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Quality of Light – What is Beautiful Light?

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.

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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.

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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!