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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.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Andrew S. Gibson
Andrew S. Gibson

is a writer, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He’s an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom. Join his free Introducing Lightroom course or download his free Composition PhotoTips Cards!

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