Light + the Art of Knitting Photography

Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.
— George Eastman

99.9% of photography essays on using light boast that "Photography" literally means "drawing with light."  I know this because I read them all and made charts and graphs with circles and arrows to prove my point. But you don't want to see my evidence, you want pretty pictures.

Just know that light is important. And light isn't all the same.  It's often described as "hard" or "soft" and which type you use makes a huge difference in the result of an image.

An easy way to understand the difference between hard and soft light is in the edges of the shadows in the image. "Hard" edges create a drastic contrast between light and shadow. "Soft" edges are blurred, gradually fading from light to shadow.

Take a look at these two landscape photos from Big Bend National Park.  The first (left) was taken at Santa Elena Canyon late in the morning on a clear day. The sun beat down hard on the scene and the shadows inside the canyon have very hard edges.  It just makes you feel sweaty looking at it, right? The second photo is in the Chisos Basin shortly after dawn. The sun hasn't completely risen over the mountains behind me and there's some morning haze, which means the sunlight isn't directly hitting much in the picture. This creates softer shadows around the image.

Neither type of light is better than the other--either is useful depending on what effect you're going for.

I took the next two images of a beautiful handmadecable needle I purchased from Yarn Carnival at a festival. (Isn't it so pretty?  I promise, it feels oh so luxurious to actually use.) I truly cannot decide which one I like better. These were taken in one session--I only changed the positioning of the knitting relative to my light source (my window.)

On the one hand, the hard light image (left) outlines the texture of the needle and the yarn strikingly. The contrast between the bright highlights and dark shadows create drama, and that much light directly shining in makes it feel like morning or evening, when sunlight pours through half the windows of the house. By placing my subject inside the sunbeam, I took advantage of that light hitting it straight on.

On the other hand, simply shifting the subject into the shade created by a curtain in my window gave the second image (right) a soft light effect. The colors are richer and the details of the stitches are easier to see, because there aren't harsh lines on the edges of the shadows. Its mood is a bit more subdued. This lighting style is perhaps more functional for an image that needs to convey information to a buyer, such as the color of a yarn, or the way a single-ply knits up. 

Here's another example—the hard light image (left) is moody and exciting, but the soft light in the second image shows off the stitches in a variegated yarn better:

A nice option is to blend the two, like in this image, where there is hard light in the background that adds vibrance to the scene, but the subject is in a softer light, allowing the details to be seen.

If you really want to get into it, you can study up on how to create hard and soft light to be completely in control.  You can learn to use artificial lights if you have time and money to burn, but that's less resources for yarn and knitting, so I choose to use free natural light.  The main point is to look at the edges of the shadows. If they're well-defined, then you have hard light; if the shadows are blurry, you have soft light. (And there's every gradation in between, of course.) Move your subject around in the light.  Put a curtain between it and the source to soften the light or find interestingly-shaped shadows that add a layer of interest through hard light. 

Earlier in my photography journey, I shied away from hard light. And for many styles of photography, it really isn't a good choice. (Like in portraits. 99% of the time, soft light is simply more flattering on a face. I've done the research, of course.) But I was encouraged by the instructor of an online course to play around with interesting shadows, and I took this:

(It was a class on food photography.) I loved the effect and decided that I needed to stop avoiding hard light. Because drama!

This year, I've played around with more consciously using light. Sometimes I want to let the colors softly glow:

And sometimes I want to evoke the mood of an early morning knit:

And sometimes, the light adds geometric complexity to a photo that is all about shapes and lines:

Which ones speak to you?  


Tag your knitting photos #yarnscape on Insta -- I'd love to see the ways you use light!