Finding the elusive good light
You may have heard the term quality of light before, but do you know what that really means and how do you go about finding the highly elusive good light so many photographers talk about?
In this article, I’m going to explain a few terms and give you some tips on how to find the right light including:
- Hard versus soft lighting
- What situation creates each kind of lighting and how to identify them
- When to use each type of lighting
- How to find good light at any time of the day
Quality of light
Quantity of light is how much light is present in a given scene. But what is the quality of light?
As in most things, quantity is how much or how many, and quality is how good it is. So how do you measure whether the light is good or not?
What that means in real terms is that a small light source will produce hard lighting.
If you have a large light source the light will be soft, however, it is also affected by the distance of the light source to the subject. If it is close to the subject, it is proportionally large compared to their face. But if you move it back away from the subject quite a distance then it changes the relative size of the light.
I’ll give you an example. The sun is a giant burning ball of fire approximately 1.4 million kilometres (864,000 miles) in diameter. That’s large! However, when we look at it from here it appears very small in the sky (size of a quarter) because of our relative distance from the sun.
So the sun is actually a small light source. Does that make sense?
Hard or harsh lighting
Hard lighting is created by small light sources such as:
- The sun (as you learned above it is a small light source)
- A bare lightbulb
- A candle
- A flashlight
- The small flash on your camera (yes even if you take if off the camera the flash itself without any modifiers is a small light source).
Hard light is characterized by strong, well-defined shadows and a high degree of contrast. With hard light, you will notice deep, dark shadows, and bright, sometimes overblown highlights or whites.
People photographed in hard light will often squint and have harsh unflattering shadows on their faces. This is not usually desirable.
Hard lighting – look for strong shadows and high contrast
Soft or diffused lighting
Soft lighting is creating by large light sources such as:
- The sky on an overcast or on a really cloudy day (then the sun isn’t the light source anymore it’s the entire sky which is much larger proportionally from where we stand).
- Large studio lights like softboxes (hence the name!) used by portrait and studio photographers.
- A large white reflector used to bounce light (a 42″ one is a large light source when placed close to the subject).
- Light from a small speedlight or flash bounced off of a wall, ceiling, reflector, or through an umbrella (only when you bounce or diffuse the light from your speedlight does it become softer).
- Window-light from a north-facing window or one which does not receive direct sunlight.
- Light from an open sky such as when the subject is in a doorway or covered area (out of the sun) and the light comes from the sky opposite the sun.
Soft light is the opposite of hard light and is characterized by soft or not easily defined shadows, and low contrast.
In soft light, you may not even be able to distinguish where the shadows fall or if there are any. People photographed in soft light have fewer and/or softer shadows and do not have to squint.
Soft light – look for weak or no shadows and low contrast
Which type of light is best?
The answer to which type of lighting to use is that there is no right or wrong, and it depends on what look you want to create within your image.
If you want more drama and to emphasize character and texture, then you will want to use hard lighting.
If you want to emphasize a softer mood or flatter a portrait subject you will want to use soft lighting.
Here are some examples. Can you see which type of lighting is being used in each image and if it is appropriate for the scene and the desired result?
Quality of light for people photography
Quality of light is just as applicable to the photography of people as well. While no hard and fast rule applies that says “always do this” for portraits – it is generally more flattering for your subject to use soft light.
Hard light will accentuate everything by adding contrast. That means wrinkles, lines, pores, blemishes, scars, bumps, etc. all the things that most people do not want to be enhanced, will be emphasized.
Your spouse or significant other would probably prefer not to showcase those things. So if you are photographing a friend or spouse, and you want them to continue to like you, then consider soft lighting.
However, if you are photographing a grizzled old man and want to emphasize his wrinkles, then hard light would be desired. For any subject where you want to add character and drama, then hard light is a better choice. Punk rockers with a skateboard – then try using hard lighting.
You can find soft light by getting out of the sun and into the shade, an open doorway (using the light coming in), or by using something to block the sun or harsh lighting (reflector). Many photographers do portraits in the magic or golden hours (about 60 minutes before dusk or after sunrise) as the light is low on the horizon and is much warmer and softer.
Here are a few more examples.
To sum all this up, I’m going to ask you a few questions. Please share in the comments what you plan to do?
- What did you learn from this article?
- What do you want to learn next?
- Do you prefer reading books, articles, and websites? How about a virtual tutoring lesson or an online class?
If you have a hard time finding good light, especially at midday, here is a good exercise for you to do: Create Good Images at Midday – Photography Challenge