Direct and Indirect Light


Direct light from the sun ranges from perfect to awful as it illuminates your subject for a photograph. A big challenge in working with bright sun as the main light is that it is a bold and strong light. That makes it unforgiving if used poorly with many subjects.

Direct sunlight creates strong contrast with very bright highlights and dark shadows. A key to understanding the light from bright sun is to understand how important the shadows are. Shadows in the right places make your scene dramatic and powerful. Shadows in the wrong places make an attractive subject ugly and make your viewer struggle with even the best of compositions.

Another key aspect of bright sun is that the light has a very strong direction. That means that even a slight change in camera position often gives you a new light because it strikes the subject from a different angle in relation to the camera position. That change can be enough to make poor light become good light on a particular subject. 


The drama of direct sun can visually overwhelm many subjects because of its contrast. One way of dealing with the harshness of bright sun, and inconvenient shadows, is to look for shade for your subject. Shade is an open light without the contrast of bright sun, meaning the light has no distinct shadows and highlights, yet it usually still has some direction to it. Direction in a light makes your subjects appear more three-dimensional.

Shade works especially well for people and flowers. You might find your subject in the shade, or you might move that subject into the shade. If neither is

possible, you may be able to shade
the subject itself. Have someone
stand in a place to block the sun, or
drape a jacket over a chair to create some shade. You can often find creative solutions to making shade on your subject.

Be sure to set your white balance to the shade setting in these conditions (see task #7). Shade contains a lot of blue light that comes from the sky, which your camera often overemphasizes. Shade settings remove that blue. Auto white balance settings tend to be very inconsistent in the shade. 





Although light travels in straight lines, its path from source to subject is not always straight. Light can be diffused by clouds or reflected by surfaces, causing it to scatter, softening its effect. The degree to which the light is softened in this way can have a significant effect in your final photograph. Diffused, indirect light, by its very own nature gives an even illumination with less distinct shadows. The bold characteristics associated with side lighting, for example, are much subtle when the light is diffused by cloud cover than they would be on a clear day. This kind of soft lighting suits some subjects, but others look better with a more direct, less diffused illumination. The degree of diffusion is variable, of course, offering an almost infinite number of permutations and combination but you should be very careful with hard directional light. If it does not fall in the right manner it can rather look unpleasant instead of complimenting the subject.

It was almost raining when these photos of the old man in Jodhpur, Rajasthan were shot. mark III 155mm 1/80 at f5 iso 200

The short lighting on the lady above is soft and subtle, besides being directional. 5d mark III, 75mm, 1/80 at f/5 ISO 200 evaluative aperture priority.

5d markII , 200mm, 1/60 at f4, -1/3EV aperture priority, ISO 800 partial metering 5d markII , 200mm, 1/60 at f4, -1/3EV aperture priority, ISO 800 partial metering