The black and white photographer’s guide to light and contrast

The black and white photographer's guide to light and contrast

The black and white photographers’ guide to light quality

The black and white photographers' guide to light quality

Many millions of words have been written about the ‘quality’ of light as if it’s some mystical, unknowable phenomenon which can only be recognised and never controlled. Really, though, there’s nothing much to it.

The ‘quality’ of the light is entirely controlled by the size of the light source. You can see this very clearly in portrait photography, where older Hollywood-style shots had very hard, bright lighting with strong, sharp shadows.

This is what you get when you use a small light source, like a tungsten lamp or a naked studio flash head.

Fashions change, though, and these days we’ve moved towards softer lighting effects. One reason is that nearly all portraits these days are in colour, and this kind of lighting doesn’t work so well in colour.

The black and white photographers' guide to light quality

Light can be ‘soft’ but still directional. This has really brought out the badge detail and the rusted bodywork of this old car.

For colour portraiture, and especially for female portraits, the light source needs to be softer. In other words, it needs to be larger.

This is often done by using a ‘brolly’, where the flash is turned away from the subject and pointed up into an umbrella with a silvered or white underside.

The underside of the umbrella bounces the light back towards the subject but now the light source is much larger.

A similar effect can be achieved using a ‘softbox’ – the flash is placed inside a box with a large, translucent panel. This panel then becomes a large, soft light source.

The reflection of the softbox in glossy surfaces really brings out their shape and smoothness.

This is why many photographers use ‘bounced’ flash, where the flash is angled away from the subject towards the celling, a nearby wall or a specially-positioned reflector.

This is partly to change the direction of the light, but mainly to turn it into a much larger, i.e. softer, light source.

Soft lighting is still ‘directional’. You can see where the light is coming from and it casts soft but visible shadows which subtly ‘wrap around’ three-dimensional objects, producing subtle shading effects which makes their depth and contours very clear.

But sometimes the lighting is so soft that it has no clear source or direction at all.

‘Diffuse’ lighting like this is what you get on an overcast day. There are no real shadows, but there is also little sense of depth and, as far as the lighting is concerned at least, very little visual interest.

Diffuse lighting can be useful for some subjects, like close-ups and general record shots, where it’s important simply to record the image detail as clearly as possible, but it tends not to produce very interesting pictures.

PAGE 1: The black and white photographer’s guide to lighting direction
PAGE 2: The black and white photographer’s guide to light quality
PAGE 3: Understanding point source lighting
PAGE 4: Working with natural light in black and white
PAGE 5: Metering tips for black and white photographers
PAGE 6: Exposure tips for black and white photographers


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