Notes: The Characteristics of Light

30th July 2021

Light is the essential element within photography .

Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.

George Eastman (AZ Quotes)


Light intensity is how much light is present within a scene which is measured by the camera’s light meter. The light source will be either natural or artificial. The intensity of light is also referred to as the ‘quantity’ of light where the camera reads how bright or dim the light source is.

  • Intense light: A combination: low ISO, shutter speed fast, small aperture. Incorrect triangle settings can cause blown out images where an area or areas of an image is white with little or no detail.
  • Low light: A combination: high ISO, slow shutter speed, large aperture. Incorrect triangle settings can cause underexposed areas where the image will appear darker and once again detail will become lost.


The quality of light is a visual representation on how we perceive it. The light is either described as soft or hard light. It ‘… is defined by the size of the light source relative to the subject’. Hildebrandt, D (2020) Looking at the shadows will help determine the type of light that we are perceiving, are they soft shadows where there is a slow and gradual transition or harsh shadows where the transition is quick and sharp.

  • Pure sunlight: crisp, clear, harsh – deep, well-defined shadows, contrast, bright highlights
  • Overcast day: diffused, soft – softer, lighter shadows, less contrast.

Moving the light away from the subject will make it relatively smaller (and harder), while bringing it towards the subject will make it relatively larger (and softer). 

OCA EYV (2014:89)


  • Front lighting: flat, one dimensional
  • Side lighting (angled): depth from shadows – shape and texture
  • Backlight: silhouettes

Light waves travel in straight lines but can be diverted through reflection where they can bounce off an object or refracted by passing through some objects and changing direction.


‘Contrast is controlled in the studio by a second light source called a fill light, which can be just a white card acting as a simple reflector’. OCA EYV (2014:90)

Contrast is the difference between the highlights and shadow areas of an image which includes the ratio of the different tones present. The list below is taken from Skylum (s.d.) and is discussing black and white photogtaphy which I would usually shoot in.

  • High contrast: ‘… wide range of tones full of black and whites with dark shadows and bright highlights. These images will have intense colors and deep textures –– creating very profound end results. (Think of a photo taken in the bright sunlight.)’
  • Low contrast: ‘A low contrast image blends light and dark areas, creating a more flat or soft photo. There are hardly any highlights and shadows and the images… This dullness in the composition of lights and darks will mute the colors in the image. (Think of a photo taken on a foggy morning.)
  • High key and Low key: ‘… are both low contrast types of images. A high-key photo will have bright tones and contains mostly light grays and whites. A low-key photo will have dim tones, mostly shadows, and contains mostly dark grays and blacks’.
  • Colour contrast: ‘Color contrast has to do with how colors interact with one another –– where they lie on the color wheel. The way color characteristics accentuate each other defines the image’s contrast appearance. Think of a landscape shot — the dull colors are lower in contrast and the vibrant colors are higher in contrast. This composition is what creates the mood of the image. You can “warm” an image up by bringing out the reds and yellows or make an image more “cold” by bringing out the blues and greens.’

White Balance

Different types of light produce different colour temperatures therefore the white balance can be changed to correct the colour cast by different light sources.

Below are the three pages from the GH5 Manual (Advanced) which are the settings for the camera that I use.



Panasonic (s.d.) Panasonic Owner’s Manual for Advanced Features At: (Accessed 31.07.2021)

OCA EYV (2014:89) Project 3: Ex Nihilo At: (Accessed 31.07.2021)

OCA EYV (2014:90) Project 3: Ex Nihilo At: (Accessed 31.07.2021)


Eastman, G. (s.d.) AZ Quotes At: (Accessed 31.07.2021)

Hildebrandt, D (2020) What is Quality of Light and How to Use it to Take Better Photos At: (Accessed 30.07.2021)

Skylam (s.d.) Understanding Contrast in Photography At: (Accessed 31.07.2021)

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