It’s all about the Quality of the light

Photography has the ability to influence our emotions; if it doesn’t move us; they tend to be ignorable and will not catch our attention. In my last post I wrote about the Direction of the Light, and how that could change the mood of a photography; as you’re about to learn, the quality of lighting is just as important. I’ll show you why.

I think it’s a fair argument to make that it is hard to be in a bad mood; when the sun raises; beautiful colors; breakfast waiting on the garden table; the smell of coffee. Winter darkness also has its effect on us; it’s more depressing, more sinister, more cold and dead. What about the warm light from a fireplace; soft light, shadows flickering; how does that though makes you feel? We all have a strong emotional connection with light; we can’t escape it as it controls our thought pattern and feelings.

Before we get started, I would like to come with a word of warning, do not show my (less than gifted) illustrations to youngsters; as we do not want to ruin their artistic potentialsJ.

We divide the quality of light into Hard and Soft light.

We often talk about the quality of light as falling into two simplified main categories “hard” and “soft”. What would make more sense is talking ratios when addressing quality of light, but I will come back to that a bit later.

Hard light is harsh and directional, it holds strong shadows and bright highlights; it is often what we experience on a bright, sunny day. I made this panorama, on my tour around Mount Rainier National Park, it is a very recommendable drive, yet, if you judge the harsh light, and the shadows in this picture, it become obvious that timing is key, as I am going to address later in this blog.

Soft light home; it is very portrait photography friendly, as it is seemingly more flattering; smooth and diffuse in its light. Soft light is very even in its illumination, with fewer contrasts to confuse your light sensor. Cloudy days and large shaded areas are great sources of soft light. The reason why cloudy weather produces soft light is that the cloud cover effectively is a soft box.


A more technical way of addressing light quality is ratio, which is a quantitative measure of the difference between the light reflected from highlights and shadows. Ratio also comes in two forms, reflected and incident. When we talk incident we are measuring the light that hits an object, whereas reflected measures the light reflected from an object. An incident ratio reading is by far the most accurate, while it allows you to measure two or more points. However it is not really practical in many situations, as it is impossible to take incident metering’s on a of a mountain range, here a reflected ratio is much more applicable, however it is easily fooled if it is measuring the intensity between the light reflecting from an object of none uniform tone where some parts are highlighted others are shaded.

How to Ratio of light influence our photo.

Lighting ratios for still photography express the difference in reflected bright ness on the highlight side of the face vs the shadow side. A ratio of 2:1 indicates the highlighted side of the face reflects twice as much light at the shaded side. 


Ratios cheat schema


Time it or adapt

I am not claiming that hard light equals no portrait shooting; on the contrary. Portraits with hard light, when used right, can produce rewarding images. Soft light has that weakness, that it easily becomes bland, typical and dull. Directional light, for instance used in backlight really can be decisive.

But there are situations were timing is key; there will be no adapting of techniques that can yield the same photos as timing can give. One of these times is the golden hour, surrounding sunset and raise; its light is treasured by landscape photographers. With a diffuse light so gentle, and vivid; this light is so very different that afternoon light which is harsh and often leaves subjects looking flat. 

2 thoughts on “It’s all about the Quality of the light

  1. Another good article that helps build my knowledge, cheers!

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