The word photography if broken down into its base words is Photo which means light, and graphy meaning to write, so by definition photography is literally writing with light. If photography is nothing more than recording light either on a piece of film or a digital sensor, then good photography must be recording good light. But what exactly is the difference between good light and bad light? If you cal learn this and be able to recognize the difference between good light, and not so good light, you are well on your way to dramatically improving your photography. The most important skills a photographer can have is understanding light, my friend Becker ( ) has always said its better to sacrifice a good background for good light. Without good light, you cannot have a good photograph.

Hard and Soft light.
So how do you know what is good light and what is not? The first part of understanding light is to understand the absence of light, or shadows. You will often hear the terms hard light and soft light. What it really means is hard shadows and soft shadows. Think if you will of a bright summer day at about 2:00 in the afternoon. Look down at the ground, what do you see? A very definite strong shadow of yourself on the ground. The edges are very harsh, and there is quite a difference between the light falling outside the shadow, and the amount of light falling inside the shadow. This is hard light. Now imagine an overcast day. Look down, what do you see? No shadow! Or if there is one, it is very faint, with very little difference of light value outside the shadow verses inside the shadow. This is what is known as soft light.

So what causes hard or soft light? The softness of the light is created by the size of the light source. On the sunny day example, all the light is coming from the sun which is a very small point. On the cloudy day, the clouds diffuse the light and spread it out, the entire sky is all the same brightness. So rather than a small point of light you have a light source the size of the entire sky. This is why a photographer in a studio uses huge soft boxes or large umbrellas on his lights, he is creating a larger light sourced to soften the light. Compare that to the little tiny light source that the flash on your camera creates.

You can find soft even light on a sunny day too. Put your subject into the shade. WHAT??? Did I say that right? I know it goes against everything you have learned taking snapshots up to this point. Usually the person taking the picture gets everybody outside into the “good” light to take the family picture and when the pictures are printed everyone has dark shadow on their eyes, the person wearing a hat has such a shadow on their face you can’t even tell who it is, and poor grandpas bald head has a big shiny glare on it. Turns out that “good light” wasn’t so good after all. On a bright sunny day, move into the shade of a tree or a building, what do you notice? Shadows fade away. The light is soft and even on you subject. Here is an example. It was a bright sunny day outside, but by moving into the shade, we were able to get beautiful light.

Wyatt Tip #1   Look for good light.

Another way to fix the problems of hard light is to use your flash. I know it sounds nuts using your flash in sunlight, but a little pop of what is called “fill flash” will fill in the shadows and even out the light and make for a well lit picture. It may not have the soft even light of an overcast day, but it will help eliminate the dreaded “racoon eye” shadows you get in harsh light.

So does that mean soft light is good and hard light is bad? Not at all! There are times when soft light will create the perfect picture, and there are times when hard light will create the image you see in your mind. How do you make hard light appealing? It’s a matter of light angles.

Angle of light.
Just like you would pose a model to get the best look for your photograph, you need to pose your light. By moving a light source to one side you can create deep dark shadows that give your photograph a dramatic feel that creates depth and texture, or by moving it closer to the camera, you can give your image a more even lit, flat, two dimensional appearance. In this photo of rap music producer Hard Head, the light is coming from camera left and slightly above him. I used a large umbrella on it so the light was fairly soft, but where it comes from one side, it gives a more dramatic shadow to the left side of his face, giving the photo more depth.

Hard Head Tip #1   Look for good light.

Lets take a look at two examples of good angle of light, and not so good. We will start with the not so good. This photo of a rose I shot when I was first learning photography 17 years ago. This was the first photo I shot that I was really pleased with. I had it printed and framed I was so proud of it. Now its not a terrible picture. It is properly exposed, and has nice color, but it was taken in pretty harsh direct light. I did use a little fill flash to help fill in the shadows, but the light is really flat and does not give any depth to the image. Now lets take a look at the next picture. This is a dozen roses I gave my wife for valentines day. The first thing you will see (now that you know to look at lighting) is the lighting is very dramatic. It is coming from camera right, it is fairly hard so there is a big difference between light and shadow. In this example the hard directional light gives the image depth and it has a more three dimensional look than the other rose image.
Old Rose 1024x682 Tip #1   Look for good light.

Valentines Roses 685x1024 Tip #1   Look for good light.

Your Assignment:
Lets practice what we have discussed today. Pick a nice sunny day and go outside to take a picture. Take a model with you too. You can use one of the kids, the dog, a friend, or if all else fails, drag the vacuum cleaner outside. If you can take a nice picture of a vacuum, you can take a nice picture of a person. Take a picture of your subject out in the open mid day in harsh light. Then move into the shade and take a photo of your subject in the shade. Now compare the two images. How are they different? Which one do you like best? Why do you like it best.

Next assignment, get a spot light. You can go to the local home depot and pick up a clamp on work light for a couple bucks and a 100 watt light bulb. If you don’t have that use a desk light or a flash light or some other directional light source. Now get your model, again use the kids, a vacuum, or a dozen roses. Turn off the rest of the lights in the room except for your spot light. Now start taking pictures and moving the light. Experiment with the light and angles. Try the light to the sides, higher, lower, etc… Now, what did you find? Which picture did you like best? Why? Which picture did you like least? Why?

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