There are two essential types of light; diffuse and specular. Diffused light is soft light with little to no shadow. Specular is hard light with strong shadows. Which is preferable for photography is dependent on the scene or subject being shot. There’s no good or bad light, just appropriate light.
Nature provides us with two common diffused lighting scenarios; overcast and heavy overcast. Heavy overcast, including conditions such as fog and dense cloud cover, is the softest of all, with no shadows at all. It’s excellent lighting for mysterious forests and streams or moody atmospheres but it can be difficult to work with and may appear a little washed out. Overcast on the other hand adds more ambient into the mix, giving rise to light shadows. This is great when you don’t want highly directional light, and if it’s bright enough can be a great light for outdoor portraits.
At its hardest, specular lighting is what exists at noon on a cloudless day. Strong, direct, bright light that produces hard-edged shadows, it’s difficult (but not impossible) to work in. Less specular is bright and partly cloudy skies. There’s plenty of light, the scattered clouds help to produce moderate shadows and it’s often perfect for photography during the golden hours (more about that in a moment).
Direction of Light
Front light is a term that sometimes causes confusion for novice photographers. By front, we mean the subject’s front, that is, behind the photographer. When you position yourself so that the light is coming from behind you and is falling directly onto the subject, you have front light. It tends to be quite safe and a little boring – it’s often worth looking for other options if you can.
This is when the sun is behind the subject, and often creates a kind of rim light. This is often used when shooting near sunset, but not shooting the actual sunset. It can minimize texture and shape of the subject, adding an air of the unknown, as it separates the subject from the background.
We often seek out sidelighting as it tends to give a more dramatic, dynamic look. With the sun coming from one side, one half of your subject is brightly lit and the other half is in shadow. Texture and form are emphasized here.
The first and last hour of sunlight in the day is often known as the golden hour or magic hour. The light is soft and diffuse and regularly has a warm hue to it, making it a perennial favorite of photographers.
There are two golden hours – one after the sun rises and a second before it sets. For obvious reasons, the second of these is the more popular with viewpoints and other scenic spots often becoming very crowded with photographers, all of whom are after the killer sunset shot. These golden hours are usually the best times of day for outdoor photography, whether it’s landscapes and cityscapes you’re interested in, or you prefer photographing people. The magic hour provides soft, flattering, warm light that adds extra dimension and depth to your photographs. Before (in the morning) and after (evening) is blue hour when the sky is a deep shade of blue but not fully dark. This is often even better for landscapes and city views.
Color and Mood
We often associate different colors with different feelings or emotions. You can use this to your advantage when you make photographs. We usually think of blue as being cool, cold, sad or quiet. Red means excitement and energy. Green is often lively and vibrant but in a non-aggressive kind of way. It denotes peace and tranquility, as well as a sense of being alive. Yellow is often associated with the sun and it’s energy, and is often considered a happy color in the same way that blue is sad. Other colors tend to take aspects from these four main ones, for example, orange is warmer still than yellow, and aqua or turquoise often conjure thoughts of tropical seas and relaxation.