Light: Degree of Difussion

Let’s start talking about degree of diffusion. Light can fall on your subject in different intensities. There is hard light, soft light, and anything in between.

Hard Light

Hard light or hard-contrast light produces hard-edged shadows. These shadows are sharp and clearly defined. These shadows bring dramatic effects and boldness; they give a strong definition of what’s in your picture. Hard light is about texture and contrast. Examples of hard lights are the sun, and camera flashes.
With hard light shadows are most likely to be visible. And the position of the light source in reference to the object will determine the length and position of the shadows. In other words, light will make longer or shorter shadows as well as where they will be located. You can easily see this everyday, go out around noon and you will see small shadows beneath the trees, cars, and people. Go back a few hours later when the sun is close to sunset and shadows will be a lot longer and located to the opposite side of the sun.

TIP If you are taking pictures of people outside in a bright sunny day or with any other type of hard light, you can ask people to close their eyes for a few seconds before the picture. You tell them that at the count of three everyone will open their eyes for a second without squinting their eyes and making unnatural gestures. This also works great in group pictures where you know, there may be someone who closes his or her eyes right when you take your picture.

TIP Avoid pointing your camera to the bright sun without any filter and longer periods of time. It could damage your image sensor. And even worse if you are looking through a viewfinder, it could also hurt your eyes. Sunsets and sunrises are fine. The light of the sun is not too bright, but be careful if the sun is the only thing you are focusing on in your picture.

Soft Light

Soft light or low-contrast light sources produce soft-edge shadows. In other words, these shadows are soft and not well defined. If you approach the image very close you won’t be able to easily tell where the shadow starts and where it finishes.

Soft light tends to “wrap” around objects. If you wanted to wrap an object with a piece of fabric, you would need a bigger piece of fabric for that object in order to cover it completely. The same principle is applied with light. You need a bigger source of light than the object in order to “wrap” that object with light. This means that light will fill most of the object filling in more of the potential shadow areas. And when the light source is small, it won’t have enough coverage to wrap around and fill the shadows. However, no matter how big your light source is, you lose softness when the light source is farther. Think of the sun. The sun is bigger than any object in earth, but it casts strong shadows because it is far away. But when we have cloudy days, the light of the sun spreads all over the clouds and light comes almost from everywhere in the sky.

So soft light depends on the distance and size of the source of light. The closer the light source, the softer it becomes. And the the larger the light source, the softer it becomes. Soft light can be found during overcast or foggy days. You can also find it at home through semitransparent window curtains diffusing the light from the sun. Soft light may bring some peace, nostalgia, and sensibility to your pictures. There are not hard shadows. You won’t notice hard textures, but shapes.

IMAGE an object showing difference between hard and soft light.

Hard light or soft light, which is better?

So which type of light is better? No one type of light intensity is better than the other, it all depends on what you want to accomplish. In fact many times you may even want a mixture of both in different degrees. However, you will often find that choosing your light intensity won’t always be possible. This is why photographers use different techniques, tools and ideas to try to adjust light intensity. Some of these are screens, reflectors, flash, softboxes, umbrellas, or any other materials that diffuse light.

These are some photography tools and equipment to diffuse light. Click on any image to see name tool/equipment, features, reviews, price and comments in Amazon about each one of them.


Controlling light intensity

As a beginner, don’t worry about buying expensive and fancy tools. You may want to get them later if you want, but it really isn’t necessary for now. You can make your own tools or find different solutions. For example, you can find diffuse light under the shade of a tree. You can cover the light with something semitransparent (be careful not to put it too close that it may burn with the heat), and even a regular umbrella may do it.

The idea of learning the two types of light intensity is for you to recognize the effects in your picture and decide how you want your picture. And do you remember at the beginning of the book on the section of creativity? Here it is where you can come up with your own ideas and solutions to solve your lighting problems.


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