Qualities of Light: How to Play with Light

By Christine Olick, Web designer for slygirlstudios.com

Quality of light is very important when creating photographs. The texture of the object and its surroundings can change the overall effect, but one can enhance a photograph by controlling the source and direction of light being shined upon the object.

All objects both absorb and reflect light in varying degrees, depending on the texture of the surface of the subject being photographed. The amount of light reflection can affect the color and amount of detail perceived by the eye and camera. The manner in which light is reflected from the surfaces of objects can be described by the terms specular and diffuse.

Specular reflection is characteristic of very smooth surfaces such as shiny metal or glass. Concentrated ight is reflected in a glarey "hot spot" or highlight.  It may include the light from the light source and light reflecting from adjacent objects (ex: a marble countertop or mirror).  Diffuse reflection is an innate characteristic of textured, matte (not glossy) surfaces.

The above photo is an example of specular reflection, by debbi

The above photo is an example of diffuse reflection, by ginette1224

Light absorption occurs when surfaces, textures, or colors absorb much of the light that strikes them. Dark objects absorb more light than objects that appear lighter. Objects that appear a certain color because that color is reflected back to our eyes while the other colors of the spectrum are absorbed by the object. For example, a blue dress appears blue because all colors except for blue are absorbed, leaving only the blue wavelength reflected.

The selection and control of the light source also determines the quality of light. Direct light produces sharp shadows, glare, or bright highlights. Direct light also produces high contrast between brightly lit and deeply shadowed areas of the work.  Areas which are the same color or tone will appear as two different colors or tones if they appear in both brightly lit and shadowed areas. Direct light may add a striking drama to the subject, cause sharp shadows, or may confuse and distract the viewer. Examples of direct light would be a studio spot light, camera flash, or a beam of sunlight.

The above photo is an example of direct light shining down on the subject, creating a dramatic contrasting shadow, by KookyKangaroo

The above photo is an example of direct light shining from the right-back side. The sharp shadow adds depth and playfulness to the work, by squareq

The above photo is an example of direct light made by a camera flash, by kimberlyw1

Diffuse light produces soft-edged shadows or no shadows (such as under the light tent) and is produced by filtered light sources (such as an overcast sky) or by reflectors from which the light is reflected indirectly towards the subject (such as aluminum panels). There will be no glare or bright highlights, and overall contrast of the image will be reduced. Tones and colors will appear more even than with direct light, and textures will be minimized. You can achieve diffuse lighting effects by placing a semi-transparent barrier between the light source and the object being photographed. Examples would be a thin white sheet, tracing paper, or even a t-shirt.

The above photo is an example of diffused light shined on the subject, creating an airy, soft shadow, by DuckTapeRose

Changing the direction of the light or adding multiple light sources can increase visual interest as well. Fill lights or supplementary lights can be used in addition to illuminate shadowed areas. Usually these secondary lights are dimmer and placed farther away from the subject than the main light.

The above photo is an example of a light source coming from the right side, adding drama and depth to the subject, by schneider

The above photo is an example of multiple light sources. Here there are two lights, one on either side of the subject, by MetalandMineral