Understanding Light – its quality


What’s all this about the quality of light? Philip Dunn shows you how to recognise good light – and improve it when it’s not so good.

When asked to define the quality of light, there are some photographers who go all precious and claim it’s the sort of thing that only ‘artistic’ people (like themselves presumably) can recognise. Well, as I’m only a simple photographer I’ll try to be a bit more objective.

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You must be able to see the quality of light when you are taking pictures. High quality light has no harsh, sharp edges on the shadows. It’s soft and there is detail in those shadows – yet the light can still be directional as in this still life picture taken in a potter’s dusty studio. Photograph by Philip Dunn



I think of the quality of light in terms of its softness or harshness. Its diffuseness or clarity. High quality light brings a luminescence to the shadows and reduces – but does not lose – contrasts between shadows and highlights. Once you know what to look for, you will be able to recognise high quality light when it’s there. The real bonus is that when you realise what’s going on, you may well be able to alter and enhance the quality of your light by using some very simple tricks.

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At midday when the sun is glaring down from a clear sky the light will be very poor, hard quality top light. That’s the time to hunt pictures in the shade. Here I have found a great subject and the quality of the indirect, reflected light is excellent. Look on the floor at either side of the man and you can see just how hard and poor that direct sunlight is outside – that hard light is also cutting across his right shoulder and the right side of the box he is sitting on. But he is in shade and there was a white wall behind me reflecting light back onto him. This has created excellent soft light that shows all the folds in the blanket covering his knees – and the creases in his face. Photograph by Philip Dunn

If you photograph someone standing out in the open, on a sunny, cloudless day you’re going to get hard, sharply-outlined, empty black shadows. I’d call that poor quality light. The sun may be almost a million miles in diameter, but to a photographer it’s just a dot in the sky – a very small light source – and the smaller the light source, the harder and poorer the quality of the light it offers. Poor quality light has another extreme; if you take that same picture outdoors on a gloomy day with thick cloud cover, you are going to get flat, uninteresting image with no contrast and no indication of the direction of the light source.

Between these two extremes lies a whole range of beautiful high quality, directional light that will enhance almost any subject. So what makes the difference?

If the sun is veiled with just a thin haze of wispy cloud, it will diffuse the light and soften the shadows. The light can still be directional, but the outline of the shadows will be less defined – softer. There will be detail in those shadows and I’d call that high quality light… directional yet slightly diffused.


You can learn about the quality of light when you join Philip Dunn on a 121 photography course


The sort of conditions that produce high quality light are frequently created in the late afternoon when the sun is low in the sky and shining through a hazy atmosphere that has built up during the day. It is a good idea to have a particular subject in mind for the occasions when these conditions occur because they are very special and will not last very long. If you do have a subject in mind, you will be able to go straight to it, be in position and use every minute of the high quality directional light.


If you really have to photograph someone in strong sunlight, there is a simple way to convert that hard light into soft, high quality light – and it costs nothing. All you need is a white wall.

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Dreadful hard light is NOT suitable for portraiture




PICTURE A – using the hard sunlight with the white wall behind the subject and the sun behind the camera. The result is dreadful, with hard, empty black shadows. Not only that, but it is uncomfortable for your model to stare straight into the sun. This is no way to photograph a lady – or anyone else for that matter. Don’t do it.





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Same lady, same light, but photographed using a reflector to soften the light




PICTURE B – by turning my subject right around, putting the wall behind me and photographing into the light the effect on the model’s face is fantastic. Now her face is lit by soft, high quality, reflected light from the wall. Just look how it has lit up her eyes, softened her features and flattened away those ‘laughter lines’.

Yes, there are downsides – flare in the lens can be a problem when photographing into the light. Use a lens hood. Don’t use light green or brightly-coloured walls as reflectors – they will give a nasty colour cast.



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It is very easy to raise the quality of light when shooting close-ups like this. Just a small sheet of white paper will do the trick. Soft sunlight is coming from the right side of the picture. The reflective paper has been held out of shot to the left and this has lit the shadows with soft, diffused light – couldn’t be more simple. Photograph by Philip Dunn


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The lifejackets have been photographed in the wide-open doorway of the lifeboat house. There is no direct sunlight, so the light source (the whole doorway) is very big. The larger the light source, the softer will be the shadows. Add a little reflected light from white walls inside the building, and the result is beautiful high quality sidelight. Photograph by Philip Dunn


The full version of this article, written and photographed by Philip Dunn, first appeared in Amateur Photographer Magazine

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