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Describing Light

Describing light as you observe it is essential to being able to re-create it or to use elements of what you observe in your own designs. Look for good descriptions in literature, journalism, and anything else you read, and get in the habit of doing it yourself.

Countless writers have written abut the qualities of light, and their writings can be your sources for inspiration. Here are a few examples:

“From the door she saw the jewels glittering on the table under the mercurial light, and it was as if she had seen a scorpion in her bed.”

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Strange Pilgrims

“Every morning
the world
is created.
Under the orange

“sticks of the sun
the heaped
ashes of the night
turn into leaves again”

– Mary Oliver, Morning Poem

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

– William Gibson, Neuromancer

“Bursts of gold on lavender melting into saffron. It’s the time of day when the sky looks like it has been spray-painted by a graffiti artist.”

Mia Kirshner, I Live Here

“It is just dawn, daylight: that gray and lonely suspension filled with the peaceful and tentative waking of birds.”
William Faulkner, Light in August

“The pale stars were sliding into their places. The whispering of the leaves was almost hushed. All about them it was still and shadowy and sweet. It was that wonderful moment when, for lack of a visible horizon, the not yet darkened world seems infinitely greater—a moment when anything can happen, anything be believed in.”

Olivia Howard Dunbar, The Shell of Sense

“I began also to observe, with greater accuracy, the forms that surrounded me, and to perceive the boundaries of the radiant roof of light which canopied me.”

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

“It is 5 am
And the sun has charred
The other side of
The world and come
Back to us
And painted the smoke
Over our heads
An imperial violet”

Mike Doughty, Soul Coughing, Screenwriter’s Blues

“Soon it got dusk, a grapy dusk, a purple dusk over tangerine groves and long melon fields; the sun the color of pressed grapes, slashed with burgundy red, the fields the color of love and Spanish mysteries.”

Jack Kerouac, On the Road

“Dawn in New York has
four columns of mire
and a hurricane of black pigeons
splashing in the putrid waters.

“Dawn in New York groans
on enormous fire escapes
searching between the angles
for spikenards of drafted anguish.

“Dawn arrives and no one receives it in his mouth
because morning and hope are impossible there:
sometimes the furious swarming coins
penetrate like drills and devour abandoned children.

“Those who go out early know in their bones
there will be no paradise or loves that bloom and die:
they know they will be mired in numbers and laws,
in mindless games, in fruitless labors.

“The light is buried under chains and noises
in the impudent challenge of rootless science.
And crowds stagger sleeplessly through the boroughs
as if they had just escaped a shipwreck of blood. ”

Federico Garcia Lorca, Dawn Poem

Here’s a useful list of adjectives describing light.

Here are some photos with descriptions:

Photo 1 below shows a kitchen scene with a cutting board leaning against a wall, a black teapot, and a silver faucet. A single strong light source from the right side, low winter light from a window, presumably, flattens the black teapot against the white wall. The teapot reflects almost none of the light. At the same time, the metallic faucet reflects quite a bit of light back toward the source, emphasizing its cylindrical shape. This is further emphasized by a dark shadow behind the faucet which makes the wall on the right side of the photo dark.

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Winter light.

A post shared by Timo Arnall (@tda) on

In Photo 2, a  strongly backlit street scene of tall buildings in London, the light comes from behind the scene and to the right. The buildings are softened by smoke and dust in the air, which scatters the light above the people and cars in the foreground. The silhouettes are further darkened by contrast with the smoky air.

Photo 3 shows a window shot from several meters below. The yellow glass of the window filtering the sunlight here eliminates all the cool colors from and makes the whole space feel like it’s bathed in saffron. The air inside is clear and crisp, so the details of the moulding around the window are sharp. The window is viewed through an arch in the foreground, and the foreground area is in the dark. The upper half of the photo is therefore in darkness. The strong dark area in the foreground  further highlights the warm, bright background. Hints of the golden light coming through the window reflect on the border of the arch, giving it a slight warm glow.

Photo 4 shows a small vase of yellow flowers sitting on a window sill. The light coming through the window is bright and diffuse, and the air is clear, so the petals stand out sharply. The colore temperature of the light is neutral, so the reflection off the yellow leaves warms the scene somewhat.

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Starting the week on a more cheerful note

A post shared by Ben Rubin (@ben.rubin.nyc) on

Photo 5 shows a view down a subway platform, with the subway tunnel in the background. The platform is wet from the rain. The only light in the scene comes from a row of fluorescent lights in the top right third of the scene. The line of lights extends down the platform. Though the light from the tubes is diffuse, it is reflected off the wet concrete of the platform, the glaze of the subway tiles on the wall to the left, and the glossy black paint of the track dividing wall to the right. The reflections are well-defined, creating three light ghosts of the line of fluorescent tubes. View on Instagram.

Photo 6 shows a city street at night, covered in snow. Open-front shops display goods to the left, lit by fluorescent light from within the stores, further to the left out of the photo. The peach color of high pressure sodium streetlights illuminates the snow on the road, along with the cold green light of mercury vapor lamps to the right of the photo.  Far in the back center of the photo, car headlights produce a slightly warm white glow on the snow of the street.

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#snownyc canal & broadway

A post shared by Jody Culkin (@jodyculkin) on

Photo 7 shows a seaside scene at night in the Faroe Islands. It is a cloudy night with a full moon and the cold light of the moon makes dramatic patterned shadows through the clouds and reflects strong and silver off the sea in the distance. To the left in the middle distance, the running light of a small boat reflects off the sea as well. It’s a dirty greenish light. In the foreground, two mercury vapor streetlights illuminate a strip of parking lot behind a hill. A bus, partly hidden by the hill, sits in the cone of light from the left hand streetlight, and a minivan is silhouetted under the streetlight to the right.

Photo 8 shows an interior scene, a dining table against a wall that separates two floor-to-ceiling windows. It is dusk outside, and what remains of the daylight is hidden behind the wall, peeking out through the two windows on either side of the wall. Most of the sky is a darkening blue. In the room, the table and chairs are lit softly from a light source outside the frame positioned low and to the right of the scene. The source is a warm white, and the blond wood of the wall and the chair enhances its warmth. Shadows of the wooden chairs make geometric patterns on the portion of the wall below the table. The top of the table is unlit by the interior source, but reflects the blue of the sky. The overall effect is of a cozy space on a cool evening.