Sun beams shining through the clouds - always an atmospheric way of capturing lightAs photographers, we work with light, therefore it is important to understand how to use and maximize it!

There are three main characteristics of light that you need to understand and exploit in your photography: the direction, the colour and the intensity.

The intensity of the light is immediately apparent by the quality of the shadows; harsh, direct light creates deep, strong shadows, while soft light creates much softer shadows. The location of the shadow tells you where the light is coming from, as the light comes from the opposite side to the shadow.

How hard or soft light appears is due to it’s apparent size from the position of the subject. A small light source gives hard, direct light while a large light source produces softer, more diffuse lighting. It is not the actual size of the light that matters, but it’s size in relation to the position of the subject – for example, the sun is massive, but still produces hard light, because we are very far away from it.

Light Direction

The direction of the light has a huge impact on the shot, and, with a little know-how, anyone can create different effects with a lamp and a subject (and, of course, a camera).

Front Light

This effect is generated by in-camera flash, and shooting with the sun behind you. It produces flat lighting and a sharp shadow behind the subject. This lighting is fine to bring out detail with, but more dramatic, interesting and useful effects can be achieved by tweaking the light position…

A harsh side light and a dark background have produced a dramatic shotSide Lighting

This effect, where the light is moved to the side of the subject produces much more interesting effects. One side of the subject is well lit, while the other is bathed in it’s own shadow. The intensity of the side light can be varied to produce an effect that casts soft lighting and gives an almost imperceptible shadow, to one that creates hard contrast.


Moving the light behind the subject produces yet another interesting effect. Coloured light placed directly behind can be used to create a ‘halo-effect’, while a backlighting effect that favours one side casts light on the side of the subject, one more so than the other, for example, a girl’s hair.