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The first thing people say when they want photo tips these days is, “I just shoot with my phone. I don’t need anything complicated.” I think that’s actually code for “if you have a Matrix-style brain chip that will make me Ansel Adams, hand it over,” but, hey, I’m picking up what you’re throwing down.

The thing is, the vast majority of photography technique, skill, and talent has nothing to do with the cameras, settings, files, pixels, ISO, or any of that. Yeah, all that stuff matters, but the path to great images starts with your vision and your vision starts with the light. Learning to see light, to understand what it’s doing and how that affects the photos you want to take, is the critical first step to taking great photos. Actually, it’s the first step of taking even merely good photos.

Why? Because light is your subject. Not the Grand Canyon. Or your buddy in the bike park. Or your girl doing an asana on the beach. It’s light.

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What we see, and hence what the camera sees, is simply light reflected off things. That probably sounds like the most obvious thing ever, but taking great photos requires thinking about light as an object, an entity, a medium, and learning to look for it. The sooner you start paying attention to the intensity, direction, color, and other qualities of light, the sooner you’ll start bending it to your will…or your will to it, in the service of better pictures.

We could fill a book with discussions about light, but today I’m going to keep it simple and focus on the two main personalities of light, hard and soft.

(The photos are from Morocco, where I’ve been leading photo seminars for National Geographic – a place with a mix of lights if there ever was one.)

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HARD LIGHT
Hard light most commonly comes from a source that’s small relative to your subject, and it’s also generally intense or strong. The most basic example is the sun on a cloudless day, especially at elevation, where there’s less atmosphere and pollutants to soften it. Although the sun is pretty huge in reality, it’s small hanging up there in the sky, and unfiltered it is of course intense. Other sources of hard light are strobe flashes, bare light bulbs, flashlights, etc. – anything with a strong, focused beam.

Hard light generally isn’t very flattering on people or objects, and I’ve spent much of my photo career trying to avoid or soften it, but it does have its uses:

Hard light creates contrast – bright highlights and dark shadows.

Hard light creates a sense of depth.

Hard light accentuates textures.

Hard light is easier to control.

It can be dramatic and it can be harsh.

It’s particularly good for landscapes and it can be good for certain types of still lifes.

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SOFT LIGHT
If you can’t tell yet, I’m a fan of soft light. So many photographers are. In the earliest years of my photo career, back when I was in my teens and 20s, I bought into the whole idea of putting the sun behind me and shooting at sunrise and sunlight, but then I learned that generations of studio photographers have used umbrellas and soft boxes to replicate the soft, flattering rays of a bright overcast day. That’s when everything changed for me.

In contrast to hard light, soft light occurs when the source is big relative to the subject and when the beam is unfocused. But whereas hard light almost always falls directly from the source onto the subject, soft light can come from all sorts of places – behind the clouds, off a wall, though a window. (Hard and soft light are closely related, but not interchangeable, with direct and indirect light, which I’ll tackle in another post). And while it’s not always easier to use than hard light, it is almost always more flattering to people because its shadows aren’t as dark and its highlights not as bright.

Soft light mutes the subject with lower contrast.

Soft light flattens the scene.

Soft light can bring out subtle saturation in colors.

Soft light is calming.

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This week’s lesson doesn’t really boil down to a tip – rather, what you should do is practice looking at light. Identify whether it’s hard or soft (or somewhere in between). Look for the source. Turn 90 degrees, 180, 270, and watch how the light falling on the scene changes. And an easy way to start to understand the effect of light on a subject is to hold out your hand and see how the highlights and shadows change as you rotate it or turn your body.

Good luck!

High Resolution is dedicated to the commitment of making better pictures, through tips, philosophy, gear, and more.

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Steve Casimiro is the editor of Adventure Journal. Follow him on Instagram at @stevecasimiro.