Light is the foundation for all great photos. Great photographers can both read the light and manipulate it to meet their needs. Even if light manipulation is out of the realm of most photographers, knowing a little about the quality of light can still help you in your photography. The quality of light is one of the key distinctions between two photographs. Today I am going to briefly discuss the quality of light as it is influenced by the size of your light source.
In general, a larger light source relative to your subject will produce a softer, more flattering light with diffused shadows, soft highlights and low contrast than that of a smaller light source. A smaller light source will produce harsher, more contrasty light that will yield sharply defined shadows, more contrast and large, bright highlights. Relative is the key in this statement though.
The sun, though physically larger than any other light source you can find, is only a very small, point source in relation to your subject. It produces very strong, harsh, directional shadows and high contrast photographs. An overcast day on the other hand provides very soft, even light with diffused shadows. The clouds act as a diffuser and become a massive light source relative to your subject. If you have ever been to a professional photographer for a portrait session, you will have seen this in action. They will likely have used large 42″ umbrellas or 60″ softboxes to act as a large light source. This allows them to create soft lighting and shadows we find attractive in a portrait.
How can you apply this knowledge in your photography? Look for large light sources for low contrast, soft light images, and try to use smaller light sources for images where you want a harsher light. Soft (large) light sources include the shade of a tree, an overcast sky, or a large window, either with shears drawn, or without direct sunlight filtering in. Small light sources include light from a flash, either on or off camera or as I mentioned earlier, the sun.
Get out and try it to see for yourself. Shoot a subject in bright, directional sunlight, and again under an overcast sky. Soft light is not always the best light, but learning to identify it, and when to use will certainly improve your photography.
The digital photography tip of the week is written by the PCIN Assistant Editor, Chris Empey. Chris is a long time photographer and is currently the President of the Niagara Falls Camera Club. You can see more of his photography at his Photo of the Day website.
If you have a tip to send Chris, or a question about digital photography he can address in the newsletter, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.