Quality of Light in Photography

When talking about the quality of light in photography we often use terms such as hard or direct light and soft or diffused light.
In the previous article on using light in photography we talked about looking at the highlight, mid-tone and shadow areas of various subjects.

Let’s look at these same areas in hard light and in soft light.

Hard light comes from a single spot or source point and is very directional. The sun is a very good example of a hard light. The light from an on-camera flash is another good example. Soft light is very diffused light and multi-directional. Overcast and cloudy days are common examples of this type of light. Open shade is another example.

An Example of Hard Light

An Example of Hard Light

Because hard light is very directional you get very sharp, well defined shadows.

On the flower to the left, which was shot in direct sunlight, you can see the sharp distinct shadows each peddle casts.

Notice also how the light and dark areas are sharply defined with no mid-tones separating them.

Example of Soft Light

Example of Soft Light

Soft light will illuminate objects very evenly, and produce very soft subtle shadows, or sometimes no shadows at all.

The flower on the right is the same exact flower as above shot in open shade. Note the subtle shadows that each peddle casts and note the fine detail in the middle of the flower.

You may also have noticed that the green leaves in the background are not lost in blackness as they are in the first photo. This is due to the difference in brightness range, which will be covered later.

Within these two broad categories of light quality there is a wide range of subtle variations. There can be a combination of both hard and soft light, direct but diffused light, light bouncing off highly reflective objects. The more you study light, the more sensitive you will become to its many qualities.

This photo of a boat on the beach is an interesting study of how light behaves differently on different parts of a subject … where the sunlight strikes the hull, it helps define the texture of the hull. The sand also reflects into the brown part of the lower hull, helping keep it from being lost in deep shadow.

On the deck, the dark cabin wood goes nearly black in the shadows, which is one of the problems that you can have with the hard quality of sunlight. Here in this photo, however it doesn’t matter, since the deck shadows are not important to this image.

Quality of Light - Fishing Boat on the Beach


This Fishing Boat is in direct sunlight, but notice how the shadow areas near the light sand differ from those on the cabin. Also note how the sunny side differs from the shady side.
Suedelbien / Pixabay

In the next article in this series we’ll discuss the Direction of Light in Photography.

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