13 Ways to Take Better Photographs: Quality of Light

Quality and direction of light

At its heart, photography is about light. This is true in both a technical sense, and an artistic sense. While it is sufficient light that allows a photograph to be made, it is beautiful light that makes a photograph special.

So the first thing that you are going to do to start making your photography look better is to start looking at, and for, good light. Step one: turn of your flash. Don’t use it. Your on-camera flash creates what is called flat lighting, and while in certain situations this can be nice, it almost never nice when it comes from an on-camera flash.

There are plenty of places to get great light, and the good news is that today’s cameras are, in general, good enough to take advantage of almost any light that you can find. Windows. Doors. Skylights. Lamps. Flashlights. Shade. There are many ways to get good light.

But before that, let’s talk about what “Quality of light” means. Think of sunlight at midday during the summer. It is strong and direct. If you look down on the sidewalk, your shadow has a sharp edge. If you take a picture of someone in this light, their eye sockets will likely be dark, and the image will be very contrasty (meaning that the darks will be very dark, and the lights will be very light).

This is called “hard light”. It comes from a small source of light (the Sun. I know the Sun is gigantic…but it appears as a small area in the sky. Functionally, it is a small light source)

Hard light.

Hard light.


Hard light does not mean bad light.

Conversely, think about light on an overcast day. The sun is hidden behind clouds, and all of the clouds, really all of the sky, acts as the light source. There are very few shadows, if any at all, because light is coming from every direction at once. This creates an even light.


Soft light.

This is called “soft light”.

Somewhere in between these two extremes are window light, door light, light from the lamp on the table. All of these forms of light are more interesting, and better, than your on-camera flash.

And what about direction off light?

The problem with on-camera flash is that it is “on-axis”. That is, the light is traveling the same direction that the lens is looking. Much better is light that is off-axis. Light can come from the side, it can come from a 45-degree angle, it can come from high up (down low is possible, but not usually a good choice…it is referred to as “monster lighting”).

When you move the light to one side or the other, it creates shadows, and shadows are important for t showing the shape of things. Shadows do not have to be dark; they just have to be dark-er. Move your light to the side, and face will appear three dimensional. Corners will look as if they actually have direction. Round objects will look round. Textured object will look textured. Directional lighting creates shape, and shape creates the illusion of depth in photographs.

Soft, directional window light.

Soft, directional light.

Soft, directional window light.


Soft back-lighting.

Homework! Turn off your flash. If you are shooting in Auto, turn your knob to the green circle with the slash through the flash. You’re still on auto, just a flashless auto. Go shoot in the sun, by a window, by a door, by a lamp. Pick three photos to keep.


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