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A Photographers Guide to Understanding Light


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“Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.” – George Eastman

Understanding light and how it works is a key to amazing photography.  Learn tips and tricks now to get the most from the light around you.

The Best Time to Shoot: The Golden Hours

The best light for taking photographs is available to you during the ‘golden hours,’ which are roughly one hour after sunrise and one hour before sunset. This light is soft and diffuse and casts golden hues on all it touches. It’s indirect, does not create any harsh shadows, and contains mostly midtones which makes for nice, soft edges. These qualities make it a great choice for portraiture, as it will soften wrinkles and under eye shadows and make blemishes less noticeable. Because the sun is lower in the sky during these times, it will create long shadows which can add interest and depth to your landscape shots.

It is important to know about all of the different types of light that are available to you, so that you can create the most stunning, artistic photos possible. Let’s explore each type: front lighting, backlighting, side lighting and top lighting.

SusanTuttle_GoldenHours A Photographers Guide to Understanding Light Guest Bloggers Photography Tips

Types of Light: Front Lighting

Front lighting is magical during the golden hours. It will cast a soft, even light on your subject and any shadows will fall behind your subject, making for a flattering portrait. Although this type of light works well for portraiture, it can sometimes make photos appear flat, without much depth.

SusanTuttle_FrontLighting A Photographers Guide to Understanding Light Guest Bloggers Photography Tips

Types of Light: Backlighting

When the sun is low in the sky, as it is during the golden hours, you can take advantage of backlighting, where the light comes from behind the subject, creating a glowing, halo-like effect. To ensure good exposure of facial features, you can increase exposure by one to two stops or use Spot Metering mode which will allow you to brighten the subject’s face despite the backlight.

This type of light can also produce stunning silhouettes. Instead of metering off of your subject, meter off of a part of the sky that the sun is illuminating (don’t meter off of the sun itself). This technique will create a rich, dark silhouette of your subject(s) set against a blazing sky.

SusanTuttle_BacklightingSilhouette A Photographers Guide to Understanding Light Guest Bloggers Photography Tips


Types of Light: Side Lighting

This type of light is by far the most dramatic type of light. It hits your subject, illuminating it at the point of contact, then recedes into dark shadow. Side lighting is unforgiving, and when it comes to portraits, it reveals every little detail on a person’s face. Not all folks are good candidates for this type of lighting. I find it tends to work well with youthful faces as well as masculine faces where highlighting beard scruff and scars actually looks good. If you wish to brighten some of the shadows, you can always bounce light off of a reflector disc onto those areas or use a detachable flash unit and aim it at the areas cast in shadow in order to brighten them.

SideLighting1690 A Photographers Guide to Understanding Light Guest Bloggers Photography Tips

Types of Light: Top Lighting

Overcast afternoon skies produce a softer quality of light that is appealing to work with. Those cloudy skies act as one huge reflector. I often head out into my garden to photograph the flowers in this type of light. It can also be good for portraiture. If you notice any shadows falling under the subject’s eyes, you can soften them by placing a reflector under their chin (just be sure not to capture any of the disc in the photograph).

SusanTuttle_TopLightOvercast A Photographers Guide to Understanding Light Guest Bloggers Photography Tips

Be aware that scenes often contain more than one type of light, making for much more captivating shots. And, know that you can add a certain type of light to the scene for more interest. Perhaps you use your detachable flash to add some top lighting to your scene.

SusanTuttle_EdgeOfShade A Photographers Guide to Understanding Light Guest Bloggers Photography Tips

Difficult Lighting: Hard light is definitely hard to work with…

Sometimes photographs must be taken in less-than-ideal lighting situations, where the sun is bright and high in the sky, creating heavy contrast between highlights and shadows. This type of light is called hard light. Here are some tips for shooting in this type of light, and manipulating this type of light to make it work for you…

  1. Head to the edge of shade (as I did for the above photo). This is the best thing to do, as it will give you soft, even light to work with and will keep your subjects from squinting in the brighter light.
  2. Bounce light off of a reflector disc onto the shadowy areas to illuminate them. Let’s say you have hard light hitting the side of your subject’s face. You can angle a reflector so that light bounces off of it and onto the part of your subject’s face that is cast in shadow, giving a more even tone.
  3. Use an external flash unit. Fill in those unsightly shadows by using an external flash unit. You can power it down some for a more subtle effect. Another possibility is to remove your detachable flash unit from your camera’s hot shoe (the place where your flash attaches to your camera) and aim it at the darker areas to brighten them. My external flash comes with remote capability, making this type of maneuver a snap.
  4. Put a diffuser overhead. Another option is to have an assistant block out the hard light with a diffuser. Just make sure not to capture any of the diffuser in your shot.

Let’s talk a bit about indoor lighting… 

SusanTuttle_IndoorLighting A Photographers Guide to Understanding Light Guest Bloggers Photography Tips

If you plan on shooting indoors attempt to place your subject(s) next to a north-facing window, which will provide the most soft and diffuse type of light.

SusanTuttle_BounceFlash A Photographers Guide to Understanding Light Guest Bloggers Photography Tips

Utilize your external flash unit (try powering it down some for a more natural effect). You can bounce the light off of a reflector disc or white ceiling or wall (I bounced it off of a white ceiling in the shot above), or remove your flash and aim it at the dark areas. If you don’t have a detachable flash unit, you can use your camera’s built-in flash (although it has limitations). Most modern digital SLRs will allow you to power down the flash some. You might also consider using your camera’s ‘rear curtain sync’ feature, where the camera uses all of the ambient light (available light) to expose the shot before firing the flash at the very end.


Susan Tuttle is a digital SLR photographer, iPhoneographer, best-selling author and online instructor who lives in Maine. Her latest book, Art of Everyday Photography: Move Toward Manual and Make Creative Photos was recently published by North Light Books. Check it out– MCP Actions is mentioned a few times in the book as Susan uses this for much of her post-processing! View details about her latest online course (co-taught with mixed-media artist Alena Hennessy), Co-Lab: Paint, Paper and iPhoneography Magic, which is available at 50% off to all MCP Actions blog readers for a limited time only.


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