Five Qualities of Light

Photographs are made from light. Light is one of our main ingredients. Our cameras are light-capturing devices. So many photographers use light is a central element in their work. Here are the five most important qualities of light to consider about light: quantity, direction, color, contrast, and Hard/Soft.

photograph of an add for Weston Exposure Meter

Don O’Brian

You Need Enough Light

Quantity: In any given situation there is some amount or volume or intensity of light. Most photographers use the meter in their cameras to measure that amount of light. The volume of light entering a camera is controlled by f stop, shutter speed, and ISO. Together, how these are set, determines the exposure. If you are using strobes, flash, LED lights, or a tungsten light source, you can control the amount of light by moving the light closer or farther away, increasing your light’s output, or putting some kind of diffusion material in between the light and your subject. But if the sun is your light source, you can control light by the time of day you shoot, flash fill, diffusion material to soften and reduce the sun and gobos ( a black panel or any sheet of material that blocks or reduces the light falling on a subject.)

exposure triangle diagram

The Direction of Light Matters

Direction: How light falls across your subject will define and shape, as well as hide and reveal the contours and textures of your subject. Does the light come from above or below, from the side or behind? Each will have a very different look, feel, and effect. Adding multiple light sources coming from different directions can be an added element to an image. For instance, the front light can be even and flat, light from the side can be dramatic and show texture. But light from above or below can be menacing or strange. So the possibilities are endless.

photograph of a man exhaling backlit smoke

The Color of Light

Color: Light has a range of colors depending on the light source. Midday light is cold and sterile, but sunlight at the end of the day is often very warm (heavy towards orange and yellow), similarly tungsten has an orange color, while light in shade and on overcast days is very blue. Check out the color sections of this site for a more detailed discussion of color. Color can be a major component of your image that evokes mood, mystery, beauty, or atmosphere.

chart of twilights and magic hour, blue hour, golden hour

Contrast: the Balance of Highlight and Shadow

Contrast: Typically a photograph will be lit primarily with a dominant ‘main light’ source and with secondary light sources acting as ‘fill light.’ The main light source might be the sun, a flash, a strobe, a light bulb, a street light, the sun bouncing off a reflector, or a white wall. The main light source is the strongest contributing light. Some times there can be 2 or more light sources contributing to equal intensity. Secondary light contributes, filling in shadows and reducing the overall contrast. Fill light can come from many sources, like light bouncing off a nearby white building, a flash with an output which is less than the main light, reflectors, available ambient light, or a second light.

quote from Paul Caponigro about contrast in photography

Light can be Hard or Soft, Harsh or Gentle

Hard or Soft: The bigger the source of light, the softer the light, resulting in less contrast. As a result, soft light is often considered a gentler – kinder light, so is usually preferred by portrait photographers. A smaller light source, like the sun, is more contrasty, with harder and darker shadows. So the farther away any light source is, the harder the light becomes and as a result higher contrast and darker shadows. As a result, dark shadows, eye socket shadows, and blown-out highlights are all common dangers. So, move your subject into the shade if you shoot in midday to lower contrast for a portrait. Direct sunlight at the beginning and end of the day is easier to use and provides better light for many subjects. The Magic Hour is a very low contrast time of day, 30 minutes after the sunsets and before the sun rises.

Most importantly, learn what hard and soft light looks like and when to use them.

building in northern Philadelphia

Be Aware of Light and All of Its Qualities

In conclusion, awareness of light and how it works can only help your photography, no matter what your subject or style is. So my advice is to study how great photographers are using light. Are they just using available light? Is there a time of day they prefer? Are they adding light with strobes, reflectors, etc? Is what they are doing give you inspiration for what you want to do with your photographs?

light happens

all day, all around us, everywhere, all the time

ever-changing, light moves across the sky, through windows, up walls, across the floor

backlight, side light, hard light, soft light, shimmering and dull, warm and cool

light illuminates, sculpts, defines, reshaping as it creeps through our world.



Here’s your assignment: watch light. Noticed how different your rooms look through out the day. Watch how the view out your window changes throughout the day and in different weather conditions.