How To Evaluate Light Quality

By Geoff Harris

What is Good Light And How Can You Tell? 

How To Evaluate Light
Good light is fundamental to great photography, and is the one constant element amongst all the different genres. Whether you shoot war zones, wisteria or wolves, the search for good light is something that unites all photographers.

But what is 'good' light and how can you tell if the light you are faced with is good or not?

The quality and softness of light

Autumn forest in the mist. How To Evaluate Light
There is a reason that most landscape photographers get up early, and often prize cloudier skies over bright blue ones. The light in the morning or at dusk (the so called golden hour) has a wonderful quality, and it's the same in summer or winter.

Colours and hues look warm and mellow and while there may be dramatic shadows, they are not overpowering. Remember, the larger the light source, the softer the light.

Forest in magic evening light How To Evaluate Light

So the sun blazing high in the sky is actually a very hard, small light source compared to the light coming through an overcast sky. The latter causes less problematic shadows, so think about this when you want to do some landscape work.

Lighting for portraits

Back Lit, portrait, Hiker, How To Evaluate Light
The same principles hold true when photographing people, which is why photographers use soft boxes or umbrellas to soften the light source before it hits the model's face.

They also carefully angle and redirect the direction of light, and adjust the distance between the light source and the model for creative effects.

Back Lit, portrait, Hiker, How To Evaluate Light

This is obviously easier in the studio. If you need to shoot somebody outside, try and do it when the sun has gone in, get the sun behind them or at the very least move them into the shade!

Think about the direction of light

Iceland How To Evaluate Light
The reason sunrise and sunset are so great for photography is that the light is more horizontal. It grazes the subject (or kisses it if you are in a romantic mood), adding depth and dimension.

The softness of the light at that time creates a pleasing 'glow.' It's the same with portraiture and nature work – side-lighting is simply more aesthetically pleasing than overhead vertical light hitting the subject full in the face.

This also applies to flash, which is why it's best to avoid hitting your subject directly with a harsh beam of flash light. Far better to bounce it/angle it, or diffuse it.

How to find good light in a hurry

How To Evaluate Light

Wedding photographers are masters at making the most of available light, as they can't postpone the wedding because the light isn't good enough, or even go back the next day.

A good wedding photographer, however, will have visited the venue beforehand to get a sense of where the nicest light falls at the particular time of year, and you can do the same with your photography. Another wonderfully easy tip is to stick your hand out, moving around to see how the light falls across your palm or palm edge.

This will give you a quick sense of where you need to be. So, remember to think about the intensity and direction of light and you will find it much easier to recognise 'great light' when you see it – and make contingency plans when it's not there.

Further Study

Exposure: Understanding Light A 4 week online photography course with International landscape photographer Nigel Hicks.

Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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