Quality of light

I talked about *the color of light in* my previous article, so in this article I’d like to talk about the second aspect of light, that is the amount of light or you may call it, the quality of light.

Hard light

Hard light is what photographers normally call, harsh light. This quality of light is often direct when shadows that form under such conditions normally hold no detail. Taking a photo of your family & friends outdoors at noon when the sun is right overhead does not yield very desirable results.The shadows under people’s eyebrows & noses can be extremely distracting & does not look very flattering. All shadows clip hard & there is little to no transition between light & dark… in fact all you get are abrupt slices of light & dark. Under such lighting conditions, you may want to *think about the final image you want to produce* before you lift the camera to take a snap shot.

The reason why there is little to no detail in the shadows under hard light is a camera limitation. The dynamic range of a normal digital camera is not able to capture the vast differences in tonal values on the image that it sees. On a 35mm film camera & some better digital cameras, they see detail from a scene up to 32 times brighter than the darkest area. Now film has an uncanny ability to hold quite a large dynamic range compared to digital. If you have shot with film before, you will notice that you can over expose an image & yet the detail in the bright areas don’t get blown as easily as in a digital camera. This is because the dynamic range of the modern-day film is much greater than their digital counterpart… although things are improving quite drastically for digital nowadays.

In some modern-day digital camera, they have technology which is called auto lighting optimizer or D-lighting, depending on which system you are using. This technology enables the camera to “lighten” the shadows & “suppress” the highlights so that more detail can be capture in both the shadow & bright areas in the scene. Now this is great however it does affect the contrast of the image somewhat when this feature is turned on. Also the implementation of this technology is usually subtle & some folks don’t even notice the difference between the photos with or without it being turned on.

“But I can see the details in these shadows!?” Well if you remember what I said when I wrote, *Digital Camera Resolution*, I mentioned about the ability of the human eye to be able to region adapt ISO? Well the retina of a human eye has sensors pretty much like what we have in the digital camera. The difference is, if we set a digital camera to let say ISO800… the entire sensor is switched to ISO800. On the retina, each area on the retina can fine tune its own ISO to suit the conditions of what the human eye is seeing. This is like saying each pixel on the sensor of a camera has its own ability to assign its own ISO. Well one day we may actually have a camera that can do this, but right now, nope. I don’t think there is enough processing capability for any digital camera processor that can do this today!

Hard light in a photo is often uncomfortable. If you try to convey the beauty of a model in a portrait shoot, she won’t look very nice under harsh lighting conditions. You will find that the photos lack detail & colors appear washed out.

Then again it doesn’t mean that you can’t shoot during these kind of lighting conditions. If you choose to demonstrate the harshness of a scene, bright direct light will do that for you. I took this shot at the marina near the jetty almost during mid-day. I converted it to a monochrome shot because it seems to work well with hard lighting conditions. One trick that I’ve learned is when the lighting is hard, try processing the image into B&W.

Soft light

Soft light is much less intense than hard light & is diffused. Soft lighting is ideal in many photographic instances & portrays a gentle mood. Under such conditions the contrast is rather low & bright/dark areas blend together much easily than in hard light conditions.

In the example of a photo I took the shows the birds almost as if in their natural habitat… actually this was at the Singapore bird park. The light is diffused by the trees & leaves from above so the amount of light which entered into where I was photographing was nothing short of perfect. The gentle light illuminated the feathers nicely & detail was nicely exposed for the shot.

Soft light is normally created by a large source or a source which is filtered… a hazy or cloudy sky creates soft light. Also light that is reflected off a large surface is often soft. The best way to create artificial soft light is through the use of a reflective medium placed under the subject to reflect light or at times over the subject to filter the hard light that comes through.

Notice that light from an incandescent bulb directly is hard & harsh but the moment you put a lamp shade over it, therefore increasing the size of the source & in doing so softens the shadows that it casts. This technique can be used on any light source including your flash unit. Flash softeners like Stofen Omnibounce diffuses the light when it exits the flash unit to create less harsh shadows & more even lighting. There are some DIY methods like some large semi transparent material such as tracing paper or even artificial background like lightboxes which intention is to create soft not so overpowering lighting to illuminate the subject that you are trying to photograph.

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4 responses to “Quality of light”

  1. photographyfree4all says :

    Very interesting and informative! Also, the second shot is spectacular! Thanks.

  2. Vin Lim says :

    Nice one wei bro!

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