Soft or Harsh Light? - Understanding & Observing Light Conditions is Critical Step to shooting Stunning Photographs

Photography is all about capturing light information through devices like cameras which translates into photographs. To learn photography & the process of creating photographs, one has to understand light and how it works. But this is little tricky that understanding controls of your camera body, so continuous observation along with varied experiments over a period of time makes you master lighting in Photography context.

Photography is all about capturing light information through devices like cameras which translates into photographs. To learn photography & the process of creating photographs, one has to understand light and how it works. But this is little tricky than understanding controls of your camera body, so continuous observation along with varied experiments over a period of time makes you master lighting in Photography context. 


Lighting on object defines lot of things in your photograph. Contrast, colors, brightness etc all controlled by lighting conditions on object as well as surroundings. Light takes various forms during it's journey from source of lighting till hitting the subject you want to photograph, through various deflections. Not going into physics of light travel and impact of concepts like reflection, deflection, refraction etc. Please ignore last line - that's there just to flaunt :). 


Lighting is important for any kind of photography you want to do. In some cases, you have control of light and in some cases, you can't influence lighting but make creative use of it. In this post, we will cover Lighting aspects w.r.t. clicking people portraits. So we shall focus on things like -

Lighting is important for any kind of photography you want to do. In some cases, you have control of light and in some cases, you can't influence lighting but make creative use of it. In this post, we will cover Lighting aspects w.r.t. clicking people portraits. So we shall focus on things like - 

1. How the direction of the light w.r.t. subject affects a photograph.
2. How to be creative with different kinds of lighting.
3. Impact of lighting conditions or light sources on colors. 
4. Fundamentals about taking control over natural light as well as artificial light.
5. Impact of intensity of light on photographs. 


If lighting is right, a basic mobile phone camera can create brilliant photographs and in poor lighting, even most sophisticated cameras can't do much. Awesome photographs you see in iPhone advertisements, which are claimed to be clicked with iPhone camera are mainly because of appropriate lighting condition for that scene.

If lighting is right, a basic mobile phone camera can create brilliant photographs and in poor lighting, even most sophisticated cameras can't do much. Awesome photographs you see in iPhone advertisements, which are claimed to be clicked with iPhone camera are mainly because of appropriate lighting condition for that scene. 


How the direction of the light w.r.t. subject affects a photograph : 

Imagine you are in a sand-dune during night time, like  photograph the photograph below, where you don't have any natural light. Now you have to use some kind of artificial light and position of that light source defines how much light and kind of light you would get on the subject you are photographing.  Location of light source is in relation to the object you are shooting plays a dramatic role on the overall look of the final photograph. In photography, sometimes you can move that light source, and other times you have to move the subject to alter the position of the light. 

How the direction of the light w.r.t. subject affects a photograph :     Imagine you are in sand-dune during night time, like  photograph the photograph below, where you don't have any natural light. Now you have to use some kind of artificial light and position of that light source defines how much light and kind of light you would get on the subject you are photographing.  Location of light source is in relation to the object you are shooting plays a dramatic role on the overall look of the final photograph. In photography, sometimes you can move that light source, and other times you have to move the subject to alter the position of the light.

In above photograph these lamps could have been moved, -we made the couple stand at one place, and have 2 people carrying the lamps move in a such a way that we get desired light on faces of couple standing in the middle. Now the distance between the lamp and the face also defines what kind of shadows we would see on faces. If light sources are too close, shadows can be stronger on other side of the nose. Keep this thought in mind for now and we shall cover this aspect again, when we talk about kind of lights. 




Front lighting or placing the subject so that light is directly in front of the person, brings out the detail. Why? With the light directly in the front, the shadows fall behind the object, so there are not any shadows in the image to suppress any details. When I say that, I want to emphasise that shadows are not bad when you make good use of them. Front lighting is the simplest to shoot, but can be boring at time.  

Front lighting or placing the subject so that light is directly in front of the person, brings out the detail. Why? With the light directly in the front, the shadows fall behind the object, so there aren not any shadows in the image to supress any details. When I say that, I want to emphasise that shadows are not bad when you make good use of them. Front lighting is the simplest to shoot, but can be boring at time.

