The Characteristics Of Light & How To Manipulate It

The character and quality of a photograph can be altered by the character and quality of light. Even the most-seasoned photographers puzzle over how a scene should be lit, what lighting angles to use for good results, and what exposure settings will bring out the best detail and tonal shading.

Photo by Mohamed Nohassi on Unsplash

In this article we discuss the characteristics of light and how you can manipulate light to your advantage.

This is part two of our four-part article series on understanding light. You can find the rest of the series here:


  1. Characteristics of Light
    • A. The Tonal Value of Light
  2. Manipulating Light
    • A. The 5-in-1 Reflector

Characteristics of Light

Photographers have a widely agreed upon vocabulary to describe light. This set of terms help when analyzing, visualizing, and manipulating light.

Photo by David Werbrouck on Unsplash

Light is commonly characterized in four categories:

  1. Quality
  2. Intensity
  3. Colour Temperature
  4. Direction

1. Characteristics Of Light: Quality

The quality of light is often described using a spectrum of hard-to-soft light.

Hard light is light that is direct. As a result, this light produces sharp shadows, high-contrast light and emphasizes texture. Hard light is commonly encountered when there is little interference between the light source and the scene or object being photographed. Sunlight, for instance, naturally produces a hard light.

Photo by Greg Rosenke on Unsplash

Soft light is light that is diffused. This light produces soft shadows, low-contrast light and a smooth gradation of tones. Soft light can occur when light is reflected off of a rough surface, passes through a translucent material or scatters through atmospheric conditions like clouds. Sunlight that passes through a thin blind, for instance, creates a soft light.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

2. Characteristics Of Light: Intensity

Intensity of light refers to a light’s brightness.

The brightness of light is important to a photographer not only to get an accurately exposed image. The brightness of light will also determine tonality, detail, contrast, and even the reproduction of certain colours.

Bright lighting will likely create a highly-detailed and sharp photo with vibrant colours. Bright light will usually create deeper and darker shadows.

Photo by Larisa Birta on Unsplash

Dim lighting will likely create a lower-contrast image with muted colours.

Photo by Megan Campagnolo on Unsplash

3. Characteristics Of Light: Colour Temperature

The colour temperature of light is a measurement of its relative warmth or coolness. This is usually measured along the Kelvin scale.

The colour of sunlight, for instance, is constantly shifting along this scale. This is due to Earth’s atmosphere. The visible spectrum of light penetrates Earth’s atmosphere in varying degrees dependent on the amount of moisture, smoke, dust, clouds, carbon dioxide and even the angle at which the sun’s light strikes the Earth. More or less light waves get through under different atmospheric conditions, and it is this variance that results in the different colours of the sky and clouds at noon or at sunset.

Sunlight will typically appear warmer in the early morning and late afternoon/evening (which is commonly known as golden hour) and cooler in the middle part of the day.

Photo by Tim Umphreys on Unsplash

This effect is true for artificial light as well. Incandescent bulbs will emit a warmer light whereas, LED lights will emit a cooler light.

It’s crucial to thoroughly understand colour temperature and the process of white balance in photography in order to render accurate colours in your images.

4. Characteristics Of Light: Direction

The direction of light quite simply refers to the light’s direction relative to your camera.

Skillfully utilizing light direction is crucial to photographing better images.

Photo by Cash Macanaya on Unsplash

Light direction alters not only what part of your subject or scene is illuminated but what is in shadow. As a two-dimensional medium, photography relies on shadows to create depth or the appearance of three-dimensionality.

There are essentially five directions:

1. Direction of Light: Front

Light that illuminates a subject/scene from the same angle as the camera. This most commonly occurs with on-camera flash. This type of light reduces shadow and flattens the features of the subject/scene. It is not recommended in most situations for this reason.

Photo by Brian Lundquist on Unsplash

2. Direction of Light: Side

Light that illuminates a subject/scene from an angle to the side of the camera. This is the best lighting direction for most situations since it is so versatile and the angle can vary greatly. This type of light will light the subject/scene so that there are illuminated and shadow areas—contributing to the overall depth of the image.

