Tips to a Great Photo, Part 3 | Lighting, Lighting, Lighting

March 2, 2011


Alright, you have your camera–the camera that is best for you (read part 1 on how to find that camera here) and you’ve studied said camera so that now you’re an expert when it comes to it (read part 2 on how important studying your own camera is here).  Now it’s time to go out and take some photos.  (Just set your camera to automatic with the flash turned off—we’ll talk about the manual settings a few posts from now).

Lighting, Lighting, Lighting: First, though, you need to pay attention to lighting!  This, I think is the most important thing that’s not directly related to your actual camera when it comes to taking a great photo.  It is ALL about the lighting.


Disclaimer again: Virtually everything I’m about to tell you has an exception.  Most of these exceptions are made in the name of art and creativity.  For example, you can get rocking sweet photos using a long shutter speed outside in the middle of the night using no flash.  Or using a flash.  They would both make for great pictures if taken by a professional photographer; however, I’m assuming that most of you reading this simply want to take sweet photos of your spouse or your kids or your family and you’re not looking to break the mold quite yet.  So the following are tips for every-day photos—just wanted to make that clear.

1. Natural light is king. The light that God created for us is, imagine this, the best light to use when taking photos.

soft light from a large window

If you’re inside, take your photos by a large window. Situate your subjects so that soft light from the window is falling evenly on their faces.  This will probably mean turning them to face the window at an angle and pushing your body up against said window.

outside on a cloudy day

If outside, on a cloudy day, you have no worries.  Just start taking photos—and take them quickly—this is the lighting we all dream about.

in the shade on a bright, sunny day

If it’s super bright with no clouds you will want to find some shade.  This actually makes for great light, too.  If you just start taking photos in the bright, bright sun it will cast harsh shadows on your subjects’ faces (from their hair, eyebrows, and noses) which will look weird in the photo–more on that in a minute.

the golden hour

Finally, there are a few hours each day when the sun is just perfect for taking photos outside and you don’t have to worry about clouds or finding shade.  It’s called the golden hour. It’s the hour right after sunrise (before the sun is high enough in the sky to cast harsh shadows) and the hour right before sunset (after the sun is casting harsh shadows, but before it gets too dark).  These times during the day make for no-stress photo ops!


2. Stay away from harsh shadows. Like I said previously, although I think it deserves to be said again, stay away from harsh shadows on your subject’s faces.

harsh shadows

It just makes people look weird.

the bright sun behind the subject

The best thing to do when you have to shoot photos in bright sunlight is to put the sun at your subjects’ backs.  I know this sounds completely wrong—won’t they just be silhouettes?  Well, maybe if the sun is low enough in the sky, but if it’s the middle of the day there’s enough sunlight everywhere to shoot with the sun behind your subjects and their faces will still be bright.

lens flare

Watch out for lens flares, though!  (Just cup your hand around the lens to keep the lens in a shadow from the sun).

3. If there just isn’t any natural light. If the room you’re in is too dark, you will not be able to take a good picture.

sometimes it's just a lost cause

It’s just not going to happen.  You could try opening up some blinds or turning on some lights, but sometimes that won’t really help either. So you have a decision to make.  Sometimes documenting the event is more important than getting a great photo.  If the former is true, then just use your flash.  Flip it up and get shooting.  Don’t regret missing a photo of your little girls’ birthday or your husband crossing the marathon finish line all in the name of a great photo.  Just take the picture!  We’re not using film anymore so you can always get rid of it later.

That being said, a note on using the flash: Try not to.  Okay, use it if you know what you’re doing (like by using a “fill flash” to enhance photos in natural light).  The problem is that people use the flash that pops up on the top of their cameras so that they can take pictures in dark rooms or even worse: outside in the middle of the night.  That’s fine if you just really want a photo of whatever it is you’re taking a picture of, but if you want to learn to take great photos, you do NOT want to do this.  You’ll end up with a bunch of “prom photos.”  You know what I’m talking about.  This may mean you take a minute and turn on some lights before you snap that photo of your kid blowing out her birthday candles.  Or maybe you stop and get your grandma and grandpa to walk over by a window before you snap that photo of them from their anniversary party.  Whatever it is—try to take the photo without using your flash as the main source of light!  If you MUST use a flash as the main source of light, than purchase this diffuser to slip over the top of your on-camera flash.  It will disperse the light and you might just be able to dodge that middle-of-the-prom-dance-floor look.

I hope this post on lighting was helpful to you.  To get more information (if you want to go deeper into photography) on some things I just mentioned (like using a fill flash outside) check out some tutorials from Adorama.  Adorama is a great company—we print all our photos from them.  They have a ton of tutorials about all sorts of things in their series called Digital Photography One on One (more about that at the end of the series).  Here are some videos that will help you now, though–when it comes to lighting:

Using Natural Light

On-Camera Flash Basics

Now, your homework: Go take some photos. Experiment in different lightings.  Figure out what lighting you like the best.  Take some photos of your family is good lighting and in bad lighting so you can quickly and easily see what I mean. Then come back to learn the next tip to great photo: posing vs. candid.


3 Responses to “Tips to a Great Photo, Part 3 | Lighting, Lighting, Lighting”

  1. Jessalyn said

    I always tell Richard to nix the flash… but he is a flasher….!

  2. […] photographers, and in the end I crammed myself into a very restrictive box that I titled, “Tips to a Great Photo,” which made those unwritten rules, […]

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