Understanding Natural Light Part 1: Quality of Light

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Understanding Natural Light Part 1: Quality of Light

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Light has different qualities, and by understanding those differences and using them in your favor, you can become a better image maker. From my point of view, the best place to start improving your ability to work with light is by learning its most basic form, which is natural light.

quality of light - soft light portrait

Therefore, this article is the first of a series that will focus on understanding how to work with natural light. We will:

  • Explore the difference between harsh (hard) and soft lighting and each of their pros and cons.
  • Understand how to use color to serve the visual story we want to portray.
  • Learn how the direction and intensity of light affects the final image.

Even if you are a studio photographer, who wishes to work exclusively with strobes and flash, this article is crucial for you. If you manage to understand how to work with natural light, this knowledge can be later applied to any genre or style of photography. As a portrait photographer, in my explanation and examples, I will focus on working with natural light in portraits. However, as mentioned, once you understand the concept, this can be applied to any genre or subject.

George Eastman, the American entrepreneur that founded Kodak (and who probably knew a thing or two about photography), said, “Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. However, above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.”

What do you think that Mr. Eastman meant by “know light. Know it for all you are worth.”? From my point of view, he meant that as photographers, light is our raw material. It is like letters to the writer and notes to the musician, and as photographers, we must understand how this raw material works and behaves under different conditions.

quality of light - soft light

Quality of light – Understanding hard and soft light

In this first chapter we will:

  • Understand the differences between soft and hard (or harsh) light.
  • Explore the concept of “Good Light” versus “Bad Light.”
  • Learn about common challenges faced when working with natural light, and how to overcome them.
  • Suggest exercises that you can use to practice the explained concepts and techniques.

Soft lighting

Soft light is characterized by low levels of light, lack of shadows, a small and gentle difference between dark and bright areas.

soft lighting

Soft lighting situation is characterized by the lack of shadows and (as you can see in this image), cold hues during cloudy weather, which fit the greens and blues in this situation.

When does it happen? Depends on the weather and your location on the globe (it won’t happen at the North Pole, during winter), but you will usually encounter a soft lighting situation, at the edges of the day (also referred to the Golden Hours), just after sunrise and just before sunset (how much time before and after, is again dependent on your location). Besides the edges of the day, you can find soft lighting conditions under a cloudy or overcast sky.

Challenges: Soft light is not suitable for every portrait, it all depends on what you wish to evoke (in terms of emotion and mood) in your image, as I will describe later. Another issue is the level of light, which may be too low. So, it is very important that you pay attention to your shutter speed and increase it manually, to avoid blurriness.

Hard/harsh lighting

Hard light is characterized by strong levels of light, long and deep shadows, a big difference between dark and bright areas (high dynamic range). Because of contrast, harsh light will strengthen the current situation in the field, in terms of color. Saturated and rich colors will seem even more intense, and dull colors will seem even more so.

hard or harsh lighting

In harsh light, there is a huge contrast between the dark and bright areas in the image and details might get too bright or too dark – but this is perfectly fine!

When do you have hard light? It also depends on the weather and location, but usually, you can encounter harsh lighting situations during the day, about two hours after sunrise, until one hour before sunset (middle of the day).

Challenges: the main problem with the harsh lighting is the huge difference between the dark and bright areas (also known as contrast). Contrary to our sophisticated eyes, the camera is (still) not able to cope with this difference. So, the result will be the loss of details in your image, as they become too bright or too dark. For example, you might get a great exposure on your subject while losing detail in the background or vice versa.

Some photographers mistakenly think that this condition (the loss of details) is due to an error they made in operating their camera. So, the first step to the solution is to understand the problem. If you are shooting under harsh light, that lost of details is something that you cannot change (unless you use flash or post-process the image), because it is due to the contrast between the dark and the bright areas. So, changing the aperture, shutter or ISO, won’t help correct it.

“The artist vocation is to send light into the human heart.” – Robert Schumann

Forget about “good” lighting

Due to the challenges I have mentioned, most photographers avoid shooting under harsh lighting condition. They prefer to work under soft lighting, which is usually referred to as more pleasing to the eyes. However, it is not always the right choice for your portrait.

hard lighting

That day in the streets of Havana was extremely hot. So, I used the harsh light to evoke that sense.

The thing to remember is that you want to match the light to the visual story you want the portrait to tell. As we just learned, each lighting condition has its own qualities and characteristics. While the soft light from a setting sun might be best for a romantic couple’s photoshoot, it may be less suitable for a portrait of a hardworking man outdoors. Let’s stop using the concepts of good and bad lighting, and start thinking in terms of more suitable, or less suitable lighting.

Planning

To work under the most suitable lighting conditions, you should plan for it instead of just wishing for it. Check the weather forecast, as well as the sunrise and sunset times. For example, if you need soft lighting for your project, you should know exactly where to be, and what to do around sunrise and sunset every day. Do not waste even a minute on sleeping when there is suitable light out there.

1. Matching the time of day to desired mood – You should choose the most suitable time to go out and work, according to your desired results.

2. Matching the visual story to the given lighting conditions – I often choose the visual story, according to the available light given to me on location.

soft light

Flexibility

Sometimes even with careful planning, the weather changes and therefore, so does the natural lighting condition. That’s what happened to me when I was working on an assignment in southern Thailand. In a place known for pristine beaches and postcard-like islands, the mighty monsoon decided to make an appearance and show everyone who’s boss. At first I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to provide the images that I had in mind to my editor.

