Flat light. Golden hour. Hard light. We’ll decode them all for you here!
As you begin your photography journey, you’ll hear lots of talk about light. And photographers have come up with about six dozen ways to describe it. Flat light, soft light, open shade, dappled light…so many terms it can be hard to keep them all straight!
Back when I hung out with a bunch of wildlife photographers but wasn’t much of a photog myself, I often heard the term skunky light. I had NO idea what it meant, and I was also too self-conscious to ask. I missed out on a great learning opportunity because I was afraid of looking foolish.
It can be intimidating to ask a professional photographer’s basic questions. So let’s break down all these different types of light so you can learn! We’ll talk about what these terms mean and why they are important. That way you can start to better evaluate the light around you and use it to your advantage!
What is flat lighting?
As it turns out, skunky lighting was another term for flat lighting. But what is flat lighting? Basically, it’s lighting that produces very little contrast in your scene. That means there’s very little difference (contrast) between the highlights and shadows.
Its caused by even lighting in a scene. Overcast skies, direct flash, and really well-lit environments can all produce flat lighting.
Flat lighting takes its name from how the resulting image can look…flat and lifeless. Flat lighting can lack depth and interest. The image above is an example of flat lighting. Th elight is very even, shadows are gradual and there isn’t much contrast in the scene.
But flat lighting isn’t all bad. In the image above, the ladies expressions add life to the scene even if the light is flat. And there are times when flat lighting is actually desirable! Fashion and beauty photographers use flat lighting a lot. It helps hide skin imperfections, minimizes wrinkles and smooths out skin. Flat light is also helpful when shooting big group shots. If there’s just a single light source coming at the subjects from straight on and up high, you minimize competing shadows and all the group members are evenly lit. Perfect for team and class photos or wedding party photos!
What is open shade?
Open shade is what photographers call the area where subjects are in shade but illuminated by reflected direct light.
Open shade is soft light (see below for an explanation of soft light) that is more flattering than direct sunlight. Subjects aren’t squinting against the sun and the light is less specular, meaning shadows are created gradually.
Photographers call it open shade to differentiate between it and deep shade. Deep shade is where very little ambient light is reflected back into the scene. The edge of trees can provide open shade, whereas under a deep awning or in a tunnel would be deep shade.
What is dappled light?
“Shoot in open shade. But watch out for dappled light,” photography teachers tell new students. So what the heck is dappled light?
Dappled, by definition, means marked with spots or rounded patches. You might have heard a spotted horse or dog referred to as dappled. So dappled ight is spotty light. Small pockets of light are coming through into your scene. Trees, window shades or even stained glass windows can create dappled light. It can create a pretty scene, but dappled light on your subjects’ faces or clothing can create distracting patches of light.
If you find yourself shooting in dappled light, be mindful of those distracting spots. Sometimes you can simply shift your subjects a few inches in any direction and you’ll eliminate those bright spots of light. If you can’t eliminate all those bright spots of light, make sure there aren’t any on faces or upper torsos.
In the image above, the window is creating some dappled light in the scene. There are pockets of light on the baby’s head, their legs and torsos.
What is artificial light?
Artificial light is any man-made light. It can come from lamps, flashes, video lights or overhead fluorescent lights. It’s the opposite of natural light, which is sunlight.
What is backlighting?
Backlighting is simply light illuminating the back of your subject. In the right conditions, backlighting can enhance your images by creating lots of contrast and drama. Backlighting is what creates those beautiful sunset silhouettes or puts a soft glow around your subject’s hair.
But backlighting isn’t limited to sunsets or sunrises. Any situation where the light behind your subject is brighter than the light falling on your subject is actually backlighting. Doorways, screens or windows can all create amazing backlighting!
What is rim lighting?
Rim lighting is a lot like backlighting, but instead of hitting your subject from behind, the light hits them from behind and to the side. This term is often used when photographers are using flash. The photographer will place a flash to the side or to the side and slightly behind so the outer edges of the subject are lit up ever so slightly. Rim lighting can help outline the subject and separate it from the background. When a rim light hits only the hair, it’s also called a hair light.
What is golden hour?
Golden hour is the hour before sunset or after sunrise. Photographers love it beause the sun is low in the sky and closer to the ground, relatively speaking. The light becomes softer and takes on a richer hue. You’ll see reds, orange, blues and pinks in addition to that beautiful golden hue.
Golden hour light creates long, soft shadows. It makes beautiful light for portraits, architecture and landscape images.
What is blue hour?
Blue hour is the hour after sunset or before sunrise. The sun has set or hasn’t risen yet, but there is still some residual sunlight in the atmosphere, giving the sky a beautiful blue. Instead of being solid inky black, the sky is often a lovely gradient from horizon to sky. Blue hour is a great time to shoot cityscapes, landscapes and seascapes.
Blue hour is a bit of a misnomer. We call it blue hour, but it only lasts around 20 to 40 minutes.
Soft light vs. hard light
Photographers use the term soft light to refer to light that diffuses softly. The is a gradual difference between light and dark. It is very flattering to people, animals, and even landscapes. Soft light comes from a big light source relative to the subject.
Hard, or harsh light, is very high contrast. It creates bright highlights, deep shadows and little diffusion between the two. It’s crated by a smaller light source in relation to your subject.
Hard light isn’t necessarily all bad. It can give a photo a lot of drama or edginess. So if that’s the look you want, hard light is your tool of choice!
The two images below are examples of soft and hard light. The first is an example of soft light (you could also consider it flat light, for that matter.) The light is very soft and even. Shadows are also soft (low contrast), and it changes from light to dark very gradually.
In the second image, the light is very hard. There is a definitive edge to all the shadows and the light goes from bright to shadow very quickly. There is a big difference between the well-lit areas and the shadows (high contrast).
The study of light
Understanding how to use light to your advantage is at the heart of photography. Start evaluating the light around you at different times of the day. Study the light’s direction and quality. Watch how shadows affect your subject and how quickly an area goes from light to dark. Then think about how you could use that light to create the effect you want in your image!
Understanding your camera and settings and nailing composition is important. But the best photographers know light, its qualities, its shadows and the emotion it elicits. They use light to not only flatter their subjects but also to tell a compelling story.
And study the work of others. Look at their images and evaluate the light in the scene. Would you call it flat lighting? Soft lighting? Does the photographer create separation between the background and subject with rim lighting or backlighting? How would different lighting change the tone and feel of the image?
So ask questions about light. Ask questions about your gear. Ask questions about composition. Flat flight, skunky light, soft light…learn what they mean, how to use them and you’ll be well on your way to becoming a pro yourself!