Direct Light, Diffuse Light in Photography
© Amaury Descours

Light has many refinements that are unknown to novice photographers. The ability of light to create hard shadows or soft shadows has very pronounced effects on the emotions of your photo.

I will share with you:

  • The difference between direct light and diffuse light
  • The emotions of direct light, and
  • The emotions of diffuse light

Direct Light, Diffuse Light: A Question of Shadow

Direct light is a light where no obstacle is between the light source and the subject.

The light rays all go in the same direction and are completely rectilinear from their point of departure to their destination. Direct light is observed when the shadow projected from the subject creates perfectly sharp edges: this is hard shadow. Moreover, the contrast between the illuminated areas of the subject and the shaded areas is very pronounced: there is a very strong difference between bright and dark tones.

On the contrary, diffuse light is a light whose light rays go in different directions.

These light rays have different directions because they have encountered obstacles that have deflected them to different degrees: a cloud, a white wall, a veil, and so on. The diffuse light is observed when the projected shadow of the subject has blurred edges: this is called soft shadow. The contrast is also less pronounced, with differences more subtle between bright and dark tones.

So why choose a direct light or a diffuse light? The best answer must come from how you feel about your subject. The Plutchik’s wheel of emotions is a big help for that.

Emotions of Direct Light

A Direct light that creates harsh shadows and high contrast will evoke most of the time the following emotions:

  • Annoyance, even anger, disgust, fear
  • Aggressiveness
  • Contempt
  • Outrage
  • Pride
  • Guilt
  • Shame
  • Submission

Many of these emotions are rather masculine.


Direct Light in Photography
Direct sunlight creates harsh shadows with very defined contours and a strong contrast between bright tones and dark tones. For a portrait with feminine subjects that arouse rather emotions of serenity, confidence, optimism, this type of lighting evokes rather contradictory emotions. Canon 1D mk II and 28-70mm lens f/2.8, 43mm, f/3.5, 1/3500s, ISO 250 © Amaury Descours

Emotions of Diffuse Light

A diffuse light that creates soft shadows and attenuated contrast will certainly cause you the following emotions:

  • Joy
  • Love
  • Optimism
  • Delight

but also :

  • Pensiveness or even sadness
  • Boredom

These are often feminine emotions.


Diffuse Light in Photography
The diffuse light of the sun through a cloudy sky creates soft shadows with degraded contours and an attenuated contrast between bright tones and dark tones. For a portrait with feminine subjects that arouse rather emotions of serenity, confidence, optimism, this type of lighting is totally in agreement. Canon 1D mk II and 50mm lens f/1.4, 50mm, f/2.8, 1/800s, ISO 320 ISO © Amaury Descours

Where Could You Find Diffuse Light?

If direct light is abundantly available, diffuse light may seem more rare.

There are a few tricks to find it easily:

  • A covered sky forms an immense translucent veil that will diffuse the sunlight
  • A shady area: under a tree, the facade of a building exposed to the north, …
  • A translucent reflector put between your subject and the light source
  • The golden hour, or even better the blue hour, gives a less intense direct light with lower contrast

What Do You Think?

Do you think some of your photos made in direct light would have been better served by diffuse light? Did you have difficulty finding a diffused light?

Leave me your comments, I will answer with pleasure.


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