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Writing with light. That is what photography means. Light is the key to photography. In the right light, every subject is beautiful, while the wrong light can ruin even the most remarkable image. Light is constantly changing and these changes impact the photographs we create. Over the next few weeks, we will take a look at the different aspects of light.
Lets begin with the quality of light. Light can be described as being either hard or soft, depending on its directionality. Hard light is highly directional, lighting up one side of the subject while throwing the opposite side into shadow. While it can come from any direction, hard light creates a high contrast situation in which the subject is partly lit and partly shadowed.
Photographically speaking, the challenge of hard light is contrast. Imagine walking outside at noon on a sunny day. The brightness difference between the areas in the sun and the shade is dramatic. Hard light creates bright highlights and dark shadows and the camera is limited in its ability to record these differences. As a result, we are forced to compromise, prioritizing the elements of the scene.
Despite its limitations, hard light can help create stunning images. The golden light surrounding sunrise and sunset is called the magic hour for a reason. It is dramatic and has impact. A key photographic expression is, “light reveals, shadow defines.” The combination of light and shadow work together to give a two dimensional photograph a sense of depth, helping to give the illusion of three dimensions.
Soft light, on the other hand, surrounds the subject, coming from multiple directions at once. Again, imagine walking outside at noon, but this time the day is overcast. The light comes from everywhere, rather then a single direction. Shadows are less distinct, if not absent. While the directionality of light is lost, soft light has its own beauty. The even distribution of light helps to bring out the smaller details of the scene, working especially well for both macro and portrait photography.
The image of the two giraffe above was captured in the northern Serengeti about an hour before sunset. The golden color of the light was enhanced by smoke in the air from a controlled burn in the area. The image was captured using a Canon 1Ds mark 3, 120-300mm Sigma lens with a 1.4 teleconverter (set to 420mm), at 400 ISO. The photograph was taken from a vehicle and a beanbag was used to support the camera.