, depending on brand, it might differ a bit, but it will always look similar to the ones above.

I often use white balance as an adjustment for the atmosphere in my photographs. This one, for instance:
Hyvasti, Dolores Haze by Yuukon
( Click to open! )
In this photograph, I set the colour temperature cooler than it actually was in the first place.
Untitled-1 copy by Yuukon
( Click to open! )
Same photograph, “correct” white balance. This is a good example of how much white balance can affect the atmosphere in a photograph. Fiddling with white balance to adjust the atmosphere is something I learned years ago, and it's something I still use in a lot of my photographs. Important thing is to not go overboard with it, and to keep it as a subtle tone instead of an entirely blue or orange photograph. Part of photography is making people feel something when they look at your photographs, and atmosphere is very important in that. White balance is just one way to achieve that, but in my case it's always been a favourite. Again, don't go overboard or your photographs will look unnatural. 
White balance is like composition, there is no "correct" way of using it, but you can go very wrong with it. Use it with caution!

In the next chapter I will tell you all about RAW files and basic editing. 

If you have any questions, please ask!
If you have suggestions for my course, send me a note!
If you want to learn more about photography, and receive feedback on your work, check out PhotographyGuide!

Next chapter:
Photography 101: Chapter 05: RAW and Basic Editing
Photography 101: Chapter 06: Gear

Chapter four of Photography 101! Totally exciting! :happybounce:

Make sure to visit projecteducate for more educational stuff!
Add a Comment:
simbagayta Featured By Owner May 15, 2016  Student Photographer
Thank you for this chapter , it was very exciting and helped me to learn something new :happybounce: 
Yuukon Featured By Owner May 15, 2016   Photographer
I'm glad to hear my chapter helped you! 
simbagayta Featured By Owner May 15, 2016  Student Photographer
:) (Smile) 
Chudames Featured By Owner Apr 29, 2016  Hobbyist Artisan Crafter
Yuukon Featured By Owner Apr 29, 2016   Photographer
Andorada Featured By Owner Apr 28, 2016
Yuukon Featured By Owner Apr 28, 2016   Photographer
trekatu Featured By Owner Apr 26, 2016  Hobbyist Artist
information taken!
Yuukon Featured By Owner Apr 26, 2016   Photographer

I hope it's useful to you!
trekatu Featured By Owner Apr 26, 2016  Hobbyist Artist
it will be.
Yuukon Featured By Owner Apr 26, 2016   Photographer
Good, I am glad!
whitestone Featured By Owner Apr 26, 2016
I just gave it a quick look, but looks like a very nicely done journal! Brava :thumbsup:
Yuukon Featured By Owner Apr 26, 2016   Photographer
whitestone Featured By Owner Apr 26, 2016
No problem!
Lintu47 Featured By Owner Apr 26, 2016  Hobbyist Photographer
Great! :thumbsup:
Yuukon Featured By Owner Apr 26, 2016   Photographer
Thank you!
Lintu47 Featured By Owner Apr 27, 2016  Hobbyist Photographer
My Pleasure (1) by daniya-ART
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Yuukon Featured By Owner Apr 26, 2016   Photographer
Thank you!
BGai Featured By Owner Apr 26, 2016
Thank you!!
Yuukon Featured By Owner Apr 26, 2016   Photographer
You're welcome! I hope it's useful for you! :TipOfTheHat: 
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