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Natural Light: Making the Most of Hard Light

Hard light

In a previous article I explored ways of taking photos in soft light. Today, I’d like to look at the opposite of that, and discuss the idea of taking photos in hard light.

In the earlier piece I wrote about matching the light to the subject. That’s an important concept to understand – especially when it comes to hard light, a type of lighting considered by many photographers to be unsuitable for most types of photography.

I’m not saying those photographers are incorrect. Hard light doesn’t suit every type of subject, and if you’re trying to take a photo in hard light that you really shouldn’t be taking, then nothing you can do is going to work. Here’s an example from the earlier article:

Hard light

The flower had to be lit by soft light for the image to work. In hard light, there was too much contrast. The light didn’t suit the subject.

What is hard light?

Hard light comes from a light source that is relatively small compared to the subject. It creates strong, clearly defined shadows.

For example, hard light is cast by the sun when it is high in the sky on a cloudless day. The light gets softer as the sun dips towards the horizon at the end of the day. If clouds appear, or the air is hazy or polluted, that may also soften the light.

If you use portable flash you will also know that the light from an unmodified flash unit is very hard. That’s because the light comes from a relatively small light source – the flash head isn’t very big. That’s why photographers use lighting modifiers with flash units, to effectively make the source of the light larger, which makes the light softer. You can read more about using portable flash here and here.

Now, let’s look at how you can make hard light work for you, with some practical examples:

Hard light

I took this photo in Burano, an island near Venice, at around 2.30pm in summer. The light was very hard. But look at the long shadows on the wall of the building. The sun was nearly overhead, and a little to the right. From that position, the light rakes over the surface of the building, picking out the texture (I also used a polarising filter to deepen the colours). Noticing scenes like this, and recognising the photo opportunity, is just a matter of training your eye to see where the light is falling.

Architecture is an ideal subject when the light is hard. If you are in a city or urban area during the middle of a sunny day, you can often take good photos of the buildings.

Convert to black and white

Photos taken in hard light are often more interesting in black and white than colour. Colour photos may look bland when illuminated by hard light from the overhead sun.

Here’s an example of long exposure photography that I took around 2pm in the afternoon. I used a nine stop neutral density filter to obtain a shutter speed of 30 seconds. It looked a little boring, so I converted it to black and white.

Hard light

Finally, here’s a photo taken at around 2.30pm in the middle of summer:

Hard light

We were on the beach and the light was very hard. There was no way that I could take a portrait using natural light alone. I used an on-camera portable flash unit (itself a hard light source) and used that to overpower the light from the sun. It acted like a powerful fill light, filling in the shadows cast by the sun. Compare that to this portrait (from my article about soft light):

Hard light

Two different types of light, two completely different effects. Bear in mind that hard light plus flash won’t be flattering to everybody, and will generally work better with men than women. Again, it comes back to the idea of matching the light to the subject.

Mastering Photography

Hard light

My latest ebook, Mastering Photography: A Beginner’s Guide to Using Digital Cameras introduces you to digital photography and helps you make the most out of your digital cameras. It covers concepts such as lighting and composition as well as the camera settings you need to master to take photos like the ones in this article.

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Andrew S. Gibson is a writer and photographer living in New Zealand. He is the author of over twenty photography ebooks and he's giving two of them away. Sign up to his monthly newsletter to receive complementary copies of The Creative Image and Use Lightroom Better.

  • raghavendra

    Hard light around 12:00pm in hot sun taken a picture of lily flower

    http://raghavendra-mobilephotography.blogspot.com/2012/04/beautiful-lily-flower-in-pond.html

  • http://jeffejensen.blogspot.com Jeff E Jensen

    I think the hard light on these old cars worked out well.

    http://jeffejensen.blogspot.com/2013/08/a-few-more-vws.html

  • http://jschneir22@gmail.com JERRY SCHNEIR

    Neither of those flower shots were worth publishing.i am not sure what you were trying to demonstrate, maybe even pros take bad shots. Hard light is a problem that requires a lot of effort to overcome but I am not sure your solutions meet most of our needs.

  • http:/www.uk.citibox.es Edmund

    Beautiful models! Both really well exposed, I have huge admiration for the lady that lay still for 30 seconds, what on earth did you think you were adding with the ND filter? I just feel that your transformation from colour to B&W really degraded that photo. I liked the hard light one of the flower because you had stopped down so more dof and there was little point in the other one, I agree with Jerry. The one in Venice is OK if you are a tourist but not if you are a photographer, couldn’t you have returned five hours later?

  • http://N/A Allen Lawson

    Sorry Andrew but I just don’t get your stuff at all.
    The first photo gives me the Heebie Jeebies to look at it and I could not imagine that photo hanging on my living room wall so what is the point of it.
    The one in Venice and the sun is nowhere near overhead as “Overhead ” is like when your shadow from your hat on your head is shading your toes.
    The flowers both need deleting and start again as neither are worth keeping.
    I don’t get why or how you think the girl lying on the concrete thing is better in black and white. My question would be “Why would you take it anyway”.
    The girl in the water looks all wrong as that pose would suit “Arnie Swarzenegger” but not that young woman. Like even the horizon is crooked and her facial expression is strange too as it is all just “Wrong”
    The girl in the pink is fine for an amateur but too much light on her face or on my screen anyway.

