Light is the magic ingredient in every photograph. In fact it is the main ingredient. Without it, you wouldn’t have an image at all. Learning how to use the light will completely change your photographs. In this post we will talk all about how to use light to take better photos.
Do you remember making a pinhole camera when you were in high school photography class?
If not, here’s a quick picture of what it is.
- You take one of those old black film canisters and put a piece of photo paper inside. Making sure no light hits the photo paper on its way in.
- Close the top tightly so no light can get in.
- Then you poke a tiny hole with a needle into the plastic container on the opposite side of where the photo paper sits inside.
- Cover this hole so no light gets in until you are ready to take your image.
- Place your canister on a flat surface trying not to move it much.
- Take your finger off the hole for a few seconds (shorter if you want less light to go in, longer if you want more light to go in).
- Then you will cover the hole once again and develop the image in a dark room.
The scene will show up on your photo paper like magic. Not really magic, it is because the light transferred through the whole burning the scene onto the photo paper.
This is essentially what your shutter does on your camera. Your camera brings the light in to burn the scene on your digital sensor (or film if you are using a film camera). So, in order to get great photographs you have to learn how to use the light and how much to allow into your camera.
Actionable natural light photo tips you can start using today
Scanning your location
First things first. You need to find the light. Look around the location and search for the best light. Where is the natural light coming from? Where is the sun in the sky? Is there a large window? Move yourself around your location and look at how the light is reflecting on different areas so you know where to put your subject and where to position yourself to get the best light.
Different kinds of lighting
There are different ways to light your subject and there really isn’t a right or wrong. It is all about preference and how you want your image to look. Let’s talk about different kinds of lighting.
Backlighting- this is exactly what it sounds like.backlighting is when you put the light source behind your subject so they are lit from behind. This is an excellent strategy if the light is bright and right overhead. It allows your subjects face to be shaded for a more even looking appearance. However, it can also cause the face to be too dark and the background too bright. In order to keep your subjects face bright enough try to position your subject so the sun reflects back onto her face a little. This can be as simple as using a natural reflector such as a white wall. You can also purchase a reflector to achieve a nice soft light on the face in a backlit photograph.
Side lighting- This is my least favorite ways to photograph people, but one of my favorites when it comes to landscape and architecture. Side Lighting creates dramatic shadows and lines and often brings out the texture in/on your subject. The higher the sun, the harder the lines and shadows. Look for opportunities to use side light to create a more dramatic photograph.
Front lighting- when the sun is directly behind you as you are photographing it is known as front light because it shines directly on your subject. This is a great way to get intense colors in your photograph. However, if the sun is high in the air and too bright on your subject it will do just the opposite and drown out your image leaving it flat and dull. Try using front light when the sun is low in the sky and the face is not your main focus.
There are other types of light, such as twilight, night, diffused light, etc., but for this lesson, let’s focus on these 3 main kinds of lighting.
Soft vs. hard light
Soft light is lighting that does not cast hard shadows in your subject, while hard or harsh light creates dramatic looking shadows. Soft lighting is nice for portrait photography. When the lighting is harsh, you will see every line, bump, or blemish on the skin, while soft lighting creates a very even skin tone. If you are outside, the easiest way to ensure soft light is to shoot during the first 3 or last 3 hours of the day, find a shady spot, or shoot on a cloudy day. You can achieve a soft light inside by placing your subject near a window. A sheer curtain is helpful if the light is coming through too strong.
What to do in dim lighting
When the light is dim, resist the urge of topping out your ISO. This will end up leaving your photograph graining and with low clarity. Instead, use what little light is there and embrace it in your photo. For example, we have a window above our kitchen sink. My daughter loves to ‘wash’ the dishes after dinner. The kitchen is slightly dark at this time of day, but the window gives off just enough light to show her face and hands. This creates a beautiful image where the focus is on her and the activity she is doing and the rest of the image is darker. Play with the light you have and find a way to get the light right on the focus of your image and you will come away with some great photographs.
Brief overview of the 3 pillars
Your camera has 3 main components that work together to bring in light (or keep light out). These are often referred to as the 3 pillars and they make up the triangle of exposed. They are ISO, shutter speed, and aperture. I am going to give you a very brief overview of each, but I highly recommend taking ‘Manual Mode Made Simple’ if you don’t have much experience using these settings.
ISO is your camera sensor’s sensitivity to light. The lower you set this number, the less sensitive your sensor will be to light. If it is a very sunny day you will want a low ISO like 100, but you can adjust it up from there as needed. The higher you set your ISO the more grain you will see in your image.
Shutter Speed is the speed at which your shutter opens and closes. The faster the shutter the less light comes in and the slower the shutter the more light is let into the camera. Because the shutter speed determines the length of time you capture in your image it also determines the action and clarity of an image. The longer the shutter is open the more movement you will see in your image.
Aperture is the amount at which your lens opens. You can think of this setting like the pupil of your eye. The wider open the more light comes in and the less open the less light comes in. Aperture also affects the depth of field of your image. The smaller the opening the larger depth of field you will have in your image. While the wider open the lens is the shallower the depth of field.
All of those settings really work together to help you achieve the perfect exposure for your image.
You may not be proficient at adjusting your settings yet or using light to its fullest, but all it takes is practice. Learn what photos speak to you, find your style, and start practicing in different kinds of light to get the effects you want. You can’t get better at this if you stay in auto mode. Your camera will choose the settings for you, and even if you learn to look for good light, you won’t have control over how your camera takes in the light.
What to do next
Practice a ton! You have to get comfortable in all kinds of light to really understand it. Choose a day (hopefully today or tomorrow) and photograph your whole day. From dawn to dusk, inside and outside. Look for the light wherever you are and take several photos for practice. You may end the day without a single photo you love, but I promise you will understand light and know how to use it one hundred times better. Tag me on Instagram (@athomewithkidsblog) and show me your favorite photos!
Still too nervous to step out of auto mode? Sign up for Manual Mode Made Simple. My free course that walks you through the 3 pillars so you can confidently take photos in manual mode without the frustration and overwhelm of switching all those settings.
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