3 Jan 2008

The quality of light - Part 2

I must stress that when talking about the quality of light I’m using my own definitions – this is not text book stuff. It’s just the way I look at things, and that seems to have served me quite well enough over many years.

I said last time that I think of poor quality light as having two extremes:

1 Very hard, contrasty light that produces hard, empty black shadows. The sort of light you get from a bright sun in an empty blue sky. This can be horrible for portraits and some landscapes.

2 Flat, non-directional light that creates dull, drab images. The sort of light you might get on a day with thick, total cloud cover. Sometimes you can get away with this for portraits, but most landscape photographs just look dreary.

Between these two extremes lies a whole range of beautiful high quality, directional light that will enhance almost any subject. So what makes the difference?

TIP Remember - the smaller the light source, the harder and poorer the quality of the light it gives. In general, the larger the light source in relation to the subject, the better the quality of light.

If the sun is veiled with just a thin haze of wispy cloud, it will diffuse the light and soften the shadows by creating, in effect, a very large light source. The light can still be directional, but the outline of the shadows will be less defined – softer, more diffused. There will be some detail in those shadows and I’d call that high quality light… directional yet slightly diffused.

The sort of conditions that produce high quality light are frequently created in the late afternoon when the sun is low in the sky and shining though a hazy atmosphere that has built up during the day. It is a good idea to have a particular subject in mind for the times when these conditions occur because they are very special and will not last very long. If you do have a subject in mind, you will be able to go straight to it, be in position and use every minute of the high quality directional light.
TIP When the sun is glaring down from an empty ble sky, try looking for pictures in the shade where the light can be soft, yet still directional.

Top photograph: Can you make an appealing photograph out of an ugly concrete sea wall structure? Yes, if the quality of the light is good enough. Here the sun is over to the right and I am shooting slightly into it, but look how much detail is in the shadows. That’s because that hazy sky has diffused the sunlight and created high quality, directional light

Look for shade
When the sun is glaring down from a clear sky the light will be very poor, hard quality top light. Time to hunt pictures in the shade. Here I have found a great subject and the quality of the indirect, reflected light is excellent. Look on the floor at either side of the man and you can see just how hard and poor that direct sunlight is outside – that hard light is also cutting across his right shoulder and the right side of the box he is sitting on. But he is in shade and there was a white wall behind me reflecting light back onto him. This has created excellent soft light that shows all the folds in the blanket covering his knees – and the creases in his face

Next, in part 3, I’ll show you how you can change and improve the quality of light.

1 comment:

John in Detroit said...

What a great blog!

I have just spent an hour skimming through all the posts. As someone who just finished his first photography class and traded in a point-and-shoot for an SLR camera, I can't wait to try out many of the techniques you've described.

I'm also blown away by how generous you are with your knowledge. Thanks again, and I look forward to more posts!

John in Detroit, MI