Hard light and black and white photography

How To Work With Hard Light Using Black & White

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Photographers often like to avoid the hard light found in the middle of a sunny day. There’s a good reason for this, as most of you already know the light is softer and moodier at dusk or dawn. These are the times you should be making photos, if you can.

But what if you are traveling somewhere and want to do some photography during the middle of the day? What if that’s the only time you have available for photography on a particular day? One of your options is to shoot in black and white. If you’ve never tried it before you may be surprised at how effective bright, sunny conditions are for black and white photography. Let’s take a closer look at how it works.

What is hard light in photography?

Hard light comes from a light source that is relatively small compared to the subject. It creates strong, clearly defined shadows. The sun is far away and small in the sky, so it gives hard light when it’s sunny. The light is harder during the middle of the day, when the sun is highest in the sky. Clear air gives hard light, while hazy or polluted air can soften the light. The light also gets softer as the sun dips towards the horizon at the end of the day, though you may have to wait until it’s nearly touching the horizon for the best effect.

Now, let’s look at how you can make hard light work for you by working in black and white, with some practical examples.

1. Photograph buildings in hard light

Architecture is an ideal subject when the light is hard. If you are in a city or urban area during the middle of a sunny day, you can often take good photos of the buildings.

I took this photo in Burano, an island near Venice, at around 2.30pm in summer. The light was hard. But look at the long shadows on the wall of the building. The sun was nearly overhead, and a little to the right. From that position, the light rakes over the surface of the building, picking out the texture. Noticing scenes like this, and recognizing the photo opportunity, is just a matter of training your eye to see where the light is falling.

Hard light in photography for architecture

Here’s another example of using black and white in hard light. I made this photo at 5pm, but the light was still very strong. I looked for a graphic composition that took advantage of the tonal contrast between the deep blue sky and the white shells on the outside of the church (this unusual building is located in A Toxa in Galicia, Spain).

Hard light in photography for black and white

2. Look for active skies

An active sky is one full of interesting cloud patterns. I made the photo in the city of Oxford just before midday and converted it to black and white in Lightroom Classic. The cloud patterns add texture and make the photo more interesting to look at.

Hard light in photography for black and white

Here’s another example. I used a wide-angle lens (14mm, APS-C) and tilted the camera back to create a dramatic angle and include as much of the sky as possible

Black and white photography

3. Find something interesting to photograph

If a scene is really interesting but the light is hard because you’ve come across it in the middle of the day then don’t let it stop you making photos. Interesting moments rarely repeat themselves.

For example, I was walking around a neighborhood in Punta Arenas, Chile, when I came across this scene (taken around 2pm). I was struck by the contrast between the expensive looking sports car and the metal houses. The two men in the photo were friendly and were happy for me to take the photo. I only had a few hours to spare that day so couldn’t return later, but luckily the hard light suited the bleakness of the location. Converting to black and white added drama and impact.

Hard light for street photography

Here’s another example where I only had the option to make photos, in this case a portrait of two children in a remote Bolivian village, in hard sunlight. We passed through the village at around 2pm on an organized tour on the way to somewhere else and had no chance to turn back. There was no shade nearby, so I took the chance to make a portrait right there. A black and white conversion helped make the best of the conditions.

Hard light for travel photography

4. Make graphic images

Another approach to working in hard light is to use its qualities to make graphic black and white photos like the ones below. The idea is to create simple compositions with strong shapes. Look for details, rather than the whole scene.

5. Photograph encroaching shadows in hard light

As the day goes on and the sun gets lower in the sky you may start to get interesting shadows creep across the scene. The sun may still be high enough in the sky to create hard light, but you can still look for interesting ways to incorporate the shadows into your photos. This is a good test of your composition skills.

The examples shown below were taken at 3.30pm and 4.30pm respectively.

Hard light in travel photography

Hard light and travel photography

Final thoughts

Hopefully this article has given you some ideas of how to make the most out of those midday hours which many photographers consider to unproductive. By looking at things differently, observing the light and using black and white you can create powerful images even in strong midday sun. Pay attention to the basics and go for simplified compositions, interesting textures and strong tonal contrast. My article A Simple Tip For Better Black And White Photos has more detail about this idea if you’d like to learn more.

The Magic of Black & White ebookThe Magic of Black & White ebook

My ebook The Magic of Black & White takes you on a journey exploring powerful ideas that help you make better black and white photos. It covers topics like composition, light, the best subject for black and white and post-processing. Click the link to learn more or buy.

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About Andrew S. Gibson

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer with a camera. He started writing about photography while traveling in Bolivia, and has been published in many prestigious photography magazines including EOS magazine, where he worked as a Writer and Technical Editor for two years. He lives in south Devon in the UK and is inspired by meeting new people, seeing new places and having new experiences. Check out his photography ebooks here.

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