Quality of Light - What is Beautiful Light?

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Quality of Light – What is Beautiful Light?

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quality of light

This photo is lit by the soft light found inside on a sunny day. The light suits the subject because it reveals all the detail on the antique scales.

We talk about quality of light a lot in photography. I often use the word beautiful, and tell people that great photos require beautiful light. But what is beautiful light?

To answer that we need to understand that light has many qualities that vary immensely, depending on factors like the light source, time of day, season, and location. Light can be extremely hard (one extreme) or very soft (the other extreme) or anywhere in-between. It takes time to appreciate the nuances and variations of light and learn how to use light that suits both the subject matter, and the style that you are shooting.

What is hard light?

Hard light is strong, directional light that casts deep, hard-edged shadows. It’s the quality of light you get in the middle of a sunny, cloudless day, or from an unmodified flash head.

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Hard light, generally speaking, is considered bad lighting for many types of photography. There are two fundamental problems with hard light.

One is contrast – the brightness range (between the area lit by the light source and the shadows it casts) is so great that the camera’s sensor (or film) can’t record detail in both. The other is that hard light is not as aesthetically pleasing as soft light in many situations. It’s another generalization, I know, but it’s the reason that time and time again you will be advised not to take photos in midday sun or with an unmodified flash head.

The key to working with hard light is to recognize its limitations and find suitable subjects to work with. Personally, I find that black and white is better than colour for working in hard light, and that subjects like buildings can work quite well.

quality of light

Hard light is considered unsuitable for portraits because the hard shadows create too much contrast across the model’s face and are not flattering. However, you may be able to work in hard light with a male model, especially in black and white, as it tends to suit the ruggedness of a man’s face. Regardless of whether your model is male or female, simply facing them into the light so that shadows are as small as possible can work well.

I don’t have any portraits that show these techniques myself, but here are a couple of examples from photographer Betina la Plante. Just click the links to see the photos.

Female portrait taken in hard light. Note how the model faces the light so that the shadows are minimized.

Male portrait taken in hard light. See how the photographer used the deep shadow cast by the hard light to throw one side of the model’s face into shadow and bring out the texture of his skin.

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In both cases the black and white treatment suits the hard light.

Another solution is to use portable flash to light the model when shooting in hard light. The idea is that the softer light from the flash (fitted with appropriate modifier) overpowers or fills in the hard light from the sun. That’s what I did with the following image.

quality of light

What is soft light?

Soft light is that which casts either no shadows, or shadows with soft edges. It is more suitable than hard light for many subjects, including many types of landscape and portraits (but especially portraits).

For example, if you are taking someone’s portrait during the middle of a sunny day, then one of the best things you can do is find some shade, and take a photo of your model there. The softness of the light, and the fill from the brighter, sunlit surroundings, is a very flattering type of light that makes the model’s face glow and creates large catchlights in her eye.

quality of light

You also get nice light for portraits after the sun has set at the end of a sunny day, when the sky is filled with a soft glow from the last rays of the setting sun. This works best during the longer days (and twilights) of spring and summer.

quality of light

If you are using flash, then a modifier such as a softbox or umbrella softens the light, making it more flattering for portraits (although it won’t be as soft as the types of natural light just described).

In-between light

I’ve just described several scenarios, starting with midday sun, which is very hard, through to shade or twilight, where the light is very soft. The truth is that most light falls somewhere between these two extremes.

For example, lets say you are taking a landscape photo on a sunny day. The light changes as the sun gets lower, softening and changing in colour. The exact changes depend on the time of year, atmospheric conditions and the weather. Here in New Zealand, the light is very hard, especially during the summer, until the sun slips below the horizon. In other places the prevalent atmospheric conditions may make the light much softer, even on a sunny day.

This photo was taken just after the sun had set. The light was soft and warm, but still hard enough to pick out the side of the island.

quality of light

The key is to find the point at which the light suits your subject, in the style that you’re trying to shoot. Depending on what you want to achieve, the light is most likely to be suitable sometime during the transition from the hard light of the day to the soft light of twilight. It’s up to you to familiarize yourself with the lighting conditions in the places that you shoot, and to learn to recognize how hard or soft the light is, and when the quality of the light matches the subject you want to shoot.

This photo was taken on an overcast day. The soft, even lighting means the toy car casts a soft shadow. The soft light makes it easy for the camera to record all the important details, avoiding clipped highlights and overly dark shadows.

quality of light

Size of the light source

So far I’ve just talked about light in terms of its quality. I think the best way to evaluate the quality of light is to learn to look at it and assess the direction it’s coming from, plus the hardness or softness of the light, for yourself by seeing how it falls on the subject.

But it will help if you understand the key factor that differentiates a hard light source from a soft one is the size of the light source relative to the subject.

The key factor that differentiates a hard light source from a soft one is the size of the light source relative to the subject

For example, if you use a flash head without a modifier to take a portrait, the light is hard because the light source is much smaller than your model. To make the light softer, you need to use the largest modifier you can and move the flash as close to your subject as you can.

