Photography and Light: Tips for the Everyday Photographer

By Apr 5, 2011June 5th, 201944 Comments

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Photography is all about lighting. A camera is nothing more than a device that burns light onto a sensitive strip of film, paper or in the case of a digital camera, an image sensor. In order to take better photographs, it’s critical to understand how to capture light and preferably, how to bend it to make it do your will.

Lighting is an important element in photography. These photography tips and tricks will teach you about outdoor and indoor lighting for photos.

Photo Lighting Tips

Outdoor Lighting

Unless your creative vision requires strong shadows or taking advantage of the sun’s brightness, you probably don’t want to go outside at high noon and take pictures of your subject in direct sunlight. Strong shadows can cause unflattering distortions in perception.

Diffused sunlight is soft and even and makes photographing outside easier. Take notice of your surroundings and you’ll likely find several places throughout the day which make perfect spots to take photographs.

Open Shade

Find a nice shady spot, such as under a tree, porch or canopy, in the shadow of a building or in an alley. This works especially well for portraits!

Purple Flower Trio 10x Close Up
Shot in the shadow of my house.

Overcast Days

When the sun is hidden behind a sheet of clouds, it naturally diffuses the light. You may need to be careful of your composition to avoid the inclusion of gray skies, however.

Chocolate chip cookies framed two ways
Overcast days are perfect to take food, products, crafts, etc outside to shoot it!

Sunrise, Sunset: The Golden Hour

Also known as the magic hour, the first and last hour of light during the day is a photographer’s holy grail. Due to the way sunlight travels through the atmosphere, the light is soft and warm and makes just about anything look good.

Neverending Golden Days

Photo Credit: Kyle Kruchok Photography via Creative Commons license.

If you’re the crafty type, you could also:

  • Make Your Own Shade: Use a sheer or opaque umbrella, sheet or shower curtain to create your own shaded set up. Unless you want to rig up something to keep this in place, an assistant or two will probably be needed.
  • Make Your Own Light Box: If you take a lot of photos of food, products or crafts for your blog, you might want to look into making a very cheap and easy lightbox out of a cardboard box and some sheets of white paper. (With the addition of a cheap desk lamp or two from the thrift store you’ll have the ability to shoot both indoors and outdoors.)

Sun Effects

back of a sunflower in the morning sunshine

A back lit sunflower! Photo Credit: Kelly Pugliano of Mom Got Blog. Used with permission.

branches in the sky with the sun shining from left sidePhoto Walk - By the Railroad - grass
shadow of child with pinwheel

 Orangey Sunset over roof of house

More Photo Lighting Tips

You can use the sun’s brightness to your advantage to photograph shadows, sunflares, starbursts, silhouettes or produce a hazy effect. For more information about attempting these techniques, check out the following articles:

Many of the articles tell you to shoot manually and that it might not be possible on point and shoots. Try it anyway using the other tips given! I’ve seen great sunflare in iPhone camera shots and that’s hardly as sophisticated as a point and shoot!

Indoor Lighting

Indoor lighting is extremely challenging. It’s frequently dim which makes it hard to focus and capture your subjects. It contains multiple light sources which, when combined, could produce odd colors in your photographs. Just like outdoors, take notice of your house throughout the day to find the areas with the best natural and artificial light. This is where you want to take your photos.

Utilize Natural Light

Windows with indirect sunlight work great as soft, even light sources. If you have horizontal blinds, you can try angling them to bounce the light off a wall or the ceiling for added depth. Your subject will look less flat with light hitting it from the side. Don’t forget you can also open doors to let in light!

kid with pretzel
On overcast days, our living room windows make it lovely to take photos of the kids indoors.

cut apple

Photograph your subjects next to a window receiving indirect light.
Works great for food, crafts or other products.

Photo Credit: Lindsay Maddox of Designer Wife. Used with permission.

Low Lighting (Avoiding Flash!)

01-01-10 - Elias found a toothpick - 1/365This is a terrible lighting condition and one place where having a better camera and better lenses will help most. Try turning on or bringing close as many like-colored lights as possible.

02-07-11 - Peeking Over Daddy's Shoulder

Position or catch your subject as close as possible to your light source inside to avoid using flash.

Use the Flash, If You Must

Usually I’d advise keeping your camera’s on-board flash off unless it’s absolutely necessary. It produces harsh shadows and completely darkens the background. (Sometimes it’s cool, many times it isn’t.) Red eye and odd coloring are also side effects of flash.

You could try softening your on-camera flash by sticking a piece of tape or a coffee filter on top. Also check your camera manual to see if it’s possible to control the intensity of the flash and experiment with that. If it’s a shot that can wait, hold off until there’s enough natural light to take it.

Check out 8 On-Camera Flash Tips and Shooting with an In-Camera Flash for more photo tips!

Your Photography Challenge

Find the best spots for light indoors and outdoors around your home (or wherever you are). Take as many photos as possible in your best spots!