In above photograph me and Vibha are standing just in front of the main door of a church, which means light coming from outside is directly hitting our bodies and you can also notice light difference between our bodies and interiors of the church. In my opinion, direct lighting in above photograph created a problem. Can you guess what? Light reflections in our glasses. 

Above photograph shows an example where position of camera can help in creating good photograph. Now is it front light or side-light? It's front light w.r.t. subject but may be side light w.r.t. camera and that's why camera could shoot the shadow in same frame. Don't think too much if it's confusing you :).

Above photograph shows an example where position of camera can help in creating good photograph. Now is it front light or side-light? It's front light w.r.t. subject but may be side light w.r.t. camera and that's why camera could shoot the shadow in same frame. Don't think too much if it's confusing you :). 

Loop Lighting – One of the most common lighting method for portraits, when light source is placed about 45 degrees to the subject. The shadow it casts is going to show nice depth. This method is great for single portraits. Make sure you place the light just slightly above eye level to make the best of this lighting style.

Loop Lighting – One of the most common lighting method for portraits, when light source is placed about 45 degrees to the subject. The shadow it casts is going to show nice depth. This method is great for single portraits. Make sure you place the light just slightly above eye level to make the best of this lighting style.

Side lighting makes boring look of front lighting by creating shadows and adding depth to final photograph. Side lighting is also simple to shoot. But in this case, you need to pay attention that specific parts of the subject get enough light and important areas are not covered by shadows. When shooting with lighting from the side, watch where the shadows fall. Some adjustments in the subject’s position can create more interesting or flattering shadows. If light source or subject can't be moved, you can change your position to compose the shot differently.

Side lighting makes boring look of front lighting by creating shadows and adding depth to final photograph. Side lighting is also simple to shoot. But in this case, you need to pay attention that specific parts of the subject get enough light and important areas are not covered by shadows. When shooting with lighting from the side, watch where the shadows fall. Some adjustments in the subject’s position can create more interesting shadows. If light source or subject can't be moved, you can change your camera position to compose the shot differently. 

Side lighting makes boring look of front lighting by creating shadows and adding depth to final photograph. Side lighting is also simple to shoot. But in this case, you need to pay attention that specific parts of the subject get enough light and important areas are not covered by shadows. When shooting with lighting from the side, watch where the shadows fall. Some adjustments in the subject’s position can create more interesting or flattering shadows. If light source or subject can't be moved, you can change your position to compose the shot differently.

Split Lighting – When light divides face equally in half so one side is in shadow, while the other is toward the light. You can simply place the light source 90 degree to the left or right of your subject. If you are using natural light, just ask your subject to turn to such an angle. It creates a very deep dramatic shadow that casts strong moods for your subject. It is great for artistic type portrait shots. Of course, above photograph is a co-incident as I couldn't have asked this tiger to face in a way that half of the face is well lit and other half is in shadows. 

Back lighting is most challenging but used correctly can result in amazing results. Above photograph may not be showing faced but isn't it an interesting photograph?

Back lighting is most challenging but used correctly can result in amazing results. Above photograph may not be showing faces, but isn't it an interesting photograph? 

Backlight helps in photographing Silhouettes. Above photograph shows majority of the light hitting this person from back side, so when I clicked it against the light I see a silhouette of the person jumping. Silhouettes look awesome when shapes depict anything interesting and lighting has some special colors or patterns.

Backlight helps in photographing Silhouettes. Above photograph shows majority of the light hitting this person from back side, so when I clicked it against the light I see a silhouette of the person jumping. Silhouettes look awesome when shapes depict anything interesting and lighting has some special colors or patterns. 

Above photograph shows a powerful backlight due to which you see amazing shine around hairs but this light is creating lot of shadows in front part of the body. But in this photograph there is some light from front as well which makes the face of this singer visible. So using some light from front or sides along with backlight can help in creating some awesome photographs.

Above photograph shows a powerful backlight due to which you see amazing shine around hairs but this light is creating lot of shadows in front part of the body. But in this photograph, there is some light from front as well which makes the face of this singer visible. So using some light from front or sides along with backlight can help in creating some awesome photographs. 


