Basic Tips for Using Light in Photography

Learning More About Light Will Help You Have More Success With Your Camera

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If you listen to veteran photographers, they’ll tell you two aspects of photography are more important than any other … and equipment is not one of the two. The skill of the photographer and proper use of the scene’s light will result in more consistently great photos than any other factors, including equipment (although having good equipment can help a lot in tricky lighting situations).

Making use of the available light in the most beneficial manner will make a significant difference in the quality of your photos.

Developing the necessary skills can take a lot of practice, but the tips here can help you make better use of light in your photos.

Why Is Light So Important?

Think about how a digital photo is created – light from a scene striking the image sensor – and it becomes clear. The light, whether it’s natural available light or artificial light, can make or break a photo.

Using Proper White Balance

The first area of using light involves determining the source of the light and setting the white balance for your camera. The white balance setting allows objects in the photograph to be as close to their actual color as possible. The light in the image often will have a cast, or tint, to it, depending on the source of the light. Unless the light source is perfect white light, which is rare, the light will have a cast to it. White objects seen under a fluorescent light will have a green cast, for example.

Use white balance to reset the camera to compensate for the cast in the light in the scene. Most digital cameras will attempt to measure the light and automatically set the white balance, but, for the most accurate white balance setting, you may want to set it manually.

When you look at a scene with your eye, you do not notice this cast because the human eye automatically adjusts to ensure that white objects appear white.

That’s one of the reasons why setting the white balance can be so tricky.

Understanding the Source of the Light

Another key component of lighting in photography is the source of the light. Know what type of light you have. Diffuse light usually comes from a light-reflecting surface or from an extremely large light source. Think of it as a soft light that generates soft shadows. This typically is the best type of light in which to shoot photos.

Direct light usually comes from a small, bright source. Because direct light will shine directly on the subject, it can cause some reflections or glare spots in your photos, as well as harsh shadows. Sources such as light bulbs, a flash, or the sun can create direct light.

One way to deal with direct light is to add a diffuser, an umbrella, or a light box, just something to diffuse that light.

Dealing With a Strong Backlight

Without something to diffuse the light, most of the time you will want to place your subject between you and the direct light source. Then set the exposure for the area that’s in shadows, and you should end up with a well exposed photo. With this type of set-up, you can try to use the flash on your camera as a “fill” light, which will add some light to the shadows caused by the strong backlight, giving you a better-looking photo.

Adding a reflector in front of the subject can also direct more light from the strong backlight source onto the subject.

Another option with a strong backlight is to shoot a silhouette photo, where the subject is just a dark shadow against the backlight, as shown in the photograph here. Many photographers use this technique with a sunset.

Understanding how to make use of the available light can really open up a new set of photographic options for you, allowing you to improve the look of your images with just a little practice!