Side light can be considered as either broad side or short side. With broad lighting, the side of the face closest to the camera is illuminated. With short lighting, the side of the face furthest from the camera is illuminated. Short lighting is most commonly used to create a cinematic look.

Broad Side Lighting
Photo by Good Faces on Unsplash
Short Side Lighting
Photo by Good Faces on Unsplash

3. Direction of Light: Back

Light that illuminates a subject/scene from behind, shining toward the camera. This is a great light direction to increase depth within an image. It can be used to create silhouetted images or, at golden hour, it can be used to create softer, glow-y images.

Photo by Jad Limcaco on Unsplash

4. Direction of Light: Top

Light that illuminates a subject/scene from above. This type of light is not the most useful since it can create long, unflattering shadows. However, it can be used for great dramatic effect.

Photo by I.am_nah on Unsplash

5. Direction Of Light: Bottom

Light that illuminates a subject/scene from below. This type of light is perhaps the least common since it does not naturally occur in nature. For this reason, its use can produce feelings of tension or unease for the viewer.

You can place light in a multitude of different, precise directions that will all change the way your subject or scene is photographed. Lighting setups will typically employ multiple lights that shine on the subject/scene from different directions for distinct purposes. For instance, a common three-point light setup is to have two side lights on opposite sides where one is stronger than the other and a back light that separates the subject from the background.

Photo by Travis Pawlewski

The Tonal Value of Light

Also known in art and design as ‘value’, tone refers to the lightness or darkness of a colour.

It’s useful to think of tone in terms of a spectrum or a range. On the one end you have the brightest tone of white and, on the other, you have the darkest tone of black. In between these two values you have varying intensities of brightness that can be considered the “tones” of your image.

Color field with different saturation and rainbow colored gradient, spectrum of visible light, all colors of the rainbow from light to dark – square size vector illustration.

You can break any image down into a range of tones:

  • An image that has a larger tonal range will have more detail
  • An image with a smaller tonal range will have less detail

This tonal range is valuable when it comes to using the incredibly important element of “contrast” in photography. Contrast means difference and, in photography, often refers to the difference in either tones or colours.

If your image has a wide range of tones with deep blacks and bright whites, it is considered a high-contrast image. Your image is considered low-contrast if it is mostly composed of mid-tones and there are little bright highlights or dark shadows.

High Contrast
Photo by the blowup on Unsplash

Low Contrast
Photo by Hoach Le Dinh on Unsplash

Photos can also be classified as either high-key or low-key:

  • High-key images are mostly composed of bright tones
  • Low-key images are mostly composed of dark tones
High Key
Photo by Fabian Møller on Unsplash
Low Key
Photo by freddie marriage on Unsplash

Manipulating Light

With a little creativity, you can often manipulate light to look or behave in a certain way.

Below is a list of some common ways that you can reflect, transmit or absorb light in order to achieve a certain result in your photography.

  1. Use a white surface to reflect a diffused light
  2. Use a silver or mirrored surface to reflect a direct/hard light
  3. Use a coloured surface to reflect a certain colour
  4. Use a black surface to absorb light or deepen shadows
  5. Use a white translucent surface to diffuse and soften light
  6. Use a translucent coloured surface to transmit a coloured light
  7. Use an ND filter on your lens to transmit only part of the light in your scene onto your camera’s sensor
  8. Use a textured filter (such as ProMist) to transmit diffused light onto your camera’s sensor and render a softer, hazy-looking image
  9. Use a prism in front of your lens to refract light before it hits your camera’s sensor

The Holy Grail Of Light Manipulation: The 5-in-1 Reflector

A simple 5-in-1 reflector is one of the most versatile and easy-to-use tools for manipulating light. These often come as a round disk made of a translucent material with a reversible cover that has separate white, black, silver and gold sides.

Version 1.0.0

With just one simple tool, you can reflect, transmit and absorb light in a number of creative ways.

Getting Started

Light is a complicated topic that deserves a thorough study as a photographer. It is, after all, the primary resource when creating images.

This article is part two in a four-part series that further explores light in photography. You can find the rest of the series here:

As you move forward in your photography, try to classify the light that you see around you. This practice will strengthen your ability to use light without even using a camera.

What’s your favourite type of light to use in your photography? Let us know in the comments below.

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