The one thing I have always been obsessed with since picking up a camera is light. There’s a bit of a funny story behind this. When I first started learning, I reached out to a photographer I admired with some sample images and asked her if she could recommend a course for me to improve. She recommended an off-camera flash course. Now, just to emphasize how green I was, I promptly signed up and waited for it to start all the while not realizing I would need … a flash. Seriously. I figured it out two days before the course started. I scrambled to get one and, while trying to figure out how it worked, I literally burned my pants with it. Guys, you don’t even know what a gong show I was, so I promise you, even if something seems scary to learn, you probably won’t set your clothes on fire so you’re already ahead of me ;). Needless to say, creating and incorporating light into my images was part of my foundational training even before I knew how to use natural light well so it’s something that is always in the forefront of my mind when shooting.
In this post, I would love to share techniques for shooting with/in six different kinds of light, as well as providing an editing video. The kinds of light I want to address are:
Shooting indoors with:
Creative light; and
Shooting outdoors with:
Overcast skies; and
When I first learned to shoot we lived in an almost windowless apartment, and even now we live in a middle-row townhome with only windows on the North and South sides. While some may find this limiting, I actually find it freeing. When you only have a few sources of light to work with, you aren’t overwhelmed with options and learn to think creatively. Let’s look at different ways of using whatever windows you have.
Sometimes I shoot with the window as part of the frame:
Sometimes I crop it out of the frame when I want the focus to just be on my subject:
And sometimes I shoot from above as shown below. I like to add variety by pulling back the carpet to see the nice hardwood underneath or by putting a blanket down on the ground:
Because I’m a lifestyle shooter (vs. documentary) I will often move things to create the image in my head. In this example, I pulled the crib away from the window so that my toddler could get to it and put some flowers he helped me pick there as a “surprise” for him to find. I love the half silhouette look achieved by shooting directly behind him and into the window light.
Don’t be afraid to look for anything that emits light. It doesn’t have to be a window. It can be light from an appliance, computer, or even shooting at night with all the lights turned off except for in one room.
In the following example, I set a chair in our dark hallway and turned on the bathroom lights. They provided the directional light that I love simply because they were coming into the frame from an adjacent room while the rest of the house was dark.
One thing to note is that you will need a faster lens to really maximize on this kind of light (unless you have very bright light bulbs!). I shoot indoors primarily with my Sigma Art 35mm, 1.4. I have to shoot fairly wide open and often only get a tuft of hair or eyelashes in focus due to the narrow depth of field required with dimmer light sources.
Another way to add variety to your portfolio is don’t think of light as only a means of illuminating your subject. Sometimes the light IS the subject or is equal in importance to the subject.
As I mentioned in my introduction, off-camera flash was a foundational tool in my learning kit, and I use it in a variety of ways when shooting indoors, especially in a home that lacks a lot of window options. Sometimes I put it inside an appliance like my dryer or even the oven (when it’s turned off!), since the lights inside of these appliances are too dim for my liking. Or even just tossing it inside a drawer can make a magical image.
Other times I set it inside a soft box to diffuse the light and create my own “window” where I don’t have one like in my kitchen, next to my dining room table, or even just sitting on the floor beside my kids. Here are some examples:
I can additionally use it to “boost” window light on a cloudy or dark day. In these images, it is sitting on the window ledge, bouncing off the curtains. It was an overcast day and I wasn’t getting as much light from the sky as I would like so I added extra with my flash.
And lastly, here is an example of me using light coming out of the bathroom again into the darker hallway, but with my flash rather than the dimmer tungsten lights inside so that I could shoot more closed down and have more in the field of focus.
I really try to avoid shooting in full sun whenever possible. I know some photographers embrace this and rock it, but I prefer to work around the sun rather than directly in it. I am always on the look out for nice open shade. A thick hedge and forest in the image above hid us from the sun and I added my own flare in post (see editing video for tutorial on this).
In this image, it was a super bright day, but I found a shady patch of grass beside my in-law’s house and laid my son down in it for the shot.
Here, again, my son is in the shade of a house. You can see a lighter strip of green behind him. That is where the sun was shining, but I adjusted my settings when shooting to not blow that area out so I could darken it while editing.
Here is another image where you can see the sun in the bottom left corner. I set up a race for my boy with the “starting line” in the shade and added a gentle flare in post.
And sometimes I just find the thickest tree cover I can and wait for one of my kids to walk into a spot of dappled light that I have exposed for to get an image like this.
One thing all of these images have in common is there is no sky showing. On a bright sunny day, unless you are using artificial light on your subjects, silhouetting them, or shooting with the sun directly on their faces, your sky is going to be totally white and blown out in order for you to expose for skin. I personally don’t like this bright, airy look and prefer richer colors and tones in my images, so I deliberately fill the background with anything but sky to achieve this.
Thankfully I live on the coast so we get a LOT of rainy or cloudy days. I actually don’t mind this because an overcast sky is like a giant soft box distributing light evenly everywhere. The only thing I don’t love about this is the lack of directional light. There often still is a slight bit of direction as the sun is stronger in one spot of the grey sky than others, but not as much as I would like.
To compensate for this, I create my own light in post processing. Like when shooting in full sun, I make sure that I don’t have a lot of boring, grey sky in my images. If the clouds themselves aren’t interesting, I fill the background with buildings or trees to add color and richness. Then, when editing, I use a radial filter in Lightroom to create a “glow” where the light is strongest already, and use gradient filters to burn down the other edges of the picture to create a path of light to my subject. The “haze” in all these images was added in post:
And lastly, the beloved golden hour. Honestly, I adore shooting in this light, but I often photograph young children and my own kids go to bed at 6pm. Thus, I can only pull this off when the days are shorter or if we keep the kids out past bedtime (which we occasionally do). I mean, there’s also the beautiful light of sunrise, but… no. Some photographers rock this, but I can’t function at that hour. Instead, I ask my families how late they can keep their kids up, and they sometimes pack pyjamas for the kids to fall asleep in on the ride home after the shoot. One thing I do try to do is cheat golden hour a little bit by careful location selection. If we are shooting by the ocean, there’s no way around the late sunset times. However, by the mountains, it tends to dip behind the hills an hour or two earlier so I can still get that golden glow without staying out as late.
You can also use a thick forested location in a similar way or, in this case, even a train!
Anything to break up the light and filter it a little bit will help you cheat golden hour if you can’t stay out quite that late. It still gives you that lovely directional light and a hint of warmth. Of course, if you can shoot in actual golden hour – do it!
I hope this post has been inspiring or helpful, and I would love to connect on social media (since I am a self-declared addict!), so feel free to reach out with any questions, or even just to share your own work! My IG and FB tags are as follows: