Using Light in Photography

Light is without question the most important element in photography. However, there are many different kinds of light and many different kinds of light sources. We have sunlight, flash, candles, and all kinds of lamps. Some light is direct while other light is scattered or diffused, e.g. like the light that passes through a lamp shade. Different kinds of light also produce different colors and different kinds of shadows.

So how does this affect the picture? Below I will look at two of the most basic light concepts.

Light and dark

Each photo needs the right amount of light. If it has too much light, the photo is "over exposed" and the resulting brightness ruins the detail level. On the other hand, too little light means a photo is "under exposed" and the picture once again loses appeal.

exposed correctly
over exposed
Exposed correctly
Over exposed

On most cameras you can change how much light you will capture in your photo. The exposure indicator tells you how bright your photo will be. If a photo is not very badly taken, for example if is a bit too dark or a bit too bright, this can also be fixed using software like Photoshop (more on this in future articles).

exposure indicator
Exposure indicator

Soft and hard light

Photographers talk about two different kinds of light: soft and hard. Hard light usually comes from a single, powerful source and it casts very strong, dark shadows (e.g. a spot light, a flash light, a bright bulb, and the sun when it is high in the sky). Soft light is produced either when you have many different light sources or when light from one source is scattered when it passes through something (e.g. a lamp with a lampshade, light passing through curtains, a cloudy day, etc.). Soft light is generally milder, casting weak shadows or none at all

The easiest way to understand this is to think of a sunny day at noon, when the sun is high up in the sky. The light from the sun is very bright and the shadows it casts are very dark. This is hard light. Compare that to a cloudy day when you might not even be able to see any shadows. The reason for this is that the clouds have scattered the light so that it appears to be coming from all over the place, not just from the sun.

moth
butterfly
Hard light
Soft light

So, what does this mean for photography? Well, generally speaking hard light makes it difficult to take good pictures. Most people think shooting on a bright and sunny day is the best thing you can do, but that is not the case. The strong shadows in hard light do not come out well in photos (particularly photos of people) because some areas will seem too bright and some will seem too dark. Soft light captures colors better and it is easier to get a warm feeling from your pictures.

This means that you should usually try to shoot in soft light. Remember, soft light is produced whenever light from a bright source is scattered by passing through something. Clouds, a lamp shade, curtains, and even pollution in the air produce softer light. The light when the sun is lower in the sky is also softer because it has to travel further through the atmosphere to reach you. This is why the light right after dawn and just before dusk is considered the best for photography.

If you like taking pictures of objects, you can always try to soften the light yourself by placing something like a thin piece of paper or cloth between the light and the subject.

Just remember that soft light will also be weaker, so make sure you set your camera up right (see the Light and Dark section above).

by Simon James Allanach, edited by Alan Frost
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