Soft Light vs Hard Light : Main kids of Lights in terms of Quality of Light :

Soft Light vs Hard Light : Main kids of Lights in terms of Quality of Light : A hard or harsh light source produces shadows with minimal transition between the light and dark areas of the photograph. Apart from the transition, hard light produces dense shadows in a photograph than softer shadows. At times, hard light is looked upon badly because of this aspect about strong shadows but again creative use of these shadows can create drama in your photographs. Look at above photograph and think if you can relate with the definition of hard/harsh light? - strong shadow and has minimal transition. Certainly it's edited photograph but still it shows clearly that original photograph is clicked in hard light. When shooting people portraits, hard light tends to emphasise imperfections in the skin so it's important how you use it.

A hard or harsh light source produces shadows with minimal transition between the light and dark areas of the photograph. Apart from the transition, hard light produces dense shadows in a photograph than softer shadows. At times, hard light is looked upon badly because of this aspect about strong shadows but again creative use of these shadows can create drama in your photographs. Look at above photograph and think if you can relate with the definition of hard/harsh light? - strong shadow and has minimal transition. Certainly it's edited photograph but still it shows clearly that original photograph is clicked in hard light. When shooting people portraits, hard light tends to emphasise imperfections in the skin so it's important how you use it. 

Soft light has a much more subtle transition between the light and dark areas of the photograph. Shooting with soft light has less drama, but the smoother shadows prevent details from being lost in the dark areas of the image. In case of people portraits, soft light takes good care of small skin problems and help you getting smoother skin. Light during sunrises and sunsets is usually soft light and consider awesome to click portraits with interesting colors.

Soft light has a much more subtle transition between the light and dark areas of the photograph. Shooting with soft light has less drama, but the smoother shadows prevent details from being lost in the dark areas of the image. In case of people portraits, soft light takes good care of small skin problems and help you getting smoother skin. Light during sunrises and sunsets is usually soft light and consider awesome to click portraits with interesting colors. 

Now let me ask a question : Imagine a room which has huge window through which light is coming in and subject is facing this window but away from window. What kind you would get on the face of this subject?     Answer to above question - It's front-light and of soft-light quality. If you haven't understood this, I won't recommend going further. Please go above and read above section again and ask your specific questions through comments section below. And if you understood it, click a photograph inside your house in such situation and do some experiments.

Now let me ask a question : Imagine a room which has huge window through which light is coming in and subject is facing this window but away from window. What kind you would get on the face of this subject? 

Answer to above question - It's front-light and of soft-light quality. If you haven't understood this, I won't recommend going further. Please go above and read above section again and ask your specific questions through comments section below. And if you understood it, click a photograph inside your house in such situation and do some experiments. 

Does this question arise in your mind - what makes light source soft or hard/harsh? Large light sources produce soft light, while smaller light sources crate those harsh shadows. And distance light travels from the source to subject also defines softness or hardness of light.     The sun is a large light source but it’s so far away that it becomes a hard light source. Shooting in the middle of the day with a cloudless sky, you will get dark & harsh shadows.

Does this question arise in your mind - what makes light source soft or hard/harsh? Large light sources produce soft light, while smaller light sources crate those harsh shadows. And distance light travels from the source to subject also defines softness or hardness of light. 

The sun is a large light source but it’s so far away that it becomes a hard light source. Shooting in the middle of the day with a cloudless sky, you will get dark & harsh shadows. 

On a cloudy day, light becomes softer. Wondering why? - The clouds diffuse the light or spread it out over a larger area and making a light larger makes it softer. That’s why many photographers love cloudy days — the soft light is easy to work with.

A white umbrella placed in between the light and the subject softens the light. Soft boxes are another form of diffusers and some of them are even small enough to use on an on-camera flash. Bouncing a light source also softens it. Using a flash softbox or taking the flash off camera and putting it on a stand with an umbrella allows photographers to take a small, hard light source and create soft lighting.

Used together, the direction and softness of the light can be used to create different effects and moods in a photograph.

Used together, the direction and softness of the light can be used to create different effects and moods in a photograph. 

Hard side lighting creates lots of drama, while a soft front light creates a softer mood.    Quick summary points around softness examples -    1. Camera flashes without a modifier/reflector create hard light because they are small light sources.  2. Natural light during sunsets in soft light.  3. Natural light during a cloud day is softer than a clear day with direct sunlight.      Light also influences colors in a photograph :

Hard side lighting creates lots of drama, while a soft front light creates a softer mood.

