Photography 101: The Quality of Light

Photographer Wenjie Zhang discusses the quality of light.

Last week, photographer Wenjie Zhang introduced the fundamentals of light, talked about exposure (shutter speed, aperture, and ISO), and set us loose with some simple exercises to experiment with light.

Today, he discusses the quality and direction of different types of light, as well as shadows and highlights, and sprinkles quick tips throughout for those of you who want to hone your skills. We wrap up the light discussion with exercises for practice and experimentation, no matter your level. Let’s dive in!

Quality of light

In addition to the amount of light, it’s important to consider the quality of light. The worst-kept secret of landscape photographers is the timing when the best light occurs. Often known as the Golden Hour, this is the hour enveloping sunrise and sunset, when the light is diffused, gentle, and vivid. In comparison, afternoon light is harsh and often leaves subjects looking flat. (Many of you participated in last Friday’s Golden Hour challenge — it’s exciting to see what you’ve captured!) 

Sunrise at Marina Bay. f8, ISO 100, 8 sec.

Evening at the Supertrees. f8, ISO 100, 1/125 sec.

Light can also differ in color and tone. Early morning light tends to take on a cool blue tint, compared to the warm golden glow of a sunset. This difference in tint is obvious if you compare the two pictures above. Weather changes may also bring about different lighting conditions. Overcast skies, for example, can soften and diffuse harsh afternoon light. This is excellent for foliage or street photography, which often benefits from even lighting conditions.

Leura Cascades, Overcast. f22, ISO 100, 1/2 sec.

Using the best light requires planning and sacrifices on the photographer’s part. When I was on vacation, I was out of bed by 5 am — and I love sleeping! — for the Marina Bay sunrise, just so I could get to the predetermined spot for the magic moment. Now imagine a location further away from civilization, and you’ll have an idea just how much sleep a professional landscape photographer is foregoing.

Fortunately, much less dedication is required from the rest of us! Just make a note of those golden hours, and be willing to keep a flexible schedule on your trips to take advantage of weather conditions and the light. Simple things like a food basket can make things a lot easier when you’re waiting for the sun to set!

Direction of Light

Regardless of their quality, all light sources have a direction, and subjects will look very different depending on whether they are front-lit, side-lit or back-lit.


Front-lit subjects are those that face the light source, and tend to be evenly illuminated without complicated shadows. Because of this, front-lit subjects tend to be the simplest to photograph, especially for landscape, urban, and simple portrait photography. On the flip side, such lighting isn’t as dramatic, and photos can often turn out flat.

Tip: A compelling subject helps to convey the mood in such photographs.

Youths at La Rambla. f8, ISO 200, 1/100 sec.


Side-lit subjects offer a lot more depth and complexity than front-lit ones, because the combination of light and shadow often creates a sense of three-dimensionality that viewers experience through their own eyes. This is very useful in producing storytelling portraits and landscapes.

Tip: When shooting these kinds of subjects, take care not to focus on the darker areas of the scene. The camera will think you’re shooting a dark subject and will try to compensate by increasing the exposure to let more light in, invariably overexposing your image.

Golden Alhambra. f8, ISO 100, 1/250 sec.

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David Preparing For Battle. f5.6, ISO 100, 1/200 sec


Back-lit subjects are by far my favorite. These subjects have their back to the light source, so as the photographer, you’re shooting while facing the light. Backlighting is frequently used by landscape photographers to achieve a wide range of effects. Two of these are silhouettes and flares. Objects become silhouettes when they are thrown into sharp contrast with the light source, usually so that viewer attention is on the light itself.

Tip: Avoid focusing on the darkest and brightest areas of the scene, which would either show too much or too little of  the details, respectively.

Singapore Sunset. f8, ISO 200, 1/15 sec.

On the other hand, flares occur when the photographer conscientiously lets part of the light source shine past an object, which would otherwise block its path. This requires careful positioning on the photographer’s part, because without using edges to block the light source, these would-be flares will simply appear as a bright region of light most of the time.

Tip: While flares can become gimmicky with abuse, they’re useful in creating drama in a photo. (This is why I prefer the first image of the Sydney Harbor over the second, and am willing to overlook the pillars I used to create the flare.)

