The role of lighting in photography cannot be overemphasized. Photography is all about light.  Hence, lighting can bring a photograph to life. It can generate effects, including spectacular shadows or silhouettes, or it may have a distinctly negative influence by creating unwanted glare and reflections.

Hard And Soft Light

Hard light is known to produce well-defined, dark shadows. The source of hard light is usually a single light source, which is either small or located at a far distance. Soft light, on the other hand, produces either soft shadows or no shadows at all. Generally, the size of the light source is inversely proportional to the hardness of the light. This means that smaller light sources produce harder light and vice-versa.

See also: Early Morning Photography

Soft light can be generated from several light sources, by diffusing light using some kind of barrier (e.g., a diffuser or even just a sheet of paper), or by reflecting light off different surfaces so that the subject is hit from various angles. On a sunny day with little or no cloud cover and when the sun is high in the sky, hard light is produced under natural lighting conditions.

However, shooting in other weather conditions such as cloudy days, foggy conditions, or even when there is air pollution, will produce soft light, as the sun’s rays are reflected or diffused by the particles in the air. You can generate soft using reflectors or diffusers.


A reflector acts as a secondary light source. You can use all sorts of things as reflectors when shooting both indoor and outdoor. Reflectors can range from professional reflectors to ordinary sheet of paper.

See also: The Choice And Use of Reflectors


Clouds are great examples of diffusers under natural lighting conditions. Under artificial lighting conditions, however, any semi-transparent material that diffuses or softens the light can be used. A piece of white cloth can be used as a diffuser when shooting.

It is important to state that both types of light, whether soft or hard have their own advantages which can be taken advantage of in photography. You can use hard light to create images with sharp contrast and highlights, emphasizing shape and texture. Also, hard light can be used to enhance the 3D effect of an image and also to create dramatic effects.

It is, however, difficult to work with hard light.  It is generally considered unsuitable for many if not most situations, particularly when photographing people. Soft light, on the other hand, is more desirable for most photographic situations. This is because it creates lighting that is more even, and which better depicts the colors and shapes of the subject.

Soft light is usually the preferred choice and is the safest actually but the choice of which type of light to use depends on the type of photography, the subject, and the desired effect.

Artificial Vs Natural Light

Sunlight/daylight is what is called natural light. Artificial light refers to light from other sources such as electric lights, flashlight etc. Differences between natural and artificial light are examined below.

Natural light

You have little or no control over natural light as a photographer and it varies greatly depending on so many factors such as time of day, season, weather and so on. You really do not need any special equipment to shoot under natural light except maybe a diffuser.


The choice between natural and artificial light exists for those in portrait photography while those in landscape and wildlife photography have their choice strictly limited to natural light.

These are some factors that affect natural light:

The weather of the area where the photo shoot is taking place determines the type of natural light generated. A sunny lighting condition will generate hard, bright light with shadows that are more defined while a cloudy day generates soft light which is usually the preferred choice in photography as mentioned earlier.

Time of day:

Soft lighting conditions usually exist early or late in the day. Light generated at these times is usually warmer and produces images with less contrast compared to when the sun is high up in the sky. This is why sunset and sunrise are widely considered as ideal times for photography.


Generally, the further you are away from the equator, the longer it takes for the sun to rise or set. The implication of this is that the soft light conditions that exist in early mornings and late evenings cam last much longer in such areas and they pass more quickly when in areas closer to the equator.

Air pollution:

Air pollution works like mist and clouds and acts as a diffuser of sunlight as the beams of light are reflected and scattered by the airborne particles.

Artificial Light

You have more control over artificial light sources but then there are challenges that you face when using artificial light also. You have to understand how various light sources act upon a subject and how to produce the desired effect.

Different light sources can produce soft or hard light when shooting in a studio, however, the photographer has direct control over elements such as hardness, distance, intensity, and angle. Also, artificial light from different sources yields different color heat signatures.

