Photography Lighting 101: Easy and Effective Tricks to Get That Glow

Dec 15, 2005

Ever wondered why your photos lack the glowing, rich, deep look that you see in professional photography publications and blogs? The key is a strong sense of lighting both while shooting and in post-production. An engagement photo-shoot in a sun-dappled park, for example, will require an entirely different approach than a stormy seascape or landscape at dawn. Along with composition, lighting is the other fundamental aspect of the art that must be considered every time you pre-visualize a photograph.

The Basics: Light vs. Shadow

In thinking about lighting, we need to consider it in 2 ways: light and shadow. Shooting in strong and even light with dark, crisp shadows is an excellent way for a new photographer to get a grounding on how dramatically lighting effects composition. Train your eye to look beyond the subject matter and into the image’s overall balance of bright and dark. The shadow of a fence row, for example, might balance the lower portion of a picture with the stormy clouds above, or lead the viewer’s eye toward a distant figure on the horizon.

Of course, strong light has its pitfalls. If you are shooting towards the sun, beware of 2 problems: (1) spotty patches of reflected light coming off a surface; these can often be handled through the use of a polarizing filter and (2) spots of light bouncing off the lens elements causing degradation to the image. Using a lens hood and keeping an immaculately clean lens can help minimize the problem. Some photographers choose to produce it deliberately or just go with it to “enhance” the image, but I find the effect distracting. In these situations, I prefer to use my hat with its large brim as an auxiliary lens shade and find it works quite well until the sun is almost at the horizon.

Timing: When Opportunity Knocks…

Many professionals swear by “the golden hours” of sunrise and early evening when the diffused light from the sun produces intense, saturated results. However, any environment or time of day offers unique opportunities. Cloudy afternoons can be perfect for getting wonderful suffusive flower close-ups. On a bright sunny afternoon when contrast is at its highest, if a glossy subject, such as an automobile, is reflecting too much light, park it under a tree to diffuse the sunlight. Photographers must be able to be flexible and creative to get the perfect shot.

Having the appropriate equipment makes a big difference in achieving results that may be difficult due to environment or time of day. One good investment is an off camera flash that allows you to correct the difference in exposure quickly between shorter and longer ranges of distance. With this simple technique, you can create a final image where both foreground subject and background are more evenly illuminated.

Dramatic Outdoor Effects

While it may not have the even, consistent results of studio lights and reflectors, natural light with all its moods and subtle variations presents us daily with unparalleled opportunity for creating gorgeous photographs. Try achieving a bokeh effect, where the photo’s subject is sharply in focus while the background is fuzzy. This is particularly easy with the combination of a fast lens, defined sunlight (helpful though not necessary) and a good amount of space between the foreground subject and the background. (Don’t forget to use a wide aperture to isolate the subject as much as possible and double check for focus as your depth of field will not be very big.)

Another popular outdoor lighting strategy is the silhouette portrait. Shooting your subject directly against a blazing sunset or rising moon creates a defined dramatic photo, with the added bonus of a natural frame of diffused light and leading shadows that guide the viewer’s eye where you want it to go. Do remember the pitfalls of shooting with backlight as I have outlined above.

These are just a few ideas to get you started on your journey to mastering the subtle art of seeing light. We have a wealth of tips and ideas in our blog archive, plus products and resources to enhance your skills on our main site. Don’t hesitate to visit our homepage to find out more!