How to Tell a Story With Light

May 04, 2020

How to Tell a Story With Light

Storytelling is a photographer’s most powerful ability because stories are the way humans make sense of the world and our place in it. In this article, I’ll explain how you can practice storytelling with light to elevate your work and engage your viewers in a story that will affect them on a fundamental level. 

Stories are fundamental to the human experience. For photographers to tell stories effectively, they must use the tools of visual storytelling like subject, composition, contrast, and most importantly, light. Whether you use photography for capturing or creating, you need to understand how you can use light to communicate.

Aspects of Light

First, let’s talk about the main aspects of light and then break down how these aspects affect viewer perception.

Quality

Light quality in photography refers to whether the light is hard or soft. Hard light casts sharp shadows with defined edges and comes from a small source, relative to the subject. Soft light casts diffused shadows with fuzzy edges and come from a source that is large in relation to the subject.

HARD

SOFT

Quantity & Intensity

Light quantity simply means how much light is in a scene. High key photos are created using a lot of light, and low key photos are created using little light. Intensity refers to the power of the light source. Intensity can vary from a light source to another light source in any given scene.

Direction

As its name implies, the direction is determined by where the light is coming from in relation to the subject.

Color

Light color varies across the spectrum and can be anywhere from cold to warm. This occurs in both natural sources such as the sun, and artificial sources such as lamps.

Now let’s talk about how these different aspects come together to affect how we see and interpret light.

The Psychology of Light

The daily cycle of sun and moon have a deep impact on the human psyche. As diurnal creatures who’ve relied on sight as a way to hunt, gather and face danger; light sources that resemble daytime are comfortable. This is why standard portrait lighting mimics the sun during times of day humans are used to seeing one another. 

But other light sources have also become part of our collective psyche. Firelight, lamplight, and neon light all suggest something about the environment and the subject being lit. Darkness is mysterious and potentially dangerous. To be alone with someone in the dark requires trust, so low key light can foster a sense of intimacy on one hand or fear on the other. 

A light that comes from unnatural angles is uncomfortable because it’s unfamiliar and creates unusual shapes on the subject, altering their features disturbingly. A light that comes from above is familiar and natural because the sun is a ubiquitous part of our lives, while artificial light colors and sources suggest a man-made environment, or can even become surreal when exaggerated. 

Quality, quantity, direction, color, and intensity of light can be manipulated by the photographer to cue into these psychological triggers and affect the viewer’s experience with the image. Keeping this in mind will help you choose light situations to suit the story you want to tell.

Telling the Story with Light

Storytelling with light can be as simple as waiting for the sunset, or as complex as a multi-light set up. You can use natural light, speed lights, studio strobes (Elinchrom ELCs are my personal favorites) or any other lights you want because the light source is less important how the lighting is crafted to suit the story.

Know What You Want to Say

Decide what you want the viewer to experience when looking at your photograph. Should the viewer feel intrigued, hopeful, or frightened? Also, know what you want to say about the subject. Do you want to make the subject look friendly and appealing, or solemn and dignified? Do you want romance, or fear, or hope? Is the subject a villain or a hero? 

Knowing what you want viewers to experience will help build the foundation for all your lighting decisions. 

Direct viewers attention

Experiment with how you light your subject in relation to their environment. You may need to add extra light to areas of importance or consider flagging lights that draw attention away from the subject or other important elements of the story. 

You may need to control the light to highlight specific areas and flag the light to deemphasize unimportant areas, creating a path for the viewer’s eye to follow.

Establish context

Context helps the viewer decipher what the clues of your story mean. This can be seen both in the environment and mood of the image. The environment says something about both the story and the subject and can be as obvious or ambiguous as you desire.  

To make lighting decisions, ask yourself what environment is the story taking place in. Do you need to use or mimic natural light, or should the scene be lit with some form of artificial lighting? Where is the light coming from? 

Is it the directional glow of a sunset or the cool, hard overhead lighting of a hospital? A dark, scary outdoor scene lit by the moon could say something different about the story or character than one in a building lit by a lamp. 

Whether these choices are obvious given the environment or only hinted at in the studio, they communicate feelings and impressions to the viewer. A sunrise near a lake feels different from a sunset viewed through a dirty window, or the neon glow of a disco club. In each circumstance, the light may come from a different direction or have a different color or cast.

Reveal character

Light quality can also reveal character. If the light is soft and diffuse it might communicate gentleness or a sense of magic. If the light is hard and contrasty it may signify action or drama. 

Light color can also be hugely influential in revealing something about the nature of the subject. Different colors signify different emotions, as explained thoroughly by PRO EDU’s Kate Woodman in her class on Color Theory. Red could show power or passion, while blue communicates thoughtfulness or serenity. Choose light quality and color based on how it will affect the viewer’s perception of the character.

Bringing Everything Together

In order to take all these elements and make them work for you, let’s lay out some simple steps you can use to get your mind in the right place for storytelling with light.

  • Have a clear idea of the story you want to tell and what you want the mood to be.
  • Know where the story takes place and what kind of light would be available in that environment. Even if this is a studio shot on a seamless background, you can make lighting choices informed by this information.
  • Know when the story takes place. An image with a science fiction vibe might have a very different light color than one from the Victorian era, or even a common modern portrait.
  • Use the lighting you have available to direct the viewer’s attention, to give the image context, and to reveal something about the character of the subject.

Suggested Assignment

Put together a mood board of images that inspire or interest you, then see if you can tell how the lighting contributes to the story. Write down what impressions the images gave you, and see if you can figure out how to use the lights you have available to craft something similar. 

Final Thoughts

While not all of these steps are necessary for every image you make, they are a great guideline to form how you think about lighting an image in order to communicate and tell a story. Use these steps but be sure to experiment and grow beyond them, always lighting with purpose.

With practice, using storytelling light will elevate your work beyond simply pretty pictures and into the realm of the profound.

Nicole York is a narrative portrait photographer, digital artist, and writer. You can see her work at nicoleyork.com

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