Learning reflection – Light

I thought it would be helpful to document some of my learning about light. Part 4 of the course concentrates on the importance of light. Exercise 4.2 encourages a consideration of natural light. Exercise 4.3, of artificial light, and 4.4 of studio lighting.

The course notes explain that light can be understood in terms of quality, contrast, direction and colour. I wanted to look at this in a bit more detail as part of my overall learning and preparation for my assignment in this part of the course.

My main source for this post is the book : Read this if you want to take great photographs (Carroll, H. 2014) I didn’t intend to directly lift so much text from this book but I really couldn’t re-phrase much of it, since it was relevant and concise. I found the chapters on light very helpful and the book a good lead to examples of other photographers’ work.

The opening of the chapter on light encourages a consideration of light as an object. Although it is intangible, it has the ‘power of a shape-shifter: the mundane can become beautiful, and the beautiful, mundane’ depending on the light. Light can ‘draw out textures, colour and detail’ and can create ‘depth’ or flatness.

The book says that, in terms of quality, light can be split into two main types:

Hard light

Hard light comes from one direction (for example, from a spotlight or bright sunshine). It creates high contrast, ‘caus(ing) anything in its path to become a highlight, while everything else remains dark’. Contrasts can be used to abstract or simplify a composition. Shadows can mask unnecessary detail, eyes are drawn to the highlights. Hard light can be difficult to work with since detail can be lost in highlights and shadows’. (Carroll p62) Hard light creates depth and can emphasise shapes and texture.

Caroll refers to the photographer Trent Park who uses this kind of light to ‘transform urban landscapes into something less familiar’.  Please see my post on Trent Parke .

Carroll also refers to the work of Faye Godwin, in particular, her image: ‘After Hailstorm (1980):


Image 1

Faye Goodwin-After Hailstorm

Carroll says: ‘In this image, taken just after a hailstorm, a sudden swath of hard sunlight breaks through the clouds, creating dark shadows with razor-sharp edges.’ (p 66). The hard light here makes the stones angular and sharp, creating a three dimensional depth rather than the flatter image created by soft and shadow-less light. The stones look more dramatic and perhaps menacing because of the light.

Soft light

Carroll says: ‘If hard light packs a punch, soft light is more like a massage.’

Soft light is less intense, meaning there is less of a divide between the highlights and shadows. ‘The more even quality tends to make images feel ‘slower’ and more contemplative’ (p64). ‘Soft light casts shadows since it often comes from one direction like hard light’. However, the shadows are softer, the light gentle, suggesting calm rather than drama. Soft, low contrast light makes everything seem flatter with less depth.

Soft light is flattering for portrait images, softening the features and hiding imperfections.  ‘It softens any hard edges and  smooths surfaces. It’s a light that only flatters.’ (p72)

Soft light can be used in unexpected ways to create a sense of confusion by juxtaposing a dramatic image with gentle lighting, or by presenting a normally dramatic scene as very matter of fact.

Ross Hoddinott and Ben Hall, in The Wildlife Photography Workshop, say ‘In almost all aspects of photography, light is critical’ (p58)..’An apparently dull subject can be transformed into something magical under appropriate lighting conditions.’

This brief study of light led me to looking again at the work of photographers who use hard and soft light, it increased my ability to recognise different light and to consider the impact of different lights on an image. There is much written about light and rather than reproduce the work of others here, I wish to record my commitment to reading and researching more about the impact of light on photography, the differing colours of light and the ways in which light is used to different effects by other photographers.

This commitment started on a practical note – I had intended, this weekend, to take my camera to a known local beauty spot often foggy with diffused light in the early and mid morning. Inspired by Sally Mann, I wanted to capture something of the atmosphere created by this light and produce a set of images to capture this. I had taken a test shot some time earlier and felt that my idea might work. Please see my post  Learning reflection-natural light for more about this.

However, this particular weekend morning, as I drove to my destination, it became very doubtful that I would find the soft foggy light I wanted. This was a clear bright day, hard light creating shadows and texture. I changed my plan and determined to capture the contrasts and shapes created by this lovely unexpected light on an early February day. A selection of my images can be seen  in my post: EYV Exercise 4.2 (3) together with a record of some of my thoughts.

The EYV course notes explain that contrast is the ratio between the highlights and the shadows in an image (p88), and in studio lighting it can be controlled by using a fill light. The direction and colour of light are also important considerations. The direction of light determines how the shadows fall, and how shape and texture appear. ‘A lot of the creativity in lighting lies in deciding where to place the key light.’ (p89)

The colour of light can be used creatively ‘but it has a strong connotative element’ so should be used carefully (course notes p89). In The Photographer’s Master Guide to Colour, by Jeff Wignall, it says: ‘colour has a profound ability to tint our mood and our emotional state: we feel blue, we see red, we’re green with envy, and we are tickled pink’ (Wignall p6).

I find it hard at the moment to accurately see and assess the colour and temperature of light but I look forward to becoming more experienced in making colour choices in my images to enhance my creativity.

List of illustrations

Image 1

Goodwin, Faye. After Hailstorm. British Library. At: https://imagesonline.bl.uk/?service=page&action=show_page&name=Fay-Godwin&language=en . Accessed 5 February 2017


Carroll, H (2014)Read this if you want to take great photographs. Laurence King. London.

Hoddinott, R and Hall, B (2014) The Wildlife Photography Workshop. AE Publications. Sussex

Wignall, J. (2014) The photographer’s master guide to Colour. London, United Kingdom: Ilex Pr.



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