An Introduction to Photography Lighting

Lighting plays a crucial role in photography. It can bring a photograph to life, it can generate effects, including spectacular shadows or silhouettes, or it may have a distinctly negative influence by creating unwanted glare and reflections.

This is a quick guide to introduce the beginner to one led lighting of the most important aspects in photography: lighting. The guide is in three parts. Part 1 talks about hard and soft light, part 2 looks at natural and artificial light, and part 3 examines light intensity and depth of field.

Part 1: Hard and Soft Light

This first section examines one of the most fundamental issues: the difference between shooting in hard and soft light.

Hard light produces well-defined, dark shadows and tends to originate from a single light source, which is usually either small or located far away. By contrast, soft light produces either soft shadows or no shadows at all. It can be generated from several light sources, by diffusing light using some kind of barrier (e.g. a diffuser or even just a sheet of paper), or by reflecting light off different surfaces so that the subject is hit from various angles. In natural lighting conditions, hard light is produced on a sunny day when there is little or no cloud cover, and when the sun is high in the sky – which is something that is generally to be avoided, particularly by beginners. Shooting in other kinds of weather, e.g. cloudy days, foggy conditions, or even where there is air pollution, will produce soft light, as the sun’s rays are reflected or diffused by the particles in the air (moisture, pollution, etc.).

In general, the size of the light source is inversely proportional to the hardness of the light, meaning that smaller light sources produce harder light. Soft light, on the other hand, can be created using:

Reflectors: The action of reflecting light will essentially turn the reflector into a secondary light source. All kinds of things can be used as reflectors, whether shooting indoors or outdoors. These include professional reflectors or just sheets of paper.

Diffusers: In natural lighting conditions, clouds are great examples of diffusers. In artificial lighting conditions, any semi-transparent material that diffuses or softens the light can be used. Lamp shades are a great example of light diffusion. When shooting, even a thin white cloth can be used.

Both types of light have their own advantages and disadvantages. Hard light can be used to create images with sharp contrasts and highlights, emphasising shape and texture. It can be used to enhance the 3D effect of an image and in general to create dramatic effects. However, hard light is difficult to work with, and it is generally considered unsuitable for many if not most situations, and particularly when photographing people.

Soft light, by contrast, creates lighting that is more even, and which better depicts the colours and shapes of the subject. The choice of which type of light to use depends on the type of photography, the subject, and the desired effect, but soft light is usually the preferred choice, and it is certainly the safest choice for beginners.

Part 2: Artificial vs. Natural Light

Natural light refers to sunlight/daylight, while artificial light refers to all kinds of light sources, including: fluorescent lights, electric lights, use of flash, and so on. I will discuss the differences between these types of lighting sources below.

Natural light

Natural light is less controllable, and varies greatly depending on numerous conditions such as time of day, season, weather, geographical location, and so on. To its credit, it does not require any equipment other than anything that you may choose to use as a diffuser, reflector, etc. The choice between using natural or artificial light is obviously more relevant for portrait or still life photography than it is for landscape or wildlife photography (where one’s choice is usually limited to natural light). Factors affecting natural light are:


    • The weather: For example, a cloudy day will generate soft light and is usually preferred in photography, as mentioned earlier. By contrast, sunny lighting conditions will yield harder, brighter light with shadows that are more defined. However, this just scratches the surface. Cloud cover is almost never even, and this leads to varying patterns in the intensity of light, both as it shines on objects and in the sky. Weather phenomena such as storms and fog also alter the intensity and colour of light. This can create shots that vary from being totally unusable to exceptional images with spectacular effects. By softening the distant segments of an image, water vapour in the air generates a better feel of depth in landscape photography and often improves perspective.


    • Time of day: One can usually get softer lighting conditions early or late in the day. This light is generally warmer, producing images with less contrast compared to when the sun is high up in the sky. Sunrise and sunset are therefore often considered ideal times for photography, particularly for landscapes, people and so on. This time of day is referred to as the Additionally, during this time of day, the lighting conditions change rapidly, both in terms of intensity and colour, and allow for shooting images that are far more varied, often within the space of minutes. Shadows also change in shape and darkness, as the sun sets or rises, becoming longer and lighter as the sun sets and vice versa.


    • Location: In general, the further one is from the equator, the more time it takes for the sun to climb or set. Therefore, the soft light conditions found in the early morning and late evening can last much longer in such areas, and conversely, they pass much faster when in close proximity to the equator.


  • Air pollution: Similarly to mist, clouds, and so on, pollution acts as a diffuser of sunlight as the beams of light are reflected and scattered by the airborne particles.


Artificial Light

The challenges of using natural light are quite similar to those faced when shooting in artificial light. One must still understand how various light sources will act upon a subject and how to produce the desired effect. Different sources of light can produce soft or hard light when shooting in studio, but in this case, the photographer has direct control on elements such as hardness, distance, intensity, and angle. Furthermore, artificial light from different sources will yield different colour heat signatures. For instance, halogen bulbs are colder and produce a light that is blue in colour, while tungsten bulbs, being hotter, produce light with a reddish hue.


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