Natural Light Photography: using soft and hard light
Shadows can help a picture, providing a feeling of depth or texture. But they can also hinder. They can be too strong and dark, obscuring detail. Fortunately, the strength of shadows can vary – depending on the harshness of the light source – enabling you to tailor the effect to the subject.
Outdoors, it’s clouds that have the greatest effect on the strength of the light. The clouds diffuse the light, scattering the rays, so that shadows are not as noticeable. The amount of diffusion varies enormously.
Direct light creates the strongest shadows, but even then shadows are not completely dark outdoors; these areas are still lit indirectly to some extent by light that is reflected off the ground, from buildings, or from the atmosphere itself (this is known as skylight).
Try waiting for a break
Many outdoor scenes will look their best if you can find a halfway house between full-on direct lighting and the highly diffused lighting created by heavy cloud cover.
Strong, direct sunlight can create too much contrast, making it impossible to get an exposure that will show detail in the darkest and brightest parts of the scene. Highly diffused light often means there is too little contrast, so your shot could look flat and dull.
So on an overcast day, it’s best to wait for a slight break in the clouds to add the contrast and colour that will bring the shot alive (as in our sequence above). On sunny days, you should do the opposite – waiting for light cloud to help reduce the contrast in the scene.
Clouds and colour
Hard lighting suits some subjects, and soft lighting suits others. The difference between the two is not just in the contrast that they produce in the scene: light will also have an effect on the colour.
Direct light tends to produce the strongest colours – outdoors this produces deep blue skies and picture-postcard scenes. This works well for architectural shots and landscapes, for instance – particularly if you want your shots to look ‘pretty’, rather than sombre and moody.
Our main sunlit shot of Notre Dame cathedral (see the top of this section) has stronger colours, and is likely to appear more pleasing to most people, than the alternative shot below, with the famous Paris building in shadow.
When taking portraits, however, strong direct light creates a mass of unwanted shadows, creating dark, heavy shadows in the eye sockets and under the nose that looks particularly unflattering. Facial features usually look better if shot with diffused light, with the person’s face essentially thrown into shadow
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