    In all fairness I think that your words are worth reading but your examples look like they were hastily picked out maybe. There is a difference between writing an article and writing a “Good” article.

  • http://www.purnawanhadi.com Hadi

    I absolutely agree with convert to black and white for the best result of shooting in the natural hard light, it’s not mean all the photos taht we shoot on the hard light must convert into black and white but it’s almost working :)

  • http://www.indiamike.com/india/members/sovon-u151173/ Sovon Laskar

    Taken @ 7 am Rambha Jetty, Orissa, India
    [eimg url='http://flic.kr/p/fPx12v' title='fPx12v']

  • http://www.indiamike.com/india/members/sovon-u151173/ Sovon Laskar

    Taken at 7 am on Rambha Jetty, Orissa, India

    [eimg url='http://flic.kr/p/fPx12v' title='fPx12v']

  • http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/ Mridula

    Thanks for giving me the city tip to use the hard light. I often end up at interesting places in hard light, after all we can’t always wait for the golden hours to do photography.

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/

  • http://www.indiamike.com/india/members/sovon-u151173/ Sovon Laskar

    Taken at 7 am on Rambha Jetty, Orissa, India

    http://flic.kr/p/fPx12v

  • ChshreCat

    One of my favorite things to do when the sun is high and harsh is to go out with a macro lens. That hard light gives great shadows on tiny subjects so you get a fantastic sense of depth and the bright light means I can usually shoot handheld without any issues.

Some older comments

  • Sovon Laskar

    September 13, 2013 04:00 pm

    Taken at 7 am on Rambha Jetty, Orissa, India

    http://flic.kr/p/fPx12v

  • Mridula

    September 13, 2013 03:47 pm

    Thanks for giving me the city tip to use the hard light. I often end up at interesting places in hard light, after all we can't always wait for the golden hours to do photography.

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/

  • Sovon Laskar

    September 13, 2013 03:09 pm

    Taken at 7 am on Rambha Jetty, Orissa, India

    [eimg url='http://flic.kr/p/fPx12v' title='fPx12v']

  • Sovon Laskar

    September 13, 2013 01:18 pm

    Taken @ 7 am Rambha Jetty, Orissa, India
    [eimg url='http://flic.kr/p/fPx12v' title='fPx12v']

  • Hadi

    September 13, 2013 11:24 am

    I absolutely agree with convert to black and white for the best result of shooting in the natural hard light, it's not mean all the photos taht we shoot on the hard light must convert into black and white but it's almost working :)

  • Allen Lawson

    September 13, 2013 10:32 am

    Sorry Andrew but I just don't get your stuff at all.
    The first photo gives me the Heebie Jeebies to look at it and I could not imagine that photo hanging on my living room wall so what is the point of it.
    The one in Venice and the sun is nowhere near overhead as "Overhead " is like when your shadow from your hat on your head is shading your toes.
    The flowers both need deleting and start again as neither are worth keeping.
    I don't get why or how you think the girl lying on the concrete thing is better in black and white. My question would be "Why would you take it anyway".
    The girl in the water looks all wrong as that pose would suit "Arnie Swarzenegger" but not that young woman. Like even the horizon is crooked and her facial expression is strange too as it is all just "Wrong"
    The girl in the pink is fine for an amateur but too much light on her face or on my screen anyway.

    In all fairness I think that your words are worth reading but your examples look like they were hastily picked out maybe. There is a difference between writing an article and writing a "Good" article.

  • Edmund

    September 13, 2013 05:53 am

    Beautiful models! Both really well exposed, I have huge admiration for the lady that lay still for 30 seconds, what on earth did you think you were adding with the ND filter? I just feel that your transformation from colour to B&W really degraded that photo. I liked the hard light one of the flower because you had stopped down so more dof and there was little point in the other one, I agree with Jerry. The one in Venice is OK if you are a tourist but not if you are a photographer, couldn't you have returned five hours later?

  • JERRY SCHNEIR

    September 13, 2013 03:49 am

    Neither of those flower shots were worth publishing.i am not sure what you were trying to demonstrate, maybe even pros take bad shots. Hard light is a problem that requires a lot of effort to overcome but I am not sure your solutions meet most of our needs.

  • Jeff E Jensen

    September 7, 2013 11:21 pm

    I think the hard light on these old cars worked out well.

    http://jeffejensen.blogspot.com/2013/08/a-few-more-vws.html

  • raghavendra

    September 7, 2013 12:57 pm

    Hard light around 12:00pm in hot sun taken a picture of lily flower

    http://raghavendra-mobilephotography.blogspot.com/2012/04/beautiful-lily-flower-in-pond.html

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