However, I know one thing for sure: you cannot fight the light. So I changed my plans and headed to the small village of the Chao Leh (Sea Gypsies) community. This visit (which ultimately became a seven-year project), allowed me to discover a different, much less touristy side, of that area. I discovered a story about a struggling community of sea drifters, that never fully recovered from the tsunami of 2004.

soft light be flexible

The Chao Leh (Sea Gypsies) community in southern Thailand. The stormy weather, with its soft, low, blue-colored light gave the images a sense of “cold winter,” which was a perfect match to the feeling I wanted to evoke in that story.

A few days later, the clouds gave way to the sun and I was back to my original shooting list. When I sent the images back to my editor, she was thrilled with the new direction and decided to run a full story about this community.

“What makes photography a strange invention is that its primary raw materials are light and time.” – John Berger

In conclusion, do not limit yourself to working exclusively under soft light, as both harsh and soft light summon great challenges and opportunities. As a visual storyteller, aim to always try and match the story you are trying to tell, to the light you are using, to bring that visual story to your viewers. The key element is planning, with a bit of flexibility, and some room for serendipity.

Practice working with quality of light

Exercise #1 – using over exposure compensation while working with a harsh light condition.
  • Time: A sunny afternoon.
  • Location: Any outdoor location – from your backyard to the local park.
  • Step one: Place your favorite model (it can be a friend, a family member, your partner, or a beloved dog) under the midday sun.
  • Step two: Take a moment to understand how the light illuminates your subject’s face. Do you notice the high contrast between dark and bright areas (lit forehead versus dark eyes)?
  • Step three: Work in Aperture Priority mode (A in Nikon and AV in Canon), and use exposure compensation (overexpose), until you manage to bring more light to your subject’s eyes. Don’t panic, as you will probably burn out (lose details) the background, and parts of the subject’s face. It is okay. This exercise is about being able to stop reviewing your images through the histogram tool and highlight alerts, and start thinking in terms of story, and if that story is working or not.
hard light portrait

Harsh light helped me to create a sense of “roughness” in this portrait, which I felt that support the visual story I wanted to tell.

Exercise #2 – switch to black and white while working under soft light conditions.
  • Time: A cloudy day or the edges of the day.
  • Location: Any outdoor location – from your backyard to the local park.
  • Step one: Approach a stranger and ask his or her permission for a portrait. Perhaps you can send the final image by email as a token of appreciation.
  • Step two: Switch to Monochrome mode, which is black and white photography (under Picture Style in Canon and Picture Control in Nikon).
  • Step three: Take a close-up portrait (torso and face only). Note how the light gradually illuminates the subject’s face, creating soft pockets of shadows that evoke a sense of depth.

black and white in soft light

The author would like to thank Nicholas Orloff for his assistance in writing this article.

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Oded Wagenstein is a Travel photographer and writer. He is a regular contributor to the National Geographic Traveler magazine (Israeli Edition) and he is known for his intimate portraits from around the world. Visit his Facebook page and continue to discuss on travel and people photography and get more amazing tips! You can check out Oded's new eBOOK - SNAPN TRAVEL- A life time of travel memories in a snap. It is all about creating better travel photographs on your next journey.

  • jakecoded

    Great article. I have always been told to shoot under soft light because it is “good.” I understand how soft light cascades and is a bit more complimentary at times. This article and the examples show me that light is a storyteller and that we should find suitable ways to tell the story and stop thinking of just “good or bad” light. Thanks for this.

  • Geoff Naylor

    Thanks for the article Oded. Light is obviously an interesting subject for photographers, especially when you’re shooting unposed subjects. The streets are often busiest in precisely the hours of harshest light – the middle of the day – and my experience is that that’s when interesting situations can be expected. In my image below I moved to the park in central London, on a sunny day, and made use of the somewhat subdued lighting conditions found there.

  • The way I determine the quality of light is to look at the shadows from trees or buildings or fence posts. If I can see I really sharp edge I know it’s very hard light. If the edges blurred due to cloud cover, I know its nice soft light. I also never work in a program mode, always manual. My Sony mirrorless allows me to set overexposure peaking that I can see in my viewfinder. Nice to know when your clouds are over exposed. Also, when working in black and white, the viewfinder lets me see the photo in black and white.

  • Also the dynamic range is phenomenal on the these cameras. Allows you to expose for the highlights and draw the shadows out in post.

  • Thank you for your feedback Geoff and for liking my article. Your image in did prove that you were thinking about the lighting, it is just beautiful. The only think that you need to take into consideration the next time is the focus. You probably worked in a very shallow DOF and the girl’s face is not in focus, but her earring. It is very hard to focus on a subject and motion and by closing the aperture it can become easier. Oded

  • Hi Jake, Thank you for that feedback. Oded

  • Ernesto shons

    A fotografia, na qual aparece um cartaz, em Cuba,
    COM A IMAGEM DO ASSASSINO CHE GUEVARA…
    que matava pessoas indefesas com um tiro na nuca…

    É FOTO DE EXTREMO MAU GOSTO…

    no mínimo !

  • Barani

    Wonderful article. Thanks much

  • Allison W

    Outstanding article!

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