Light is the most important part of photography. Without light, your camera would never be able to take a photograph. But what a lot of people don’t understand is that there are two types of light that are critical for photographers to understand. There is incident light and reflected light.
What Is Incident Light?
Incident light is by definition the light that touches a subject. Incident light can come from any source, be it natural lighting like the sun or artificial light from a bulb. Incident light can even be light reflected from another surface.
The basic thing to know is that incident light is what illuminates your scene. Incident light hits your subject before being reflected. This is why incident light is considered more accurate when it comes to taking readings.
What Is Reflected Light?
Reflected light is what’s being physically reflected off a subject. The incident light comes from the source and hits the subject, and the light that then reflects off the subject is referred to as reflected light.
It doesn’t matter what the light source is or what subject you’re taking a photo of. Light is always going to be altered and reflected when it hits something. The only thing that won’t reflect light is a black hole.
Why Is Incident Light Important?
Why is incident light so important? Why is light reading such a big idea? Because to take the best and most professional photographs, you need to have your settings tweaked for the ideal light exposure in a particular situation. The best way to ensure your manual settings are correct, allowing you to take an amazing photograph, is to read the incident light and the reflected light.
How Do You Read Incident Light?
Automatic mode is not always the best when taking pictures in complex situations. If you want better photographs, it’s ideal that you set your camera to manual and adjust the settings appropriately.
When it comes to incident light, cameras are not great at adjusting their own settings because incident light enters through the camera lens. Instead, most cameras have what is known as a reflected light meter. This reads the light reflecting off the subject of your picture. It doesn’t actually read the incident light, meaning the original source of the light.
Problems happen when the incident light enters your camera’s lens, creating unwanted contrast. The science behind this is quite complex. Light is always transformed after it hits an object and is reflected. Both color and tone can change how we perceive reflected light and how it’s read by a camera.
For example, if you’re taking a photograph of a scene with a black object and a white object, both objects will reflect different amounts of light. Black absorbs much more light than white does, meaning the contrast will be off.
It’s also important to remember that shiny surfaces reflect more light than dull surfaces. Glossy black surfaces will also reflect more light than something with a matte finish.
So, how do you read the incident light to get the best photograph? It’s done using an incident light meter. An incident light meter is a handheld device designed to read the current light and provide you with the exact camera settings to use.
The big deal with incident light meters is that they’re really only used by photographers working with flashes and strobes in studios. You would never walk around taking photographs of your favorite city holding an incident light meter. It just wouldn’t make sense. The only major source of light outside is usually going to be the sun.
An incident light meter literally just reads the available light in a particular setting and gives you information on how to deal with it. It’s important that you have one of these devices if working with a variety of light sources. You must learn how to balance light in a studio so that your subject comes out looking great. Reading incident light is critical when dealing with multiple strong light sources at once.
Unfortunately, incident light meters are often very expensive. They’re also a bit bulky, meaning you need to carry tons of equipment. But as we said before, these devices are really only used for studios or with digital photography.
What Is A Reflected Light Meter?
Every modern camera is equipped with a reflected light meter. This is probably one of the most unknown features of a modern camera. But the reflected light meter is important nonetheless, and you must understand how it works.
The reflected light meter always reads light as if the light is 18% gray. This is just how the meters are calibrated. While this might sound like mumbo jumbo, 18% gray is known as middle gray. It’s actually the exact halfway tone between black and white.
What this means is that a reflected light meter is the device that reads light entering your camera as 100% neutral. This is the ideal base for all photography. This means all your photographs are hypothetically going to be exposed correctly. Regardless of lighting conditions, the reflected light meter allows you to capture optimal photos.
Of course, there are all kinds of other settings that you can tweak to play with light and to be more creative, and to have more vibrant photographs. But the reflected light meter is what enables amateur and professional photographers to simply pick up the camera and start shooting.
How To Use Light Meters In Photography
Using light meters can dramatically help with taking better pictures. Cameras have a limited dynamic range. The integrated reflected light meter always reads incoming light as middle gray.
This means that if you’re taking a photograph of a completely black subject, the meter will force it to become gray. If you’re taking a photograph of something completely white, the meter will force it to become gray as well. This is just the way cameras are calibrated.
So, how do you get a photograph in which the blacks are black and the whites are white? For example, how do you actually take black and white photos? The only way is to override the settings and manually set your camera yourself – and this often involves using light meters.
By using an incident light meter, you can read the light coming directly from the source. Using the information given to you by the meter, you can change the camera settings so that when the light is reflected off the surface of your subject, whether it’s black or white, it won’t change the final image.
Another trick that doesn’t require using a meter is pointing your camera at an object that’s mid-toned. Something like concrete is considered middle gray. So is grass. Pointing your camera at something already middle gray will help the blacks and whites in your photo be more vivid and realistic.
Always remember that meter reading should be carried out in the exact same light condition that your subject is in. For example, if you’re taking a picture of someone standing in the shade, make sure you read the incident light inside the shade. The same thing can be said about the sun. If your subject is standing in the sunshine, you should also be standing in the sunshine before taking a light reading.
How To Use Incident Light In Photos
Learning how to incorporate incident light into your photographs can be tricky. The light meter inside your camera almost always works well enough to never need to think about reading light. But in a very rare case, you might need to include incident light in your composition, and this means exposure is going to be challenging.
The exposure meter will not work properly when a strong light source enters your camera lens. This is when light distortion and poor contrast happens. The best way to overcome incident light is to experiment with different settings. Use your histogram and highlight indicators to help set your exposure.
You can also change other camera settings to get different results. Try changing the position of your camera to look at the light source from a different angle, as this can sometimes help artistically manipulate the incident light.
The best thing you can do is practice and experiment until you understand the way light sources impact your photographs. Then you’ll be able to bend them to your will.
Light is one of the most complicated things in the universe. Photography is really just about mastering light. Many people think photography is all about posing and timing, but it really does have a lot more to do with light and the manipulation of light.
The more you understand about how light sources work and about how light changes once reflected off a subject, the more you will understand how to use your camera. Incident light can be used in your compositions to dramatically change how a photograph looks – and you can get better at doing this the more you practice.