Quality of Light: Direct and Indirect Light

Learn how light influences our photography and how we can influence light.


SmogWe as photographers often define good weather with quality of light. We get thrilled if heavy clouds cover the sky, with the sun breaking through here and there, creating fantastic spot light; while non-photographers get excited with a clear blue sky.

Reflections of city lights on a wet pavement are more immediately apparent to us than the discomforts of rain. The weather often tries our patience and sometimes we cannot get the shot we want, but if we do, everyone will wonder how we got so lucky. We smile and nod, knowing that luck had nothing to do with it.

Direct and Indirect Light

Photography literally means painting with light. As light (photons) enters our digital sensor, the photons knock lose some electrons (photodiode). The camera can measure these electrons to construct the image.

Different types of light sources influence how our photographs will look like.

As light strikes an object, it reflects off the object. This is the reason our camera can see the object. If there is no light source, we are blind, although the objects are still there.

Each object also absorbs certain frequencies of light and reflects others. Green reflects color frequencies of green and absorbs other frequencies. That is why grass looks green.

Light reflecting from one object also illuminates other objects. We call this indirect light, since the source of light is the light the first object reflects. Depending on the properties of the first object, the way the second object appears changes.

Imagine a deep canyon. Direct light rarely hits the canyon floor. The canyon walls reflect the light into the depth of the canyon, thus giving the light a different property. Photographers at the bottom of the canyon have a diffuse light with a much warmer color temperature.

What does this do for your photography?

Direct and Indirect Light

Studio photographers create their light. They can control it with strobes, lamps and reflectors.

But even landscape photographers can create indirect light. Although we have no way to influence the lighting of a macro landscape, we can influence light on a smaller scale.

Landscape photographers often obsess with depth of field, creating images with a breathtaking depth. We use wide-angle lenses to maximize the impact of the foreground and to create emotional compositions. With wide-angle lenses, the foreground and middle ground extend only a couple of feet from our cameras.

Foreground elements are often in the shade, while backgrounds are often brightly lit. Such scenes challenge all cameras and we may be tempted to try HDR to handle this much dynamic range, but HDR can look over-processed.

We can use a cheap reflector to direct light into the foreground and middle ground of our scene, reducing the harsh contrast between the shadows and highlights.

We could also just use our jackets as a replacement for a reflector. A friend (or a tree if you photograph alone) can hold your jacket to create an additional indirect light source.

During the day, when the color temperature is neutral, shadows often render blue in photographs, because the sky works like a large reflector box, illuminating the shade.

If we use a jacket with a reddish tone, we can counter balance the blue tones, creating a much more pleasing color rendition of the scene.

A cheap lighting technique for portrait photographers uses a garage as a giant soft box. The photographer simply opens the garage door, letting the light flood the garage. Light bounces around and creates a diffuse look without harsh shadows. By covering the walls and floor with colored cloths, we can control the color of the light and set the mood.

It is not always possible to manipulate lighting, but understanding how light reflects and changes throughout the day helps us predict good light. We can choose to return to a scene later, waiting for reflected light from a rock face, skyscraper or other large objects to illuminate our scene.

We can watch the clouds and determine how light will reflect, maximizing our chances to “be at the right place at the right time”. Instead of relying on chance, we rely on knowledge. As experienced photographers, we start to recognize shapes, lights and patterns beyond the immediately visible.

This article is part of a larger series on becoming great photographers. You can stay updated by subscribing to my feed.

I would like to hear feedback, suggestions for future articles, examples and criticism. Since I moved from the technical to the creative, I would like to hear if this series resonates with you.


lots of things to learn from your site! thanks man! im an aspiring photographer. wish i manage to earn the money to buy a dslr, im sick of using this camera phone of mine hahaha!!!

God Bless!

I enjoyed reading your

I enjoyed reading your article! I love your analogy about photography being really just painting with light. It makes so much sense!