This post was updated on October 5th, 2018
Characteristics of Light
In the first article of this series, we examined the Color Temperature of light. As we saw, our camera’s white balance settings can help balance it. In this article, we are going to explore the quality of light, or its hardness/softness but also its contrast.
The Quality of Light
Is there something we could call lousy light or good light for that matter? Can you compare different forms of light in the same way you would compare two different racing cars? The answer is indecisive. Let’s examine the subject before we make a choice if there is something we can call lousy light or not.
The contrast created by light
The difference in color or brightness that makes an object distinguishable from other objects in the same area is called contrast.
In the image below you have one box with colors in a big and one with a narrow contrast. Which one is which?
Yes, the upper one is the one with a lot of contrast while the bottom one has less.
Now how would you perceive this in nature? It could be an orange blossom standing out against the dark blue sky. Or when you compare two landscape photographs, taken at different times of the day.
Modern digital cameras are pretty good when it comes to handling contrast in scenes. Of course, you can still encounter situations when the dynamic range in a scene is higher than what your camera is capable of capturing in one photo. For these occasions HDR or High Dynamic Range, images can be the solution. In an HDR you create an image out of multiple exposures. This to ensure the correct exposure for both shadows and highlights in the final frame.
Hardness/softness of the light
The directional light that does not pass through clouds or fog is called hard light. It will create distinct, dark shadows and edges between the dark and the bright area of an image. The highlights in a photo that is taken in hard light will be bright. Hard light can intensify the form of an object in an image.
Soft light is undirected light. It passes for example through clouds, or fog, which reflect and bounce it. Soft light does not create distinct shadows or only subtle ones; it provides an even lit scenery and does not offer bight highlights.
But does it mean that hard light is good and soft light is bad?
Hard light is in general good for shaping landscapes, giving them some depth. It also reveals color in a scene. But if you need an evenly lit scene without the hard shadows, you don’t want to use hard light. Soft light is in general good for macro photography or portraits. But there is no rule without exception!
Examples for seemingly breaking the rules
Soft light can work very well for photographs in the forest. The forest’s bold greens and the harsh shadows created by hard light can clutter the scene. But taking the photograph in soft light instead can tidy it up and make it more visually pleasing.
Soft light also works well for photographing streams and waterfall, reducing their glare. In this case, however, you would generally want to exclude the sky from the photograph.
Hard light can work very well when shooting a man’s portrait, which can make them look edgier and tougher.
So is there something we could call bad light? I would say no. There is light that is not suited to the subject in the frame. However, it might be perfect for another type of photograph.
There is no such thing as “The quality of light” in general. You cannot say that hard light is always good light and soft light is always bad light or vice versa. But you can say hard light works well in some situations and soft in others. The only way of figuring out what works and what does not? Study the light. Examine other photographers pictures and think about what works and what does not. Take a close look at your own photographs too. What did work out and what did not? Did you capture the scene the way you saw it, or does it seem wrong?