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The Quality of Light in Digital Photography

It is crucial to give much attention to the quality of light, so that the lighting of your photo is in line with what you want to express. For example, for a rather “dramatic” scene, strong contrasts will be preferred, while for a “softer” scene (e.g., a vacation photo), soft and low dense shadows will be more appropriate.
At first blush, it may seem too difficult to manage the quality of light (it is true that some studio lighting can be very complex), but it is nonetheless possible, with a few simple ways to achieve effects that can really change the rendering of your photo.

The way in which your subject is lit is a very important starting point. For example, by being attentive to the different reflections, you’ll get quickly used to move, to minimize unwanted reflections in the key locations of your scene. Similarly, by observing the shadows on the faces of people, you can ask them to move for better lighting (e.g., put the subject in the shade to avoid the strong contrasts of the noon sun, askĀ  them to turn to a 3/4 view rather than full face or ask them to move closer to a white surface, which will act as a reflector)(, etc.).

Of course, there is no “best lighting” in absolute terms; the best lighting is the best match to your intention, the mood you want to express or the message you want to give with your photo. By being attentive to the light “on the field”, you can easily and effectively improve your understanding of light and eventually produce better photos.

In general, there are 2 types of light; natural and artificial.

lighting in digital photography


Natural light: changes according to the time and the weather

For the natural light, the quality depends on the weather and the time of the day.

In the morning and the afternoon, when the Sun is low in the sky, the light is grazing, which is good to highlight the shapes and textures (ideal for landscapes and architecture). This type of light can also be used in portraits shaped with shadows (e.g. only one half of the face is highlighted).

Around noon, especially in summer, everything is lit by a light that is directed from top to bottom, which is not ideal for portraits, because it creates harsh shadows under the eyes and the nose and it is generally regarded as less aesthetic. This is more obvious in clear weather. A simple solution to avoid these difficulties is to make portraits in the shade.

In cloudy weather, light is much more diffuse (filtered through the clouds), the shadows are much milder. This type of light is sometimes considered as less interesting, missing contrasts. However, it is also a light that is very easy to handle, because it generates little marked shadows. The location of the subject to light therefore has little importance, which can be very practical if you have little time and few opportunities to place the subject.

For the photos that you really care about (those for which you want a specific lighting), it is better to wait for a more convenient time (e.g. change of the weather) before taking the photo, or even identify the sites and return when light is more convenient.


Artificial light: role of the size and the power of the source

The advantage of artificial light, is that you can control it more easily than the natural light. The disadvantage is that you need more equipment and knowledge. However, again, there are a few simple tips to create and manage artificial lighting.

The main limits relate to the size of the source and the power of lighting. If you photograph small objects, a desk lamp will do, both in terms of size and power. However, for most people, it may be more difficult to find a large enough source, which will not make the shadows too hard, and strong enough for the sensitivity of the digital camera.

For the power, steerable flashes and yard lighting kits allow to create an already fairly large amount of light. It may be a good solution, instead of investing in more expensive studio equipments.

With regard to the relative size of the source, there is a simple trick: use indirect lighting. Instead of directly lighting the subject with a small source (like a flash), use a white surface (e.g. a wall or a ceiling) next to the subject. The light rays will be distributed in different directions, resulting in softer shadows.


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