The Qualities of Light & Shadow Part 1: Harsh and Soft Light

By Mark Fenton

We all have seen stunning fashion photography, watched thrilling horror films, and cooed at cute baby photos, but what makes these images so compelling? The answer is many things, but two essential parts are light and shadow, and how well they are used.

One of the most elemental qualities to light and shadow is harshness and softness. I’ll demonstrate this with the photos below.

SmallBigLightSourceOften, a soft light is created when the light is highly diffused and comes from a large source. This could be the setting sun going through more atmosphere than the mid-day sun (1/2 of the sky becomes your source of light!), or a large translucent fabric diffusing a photography flash, such as a “soft-box” or umbrella attached to the light. This kind of lighting is probably more common, and much of the time you will want soft light.

On the opposite end of the spectrum you have harsh lighting. This kind of lighting is most often created by a small and intense single point of light.

Notice here the key difference – big and diffused light source equals soft transition from highlight to shadow, small and intense source equals harsh and well-defined line between highlight and shadow.

 

Quality of Light Comparison

The only difference between these photos is the quality of light; a large 43 inch Flash umbrella on the left, and a portable flash with about a 4 inch width on the right.

Harsh light can be created by an unaffected camera flash, a theater spotlight, or the brightest mid-day sun. This kind of light is often considered more moody or dramatic. This kind of lighting might be used to add drama to a monologue in a play or for a more intense variety of portraiture.

There are many ways to work with these two kinds of light. Check back for part 2 of this series for simple, affordable and effective ways to use these qualities to your advantage in your photography. You don’t have to be an expert to learn to see the qualities in light, and use them to your advantage.

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