Light as the Subject of Your Photograph

How do we use light to make our photography more interesting, more significant, more dynamic? Too often when traveling we shoot images to remind us of the place and the feeling, but light really plays little in the documentation process. If we record images of our travels and we use lighting concepts to heighten the visual experience, we come one step closer to making successful images – some might even say art.

The very essence of the word “photo” means light. One way of looking at light is to think of it as the subject of the image. While in Italy recently on a family vacation I created a challenge for myself: follow the light. Let’s walk around looking for light, not just a particular subject. Let’s see if light can become the reason to take the photo, not just an aside to the photo.

It started while I was in front of the beautiful baroque Duomo cathedral in Florence after a slight rain. Small puddles of rainwater collected all around: in statues, on cobblestones, in flowers, etc. And sometimes, these puddles were highlights of the water reflecting the bright blue sky. I found myself walking around the piazza looking at the ground, ignoring the beautiful architectural design (or so it seemed) as I searched for puddles filled with light. I finally realized what a sight I must have been when I noticed a few people looking at me strangely. They would give a gasp of recognition when they suddenly saw the amazing reflections that I was seeking and capturing.

In this photo below, you can see the interesting reflection of some wonderful architecture juxtaposed against the coarse and dark paving stones. Some of them seemed almost magical and otherworldly to me.

LightAsSubject1 - Shooting Light

This photo of the Duomo in Florence was a result of the reflection on the dark roadway, the lighted building reflecting the sun down into a puddle.

Statues and sculptures surrounded me in the next piazza I explored. I have been a fan of these structures for a long time. Looking around and surveying the crowd of statues, a blinding flash of a sword struck me. Normally, I would not have taken a photo of the statue; but the sword had been exquisitely highlighted by the sun, providing an opportunity for a more interesting picture. The light was so visually aggressive that I had a difficult time avoiding it, as well as photographing it.

LightAsSubject2 - Shooting Light

The reflection of the light on the sword magnifies our response to the tool of war. The light striking this was so visually disturbing that I had a difficult time avoiding it as well as photographing it.

Next I found myself in the Vatican, with its wonders of architecture, history, and art. We passed a group of Swiss Guard, some serious and on duty, others posing with tourists. But it was not until I turned the corner that the light caught my eye once again. It was only for a moment or two that the direct light on the handsomely dressed guard created this opportunity. However, that split second of perfect lighting provided a crisp, eye-catching photo.

LightAsSubject3 - Shooting Light

The bright and harsh side light as a ray of sun strikes this magnificently dressed Papal Swiss Guard. The light was there one moment and gone the next.

While in the amazing Uffizi Museum in Florence I wandered over to a brightly lit window, and what struck me was the light on the water, a veritable billboard of sparkling light. The light was so brilliant that it was generating heat bouncing off the water into the second story windows. I started to compose a shot of the water and miraculously the boater appeared. I likely would have experimented with a shot of the water alone, but the combination of the water and the boater became the image. In this photo below, the rower becomes secondary to the light, giving the composition a more sophisticated feeling (rather than a simple tourist snapshot).

LightAsSubject4 - Shooting Light

How could this sparkling “bling” be avoided; the rower is secondary to the light.

Finally, as we were rambling around Rome’s Borghese Gardens, we became quite lost. Trying to find my bearings while looking at street signs and a map, I was suddenly struck by the light pouring through the trees. I felt like a deer in the headlights, frozen in the middle of a Roman street, traffic snarling all around me. My family escaped to the safety of a pedestrian crosswalk, while I stayed in the middle of the road taking this shot. Using exposure for the light, not the trees, is what makes this photo work.

LightsAsSubject5 - Shooting Light

As we all walked around in a daze trying to find our way, we became momentarily mesmerized by the sun setting behind the trees.

So, next time out, while you are wandering around looking for imagery on vacation or on assignment, look for the light. Let it lead you into some interesting photos. Let light be your guide for the afternoon. Do not look for subjects, look for the light and follow it wherever it takes you.

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9 Responses to “Light as the Subject of Your Photograph”

  1. jacqui

    great lesson love the perspectve

  2. Shirley Verner

    Really helpful article on lighting! TY!

  3. Nazmi Khozouz

    I would like to get access to the images occulted above and I ask for a help. Many thanks!

  4. Jaessey

    Great challenge. I will do the same thing sometime this week. Thanks, jay

  5. Kaitlyn

    My teacher gave us a project in which we have to have light as our subject. Such as lines that use repetition from a window blind that has light coming through. I would love if you could explain how to do pictures like that.


    Thank you, I have an assignment coming up using this very topic and it helped very much.. Your shots are amazing!

  7. Michael

    Great article and very inspirational - it's so important to be on the lookout for situations where light is the subject!

  8. Pavel Blagev

    Amazing shots What camera did you use when traveling to Europe?

  9. Lou Mark

    Wonderful lesson. Many thanks. The shots are beautiful.