Light is the key element in a photograph that affects the overall exposure, and many other aspects, such as colour, grain and mood, which all contribute to the final look and style. Most settings on an SLR camera, such as white balance, ISO, aperture, flash and shutter speed, are ways to try and control the light in any given shooting situation (whether the light sources are natural, artificial, or a combination of both), in order to get the best possible photographs.
However a photographer also needs to consider other things beyond the camera settings, to be able to achieve good results whenever they shoot in natural light, especially the time of day. The time of day will affect whether the light will be hard or soft.
Hard light is light that has no cover (such as trees or clouds overhead) to diffuse it. A bright, sunny day is the most obvious example, when the sun is in the middle of the sky between the hours of 10am-3pm, and is strongest at midday. This type of image is called “high contrast”, because strong tones are present in both the highlights and shadows.
Bright light on sunny days is too harsh for portraits, because shadows will form in the sockets of the eyes and under the nose on a subject’s face, and will cause squinting, as it has in the photos below, taken in the midday sun. However, as photographers, we don’t always have the luxury of deciding when we can shoot. Whenever shadows are out of proportion with highlights, adjustments need to be made to balance things out.
Light that passes through material, or that is reflected off a surface that causes it to disperse (or diffuse) before it falls on a subject in a photograph, is called soft light, because it casts less heavy shadows and gives more even coverage. This includes partially cloudy days, early mornings (just after the sun comes up), and in the afternoon as the sun starts to set, when the light is less intense, but there is a lovely golden glow.
Many photographers won’t shoot at any time of day other than in the “golden hours” during sunrise or sunset, but this can really limit the types of photos you can take, and it won’t help you improve as a photographer when you have no choice but to take photos during the midday hours on holidays, or at an important event, such as a wedding or birthday party.
In many sunny locations, there will be areas where you can find diffused light, or open shade away from the sun. Portraits are better when taken in soft light, because there is less chance of shadows being projected onto a subject’s face, as well as less contrast between the highlights, midtones and shadows. The images below were taken in the same location as the image above, in an open garden between 12 and 1pm, but the subjects were moved to an area with diffused light, where shadows couldn’t fall on them.
One thing to remember when shooting on a partly cloudy day is that when clouds move, the amount of coverage they provide from the sunlight will continuously change. This will affect the exposure, and the camera settings will need to be adjusted to suit the ambient light every time the clouds shift, which can be annoying.
Finally, don’t confuse diffused light with low light. Shooting on a partially cloudy day or in open shade isn’t the same as taking photographs on a completely cloudy day or in total shade. Images taken in dark cloud or shade can appear flat and cold, or greyish and moody, so in those shooting situations, try and adjust your white balance settings accordingly.