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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.
Therefore, this article is the first of a series that will focus on understanding how to work with natural light. We will:
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.
In this first chapter we will:
Soft light is characterized by low levels of light, lack of shadows, a small and gentle difference between dark and bright areas.
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 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The author would like to thank Nicholas Orloff for his assistance in writing this article.