We™ve heard it time and time again how photography œis all about The Light. And of course this maxim is true; no light equals no photograph. The problem newbie and amateur photographers have is figuring out the difference between good light and bad light. This article will attempt to illuminate (wink) the difference.
In truth there is no such thing as bad light. You can achieve GREAT photography with any light so long as that light suits the mood of the photograph. High noon is a great example. Most portrait photographers avoid high noon light because the sun casts dark shadows under the subject™s eyes. The light during this part of the day is very harsh and portrait photographers tend to prefer softer light. That said let™s say you are trying to get that effect for some reason. You want your subject™s eyes to be dark because it looks more dramatic and suits the final result; well then in this case high noon rocks!
The image on the left is soft — The image on the right shows hard undiffused light
In terms of safe, soft and beautiful light where you don™t want to think too much, the golden hour is a great time to shoot. The golden hour is the last hour before the sun sets and the first hour after sunrise. It™s called the golden hour because the sun is at a lower angle so it™s less intense and creates softer shadows. To make this easy, this is what the average photographer (pro or amateur) usually wants. Similarly, placing a model under a shady tree is generally safe for the average portrait session because there too, the light is softer.
Still confused, here comes the spoon. Softer light makes you squint less than hard light. Softer light is more diffused than hard light. The sun straight on a face is hard. The sun coming through clouds is much softer. Direct light coming in through a window is hard. Light coming through that same window with the curtains drawn is much softer. The direct flash of a studio light or a portable flash is hard. That same light bounced off a white wall, diffused through a softbox or bounced into an umbrella is much softer.
This brings us to the question, is hard light bad? The answer of course is no. Let™s say you want to create a very dramatic one light portrait with crisper, harsher, deeper, blacker shadows then what are you going to use; hard light of course. If you are in the studio some of your lights may be softer, but your background light may be hard and some of the accent light may be hard as well in order to get crisper more specular light in specific areas of the photograph. A fashion model with great skin and a great makup artist can often handle a harsher light and these types of shots often look very crisp.
Something worth noting in this digital age is that currently digital sensors can handle less of a range in light (from dark tones to light tones) than older film cameras. In practical terms this means that you are more likely to blow out (overexpose/clip) the whitest parts of the scene and this is bad because once the white parts are clipped there is no easy way to get them back and you™ll have to resort to ˜tricks™ to salvage the photo. This scenario will rarely work out as well as if the scene had been shot in a reduced brightness range.
Practically speaking in portrait photography, if the model is under a shaded tree, all the tones will reproduce will because you™re in the shade it™s not so bright. Take the model out into the sun in the middle of the day and your camera will likely be unable to successfully capture the entire brightness range of the scene you are shooting.
At the end of the day it makes good sense to get aquainted with as many different qualities of light as possible as one day you™ll likely need a different quality of light for a particular shot.