A New Day. f11, ISO 100, 1/125 sec.

a new day flareless

Shadows and highlights

Last but not least, we come to shadows and highlights. These are regions on your photo that are so dark or bright that they lack any discernible details. In the image below of the Vatican Museum Spiral Ramp, the blue zones represent the shadows, and the red zones represent the highlights. You can compare the two images side-by-side to see the effects of each.

Most photographers avoid too many shadows and highlights, as they can be distracting. But an appropriate amount of shadows and highlights can enhance a photo when employed correctly, so it’s ultimately up to you to make the call.

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Vatican Museum Spiral Ramp. f5, ISO 800, 1/13 sec.

When evaluating a shot, ask yourself if your attention is inadvertently drawn toward the shadows or highlights. If your answer is yes and this effect is not intentional, then the clipping is an issue and you should readjust your exposure accordingly.

Tip: If you post-process your digital photos, it’s better to underexpose than to overexpose your image. Often, after some adjustments in your photo-processing software, photographic details can still be “rescued” from shadows, albeit at a lower image quality. Overexposure, however, can prove destructive because no amount of post-processing can bring back details from pure white highlights, if the brightness exceeds your camera’s ability to record details in the first place.

Finally, never let shadows and highlights stop you from attempting a shot — you may be surprised at how it finally turns out!

A Certain Slant of Light. f11, ISO 100, 1/160 sec.

Get outside and start shooting!

Shooting exercises for different times of day:

  • Pick a subject in an open area that’s easily accessible to your home. It can be a statue, a tree, a playground, or even a building, as long as it’s not sheltered. If you are on vacation, it could be a location you’re drawn to (the Eiffel Tower, perhaps?). Take a snapshot of this subject at 7 am, 11 am, 2pm, 5pm, and 7pm. (You can spread this out over several days.)
  • How does the subject look on different timings? What time of the day do you prefer, and why?
  • For the early morning and evening shots, move your position so the subject is lit in different manners. What do you find challenging about photographing it when it is sidelit and backlit?

More experiments with the direction of light:

  • Use our glorious sun to light your subject in different ways: straight on (with the sun behind you and facing your subject), from an angle (from the right, left, or diagonally), and backlit (with the sun facing you and behind your subject).
  • Experiment with still life indoors: next to a window, a room with lots of light or low light, or near a mirror.
  • Bring out the props! Shoot with a flashlight, a small lamp, the glow from your laptop or TV screen, the flame of a candle, a lantern, the headlights of a car, or light altered from a layer of color (a sheet, tinted sunglasses, etc.).

Go faux with photo editing apps:

Want to mimic an effect in a snap? Many photo apps and online editors have tools that auto-adjust lighting, make your images brighter or dimmer, apply different tones and moods of lighting, and even create “accidental” flares and orb effects:

About Wenjie Zhang

I bought my first DSLR in January 2009, and have not looked back since. I have moved on to a full frame camera, and have the assorted backaches to show for it. My favorite subjects are typically landscapes, architecture and close-ups — basically well-behaved things that won’t develop the tendency to give me the middle finger (Charlie Chaplin mime, Rome, don’t ask). My job keeps me chained indoor most of the time, where I tap on the keyboard all day and work on developing the fairest complexion known to humankind. Since I don’t get go on photo trips and experiment as much as I would like to, my blog has evolved from lofty aspirations into a travelogue of sorts.

Previous posts in our Photography 101 series

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  1. Funny about this. That’s the title of one of my posts today, in color. I did the same photograph in black and white last week. Photography is about two things: light and form.

    Everything else is commentary.


  2. Loved the compositions of the lights and forms in this series, long way to go to learn! I Love dthe picture of the Marina Bay and the certain slant of light


  3. Great tips! It just dawned on me I was already doing some of these things without realizing why, but it’s good to know my reasoning was solidified by the tips in this post! By the way your photographs are stunning! Just started following you:)


    1. Thank you! Some of the things are pretty common sense, but having them at your fingertips really frees you up to consider other aspects of photography.