Understanding Quality of Light for Photography

To a photographer, light is everything. As educator Jay P. Morgan explains, the manipulation of light doesn’t just affect the way a viewer sees a subject; light controls the emotions of onlookers and the overall feeling of an image:

Understandably, quality of light is a difficult thing to measure quantitatively. Photographers often use the phrases “hard” or “soft” to describe the light produced by a specific source. The hardness or softness of a light is determined by the size of the light source as well as the distance between the source and the subject.

Sunlight and moonlight produce hard “pinpoint” lighting, characterized by quick transitions between bright highlights and dark shadows. Although both the sun and the moon are massive light sources, because they’re both thousands of miles away, they cast harsh specular lights that illuminate less surface area.

specular lighting example

Specular Lighting

Soft light, on the other other hand, is often produced by diffusion or reflection. On an overcast day, clouds act as a massive natural soft box, scattering the sun’s rays. Because the clouds are much closer and larger relative to Earth, you’ll see smoother, more gradual transitions between darks and lights. Often times, soft light is described as “wrapping around” a subject. Of course, light cannot turn corners; rather, soft reflective light hits more of the subject’s surface and leaves less detail shrouded in shadow.

diffused lighting example

Diffused Lighting

Of course, the quality of light we deal with will always fall between these two extremes. Luckily, we have the ability to harness and control light as we see fit. With strobes, diffusers, reflectors, and a basic understanding of the laws of light, anything becomes possible.

“Everyone thinks that the camera is our tool… It records imagery, but it does not create the images. Light creates the images. The camera can be on all day, but until there is light on her face, we will never see her…light is our tool.”

Like This Article?

Don't Miss The Next One!

Join over 100,000 photographers of all experience levels who receive our free photography tips and articles to stay current:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

New! Want more photography tips? We now offer a free newsletter for photographers:

No, my photos are the best, close this forever