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The light on a sunny day is hard because the sun is small in relation to your subject. If you were able to look at it without damaging your eyes it would appear to be just a dot in the sky.

Yet if it is cloudy, foggy, or raining, the weather conditions diffuse the light, spreading it out so that it seems to be coming from the entire sky, rather than a single point in the sky. The light source is now very large compared to the subject, and the light much softer.

A similar diffusion effect occurs as the sun nears the horizon at sunset.

Your turn

Hopefully this article has helped you understand the key differences between hard and soft light. How important is the quality of light in your work? What types of light do you prefer to shoot in? Please let us know in the comments.


Mastering PhotographyComposition and line

My 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.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer and photographer living in New Zealand. He is the author of over twenty photography ebooks – please join his monthly newsletter to receive complimentary copies of The Creative Image and Use Lightroom Better.

  • ItIsMe1979

    I’m going to be photographing Santorini in July, and am worried about the extreme bright whites and sunlight and the harshness of that light. How can I avoid the white over-burn?
    Also want to capture the sunset in Oia and not sure what the best settings for that would be?

  • Josh

    clipped highlights occur when the dynamic range from white to black exceeds what your camera is capable of capturing in one exposure. One solution would be to use exposure bracketing and blend with HDR (not usually feasible with moving subjects or without a tripod). The same would apply to your landscape shots. The only other option for a straight horizon shots like a sunset would be to use a graduated neutral density filter and expose for the landscape. Just be familiar with your histogram and if by altering your setting your unable to get everything within the left and right of it the scene is beyond the dynamic range capabilities of the camera. Most say don’t clip the highlights and you can boost exposure later in lightroom cause you can’t get those pixels back.

  • Josh

    I may have jumped a gun a little, but you can clip highlights simply by over exposing…Doesn’t necessarily mean the scene isn’t within the dynamic range of your camera. If your camera is metering and over exposing the scene, depending on what mode your shooting in, alter your settings a half a stop or more to let in less light until your not clipping highlights anymore. “exposure compensation” in AV or TV mode. Manual mode you’ll need to either speed up the shutter speed, or close the aperture to let in less light. If your scene is mostly white, your camera will a lot of times make things come out grey cause in the metering process it’s looking for 18 percent grey and will underexpose by about a full stop, the exact opposite for an all black type scene. There are plenty of articles that talk about the subjects I’ve cover it, so hope this helps.

  • ItIsMe1979

    Thanks! I usually shoot in aperture priority but guessing I may need to switch to shutter for mid day shots, especially in Mykonos (SO MUCH WHITE!). I’m also looking at small, travel tripods that I can set up on a table while I enjoy the sunsets in Oia and Little Venice on Mykonos.
    I don’t understand “exposure bracketing and blend with HDR”, so I guess I have some homework to do before June.
    Thanks again!

  • Decentralist

    For days that are uniformly cloudy and unappealing, take shots that exclude the sky or minimize the amount of sky showing.

  • Josh

    switching from aperture to shutter priority is more of a creative choice…You’ll get the same exposure results, but different “creative exposure”. Understanding Exposure by Bryan Peterson is a good book to start with if you’re struggling with the concept. But there are plenty of articles on DPS that can help you as well.

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  • I think that hard light can be very pretty when properly used. For example, we had a still life exam at school in which we had to do a ‘techno’ photo with soft light and an ‘antique’ photo with hard light, and I personally think that the antique one was much better (link to it here –> http://amaryllislachapelle.defrozo.com/techno__antique_2015_02_09_02.jpg )

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  • Hippy NZ

    saying hard light is bad across the board is in itself very wrong. just the same as saying soft light is the only good light. it depends on what you are doing. Hard light can be very good for telling your story of bring out the beauty of something, IF you know how to use it. It is obvious by the writers statement that “hard light is bad” that he does not understand light that well himself or is not that good a photographer or just has not done a wide enough rang of photography to learn and understand all aspects of light, hard or soft, and has taken the easy path and stuck with a style of photography that only suits soft light. he has limited himself due to limited abilities. No matter how many e-books he has written on one small aspect of photography (and anyone can waste their time writting those instead of doing photography) that does not make him knowledgable on the 60% of photography he has never learnt about or done.

  • Hippy NZ

    well put

  • Sandy

    I have taken a lot of photos on Santorini in high summer, without any special attention to the whites.. The daylight is fantastic, even at midday, and you will not have any problem. Just enjoy that amazing island.

  • Sandy

    You’ve obviously never been to Santorini!!

  • ItIsMe1979

    My travel documents arrived about 10 minutes ago. I AM SO EXCITED! 🙂 thanks for the reassurance.

  • Bob Bevan Smith

    Read the opening section on Hard Light again. Andrew did not say “Hard Light is bad” full stop. He qualified his comment by adding “generally … considered bad … for many types of photography” and then shows its beneficial use.
    All light has positive and negative aspects. The essence of Andrew’s article is to recognise the quality of light and either use it successfully or modify it to suit.

  • I’m not sure you read the article properly. I didn’t say hard light was bad, and gave several examples where it was used very well. I wrote another article about using hard light on sunny days for photographing architecture in black and white.

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