Halogen bulbs are cooler and produce blue colored light while tungsten bulb, on the other hand, generates light that is hotter with a reddish hue. Bear in mind that when shooting with light from different artificial sources, they must produce the same color heat signature unless you are shooting in black and white.

Light Intensity And Depth Of Field

A certain amount of light is needed by the camera to create a picture on the digital camera when shooting a photograph. The ISO, the aperture setting, as well as the shutter speed all, determine the amount of light that is required. You can capture images under various light conditions. You can shoot landscape images on a sunny day which means shooting with high-intensity light.

See also: The DOF Concept

Beginners may be tempted to believe that this is the ideal condition. However,  shooting with high-intensity light should be avoided as much as possible to prevent pictures with low detail and high contrast. On the other hand, a cloudy day generates diffused light with lower intensity.

This type of light either casts faint or no shadows at all. It also smoothens gradients, improves color accuracy, at the same time preserves texture. High ISO setting and/or long shutter speed is required for shooting in dark conditions where there is very little light.


ISO is the rating of the light sensitivity of the sensor of the digital camera. It usually ranges from between 100-12,800, with these numbers signifying the level of amplification that the sensor applies. A lower ISO results in an image with less noise but more light will be required and ultimately longer exposure time.

Increasing the ISO, on the other hand, will make the sensor amplify the light, thereby allowing shots to be taken in darker conditions. Higher ISO, however, will produce more noise, leading to a picture that will appear grainy. The size of the camera sensor plays an important role as larger sensors produce less noise and hence better images. However, the cost of such cameras is significantly higher.

Shutter Speed

The shutter,  placed in front of the sensor opens to allow light to reach the sensor when taking a picture. The longer the shutter is left open, the more light reaches the sensor. High shutter speeds are required when shooting moving subjects so as to reduce the amount of movement during the time that the shutter is open. This will enable freezing the subject.

When shooting at night, however, long shutter speeds are useful as the camera requires more light to create the picture. This is why shooting at night will generate more noise. However,  this can be improved by adding camera stabilization such as a tripod.


The opening in the lens through which light travels is called an aperture. The size of the aperture is varied using a diaphragm. The wider the aperture, the more light allowed in to reach the sensor and vice-versa. Aperture settings are known as f/stops.

Smaller numbers (such as f/1.0 to f/3.5) signify the largest aperture opening. They allow the most amount of light to get to the sensor.  Larger numbers such as f/22 decrease the aperture size and allow lesser light to pass through the lens. The Depth of Field (DoF) of a phone is also dependent on the aperture setting.

See also: Basic Settings On a Camera

The DoF represents the distance between the nearest and the farthest point at which the image appears to be in focus.

Automatic Mode

When in automatic mode, the aperture/shutter combination is chosen by the camera. This is based on its perception of the most suitable settings for taking the photo. It works well and often produces decent results but it is not always accurate.

Manual control

You are able to shoot in different camera modes depending on the style of phone you are aiming for. Aperture priority, Shutter priority, and full manual mode are some of the most common camera modes.

Aperture priority allows you to set the desired aperture while the camera calculates the correct shutter speed.
Shutter priority mode allows you to set the exposure time. When you are shooting moving subjects, such as in sports photography, high shutter speed is important. You are able to freeze the subject.  However when you are shooting under night conditions, choosing a slow shutter speed is necessary. It allows the sensor is able to collect enough light.

In full manual mode, the photographer has full control of both the shutter and aperture settings in full manual mode. This allows an experienced photographer with a full understanding of the effect of all these settings to precisely control the way each image is captured.


This article provides insight into the light and the ways it is adapted to achieve the desired result in photography. It opens the minds of beginners into the world of photography. It educates them on some basic concepts they have to know to ensure they have a great photography career.

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Author: Arinze

A Photography enthusiastic. I work with a group of other professional photographers to provide you tips on photography

About Arinze

A Photography enthusiastic. I work with a group of other professional photographers to provide you tips on photography

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