For this post we went on a “light walk”. Not a casual stroll, but a seven-mile trek across the Brecon Beacons to discuss light! Here we take a look at some simple techniques for taking better photos outside, with a basic understanding of the difference between hard light and soft light and the effect this has on your image.
When taking photos outside in the day, your light source will be the sun. However, depending on whether your subject is in direct sunlight (hard light) or cloud / shade (soft light) will have a big impact on your photo.
Hard light is created when your light source is small, relative to your subject, and casts harsh shadows. Whereas soft light is produced when the light source is large relative to your subject. Soft light reduces shadows and, according to Wikipedia, can “make a subject appear more beautiful or youthful through making wrinkles less visible.” Now I know Wikipedia has been wrong in the past but if that’s not an incentive to read on then I don’t know what is…
Even though the sun is a fairly large light source (with a radius of 432,288 miles), due to the fact it’s 93 million miles away it is actually relatively small compared to your subject. Think about how it only appears as a small dot in the sky. Direct sunlight therefore produces hard light, casting harsh shadows on your subject.
However, if there’s something in its path, such as clouds, these will act as a diffuser making the light source much larger relative to your subject (the diagram below is my proudest Photoshop moment to date, I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed making it).
Why does this matter? Well… when taking photos of people in direct sunlight, particularly close up portraits, the light is very harsh and casts shadows across your subject’s face, which can appear a little unflattering.
It can be better to take these photos in a more shaded place, where the light is softer and casts lighter shadows.
For photos taken from further away, and including more of the scene, it may be preferable to take them in direct sunlight. However, it’s important to remember the direction of your light source (the sun) and how this is lighting up your subject. Something to bear in mind is that your eye is drawn to the brightest part of the image, therefore, in most circumstances, you want your subject to be the brightest part of your photo. If your subject is facing away from the sun their face will be in shade.
If they turn to face the light source, the light falls on their face making it the brightest part of the image.
When taking photos of landscapes (or cityscapes) you want your scene to be well lit and using direct sunlight is a good way of achieving this. However, if you shoot into the sun, the light will be falling on the far side of the buildings, with the scene in shadow from where you are positioned.
Instead having the sun behind you lights your scene from the front, with the light falling on the side of the buildings facing you. You can either have the sun directly behind you, lighting up your scene evenly from the front, or coming in from a slight angle to capture the shadows of the buildings and add some depth to your image (the mildly astute among you will notice we have now left the Brecon Beacons, this is Zagreb).
These two photos were taken 30 seconds apart but as you can see, simply turning 180° has a dramatic impact on the resulting image.
#HOMEWORK: take a portrait photo of someone in direct sunlight (hard light), and then move him or her into the shade (soft light) and take the same photo. Notice the difference.
Until next week…
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