Canal St. Martin, Paris
Photograph by Gordon Gahan, National Geographic
Light is the single most important element in photography. Without light, both we and our cameras are blind. But light is so much more than a tool to physically record. This simple photograph by Gordon Gahan shows the power of light to ignite even the most mundane scene—a concrete tunnel—and render it beautifully. —Annie Griffiths
Photo Tip: When exposing for beams of light, it is best to underexpose the rest of the scene. It will add drama and will keep a little detail in the light beams themselves.
Inner Mongolia, China
Photograph by James L. Stanfield, National Geographic
In this lovely photograph by James Stanfield, the quality of light adds to the feeling of intimacy in the moment. It blesses the entire scene with a golden, soft light that leads us from the children to the mother to the animals outside. —Annie Griffiths
Photo Tip: Shooting into the light, or "backlighting," will add a halo effect to hair and clothing and other details of the subject. When backlighting, it is best to underexpose the image, allowing the highlights to glow.
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Photograph by Michael Nichols, National Geographic
Bad weather makes great pictures. The best bad weather is a stormy day, when the sun is battling the clouds and often breaks through to ignite one part of the scene. In this winter shot of the Grand Canyon by Michael Nichols, it is the single touch of sunlight that makes the photograph work. —Annie Griffiths
Photo Tip: Become a storm chaser. If you want to find drama in a landscape, you’re more likely to succeed on days when the weather is dynamic. Nothing is more boring than a perfect, cloudless day.
Photograph by William Albert Allard, National Geographic
Portraits should usually be taken in soft light. It allows the subject to relax, the features to soften, and the eyes to communicate. In this unforgettable portrait by William Albert Allard, the light plays a key role in leading the viewer to the cowboy’s eyes. The light is coming from the side and is low enough to provide illumination beneath the hat. Exposing for the light, not the shadow areas, allows the subject to glow. —Annie Griffiths
Photo Tip: If photographing indoors, window or door light falling on the subject can be beautiful. By positioning the subject near the light source and allowing some of the subject to underexpose, the photographer can let light touch only the most important part of the subject.
Luxor Hotel, Las Vegas
Photograph by Maria Stenzel, National Geographic
Photographer Maria Stenzel allowed several different sources of light to create the architecture of this photograph. Each source of light is a different color, and the bizarre quality of the different lights sets a perfect mood for a picture of Las Vegas. —Annie Griffiths
Photo Tip: Have fun with artificial light, especially at night. Look for different colors and sources of light, then use them in creative compositions. The possibilities are endless.
Central Park, New York City
Photograph by Melissa Farlow, National Geographic
Winter scenes are inherently cool in color. Snow reflects the color of the sky and, at the beginning or end of the day, often appears purple in color. In this winter scene, photographer Melissa Farlow waited until the last rays of the setting sun touched the tops of the trees to make her picture. The contrast of the warm sunset light with the cool purples of the scene makes this image striking. —Annie Griffiths
Photo Tip: When shooting at sunset, don’t just shoot the sun itself. Often the best scenes are those being ignited by the warm light of the sunset.
Photograph by Clifton R. Adams, National Geographic
This charming photograph by Clifton Adams is backlit, causing a halo effect around the heads of the three Irish girls. By letting the light draw attention to the their happy faces, we are less focused on the grime of their clothing. —Annie Griffiths
Photo Tip: Remember that light can bring emphasis to what you want the viewer to be drawn to in a photograph. When used well, light takes us by the hand and leads us to the important parts of an image.
Yosemite National Park, California
Photograph by Phil Schermeister, National Geographic
This photograph has a quiet symmetry made dynamic by light. The bright light on the mountain face is perfectly balanced by the deep light in its reflection. Photographer Phil Schermeister has made an elegant exposure, which allows the light to glow. —Annie Griffiths
Photo Tip: When photographing in a high contrast situation, consider your exposure carefully. Try different exposures to see what choice makes best use of available light.
Photograph by Beverly Joubert, National Geographic
Light after a storm is some of the most dramatic light on Earth. Instead of being the brightest part of a scene, the sky becomes the darkest. Light that breaks through is often a lovely color, because it is refracted by tiny droplets remaining in the air. This stunning image by Beverley Joubert is a perfect shot, in perfect light. —Annie Griffiths
Photo Tip: When the sky is dark, remember to expose for the light and allow the sky to become brooding and powerful. This will add drama to the part of the photograph that is touched by light.
Maasai Tribesman, Africa
Photograph by Mitsuaki Iwago, Minden Pictures
Photographer Mitsuaki Iwago used a low angle and the body of the Maasai tribesman to add drama to this photograph. The sun is breaking through clouds of dust, so the low angle adds to this effect. But the light is harsh enough to destroy all the shadow areas, unless it is blocked by a silhouette large enough to allow the right exposure. —Annie Griffiths
Photo Tip: Often the light is not ideal for shooting. But if the photographer is thoughtful about how to use the light, magical images can be made. Remember to try many different ways to take advantage of the light you are given.
Subscribe to National Geographic magazine and save. Print and digital editions available.