Quick summary points around softness examples -

1. Camera flashes without a modifier/reflector create hard light because they are small light sources.
2. Natural light during sunsets in soft light.
3. Natural light during a cloud day is softer than a clear day with direct sunlight. 


Light also influences colors in a photograph :

A light-bulb may look white to our eyes, but light actually comes in different colors. The sun at sunset creates an orange light. Different kinds of bulbs create different colors of light.     There is something called white-balance in camera, which corrects the photograph colors automatically so that white objects in the frame look white in the photograph under different light sources. Have you observed some phone cameras creating more orangish shades in photographs than others? That happens when camera is not able to correct white-balance properly.

A light-bulb may look white to our eyes, but light actually comes in different colors. The sun at sunset creates an orange light. Different kinds of bulbs create different colors of light. 

There is something called white-balance in camera, which corrects the photograph colors automatically so that white objects in the frame look white in the photograph under different light sources. Have you observed some phone cameras creating more orangish shades in photographs than others? That happens when camera is not able to correct white-balance properly. 

Above photograph is clicked during sunset hours when most of the colors are influenced by sunset hues and hence you see above photograph more orangish. Can it be fixed in post processing - yes.

Above photograph is clicked during sunset hours when most of the colors are influenced by sunset hues and hence you see above photograph more orangish. Can it be fixed in post processing - yes. 

In this post, we don't intend to go too deep into white-balance but idea is to make you aware that light conditions also influence colors in your photographs, so you need to pay attention and when you know, figure out how to best use this color differentiation light provides you.

In this post, we don't intend to go too deep into white-balance but idea is to make you aware that light conditions also influence colors in your photographs, so you need to pay attention and when you know, figure out how to best use this color differentiation light provides you. 

How Intensity of Light influences a Photograph :

Intensity is the brightness level of light and it brightens up your subject. One single tip to balance brightness level while shooting with your mobile phone, tap on important part of the screen so that your camera adjusts lighting accordingly. 
It may sound a little confusing if you don't know about how cameras do light metering, but let me share where you may want to tap -

1. If clicking a portrait, tapping on face area will make your camera adjust lighting according to face. 
2. Other option is to click on neutral shade in the frame, so that overall light you get is balanced. 
3. If preview is looking too dark, click on darkest part of the preview and see if it helps.
4. If preview is too bright, tap on brighter part of the frame and camera will try to adjust it. 

When you do above be mindful that apart from adjustment light in the photography, camera is changing the main focus point for your photograph to the area where you tap. It may or may not impact focus you want to achieve in your photograph. 

There is a popular rule about lighting intensity which says that if you double the distance from one to two feet, the light intensity will decrease by 75%. On the other hand, if you bring the light source closer from two feet to one foot the intensity of light is going to increase by four times.

On a cloudy day, light becomes softer. Wondering why? - The clouds diffuse the light or spread it out over a larger area and making a light larger makes it softer. That’s why many photographers love cloudy days — the soft light is easy to work with.    A white umbrella placed in between the light and the subject softens the light. Soft boxes are another form of diffusers and some of them are even small enough to use on an on-camera flash. Bouncing a light source also softens it. Using a flash softbox or taking the flash off camera and putting it on a stand with an umbrella allows photographers to take a small, hard light source and create soft lighting.

Understanding lighting well and experimenting with it thousand times is a basic step towards becoming a good photographer. Understanding lighting also help you click photographs in such way that you can edit them well. We shall cover that aspect separately about how lighting also impact editing capabilities for a photograph. This post cover very basic concepts of light and when you know to observe these, you can start thinking about various other ways of experimenting with artificial lights. The equation becomes more challenging as well as rewarding when you have multiple light sources while shooting an object. In that case, you would need to think about direction, softness & distance of all light sources along with color each light is influencing in that eco-system.  

Understanding lighting well and experimenting with it thousand times is a basic step towards becoming a good photographer. Understanding lighting also help you click photographs in such way that you can edit them well. We shall cover that aspect separately about how lighting also impact editing capabilities for a photograph. This post cover very basic concepts of light and when you know to observe these, you can start thinking about various other ways of experimenting with artificial lights. The equation becomes more challenging as well as rewarding when you have multiple light sources while shooting an object. In that case, you would need to think about direction, softness & distance of all light sources along with color each light is influencing in that eco-system.

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