Mastering the use of light in digital photography

Make light work with you instead of against you for beautiful photographs

by Katherine Gray on December 1, 2010

Light is the very essence of photography. It's even in the source of the word "photography," which literally means light painting. The art form has evolved from the complicated chemistry of light-reactive silver halides and wet plate collodion processes to the even more complicated technology of digital image sensors and megapixels, but the basic idea of using a medium to capture a picture in light remains the same. Learning how to use light to your advantage can be the difference between a mediocre picture and a beautiful piece of art.

We've talked before about using light wisely, but today we're going to go even more in-depth on the subject.

pre-dawn-beach Timing is everything
If at all possible, arrange your photo shoot to take advantage of the best lighting conditions. When shooting outside, the warmth and color of the light, as well as its angles and the shadows it creates, are all drastically affected by the time of day and angle of the sun. Here's a quick run-down of the light at different times of day:

  • Pre-dawn Too dark for general photography, but great for misty, ethereal landscapes. Look for ground fog above lakes and rivers for interesting effects. Use a tripod or your camera's self-timer to take long-exposure shots like the one at the right.
  • Dawn Long shadows and cool, crisp, white light if your subject is facing east.
  • Early morning Beautiful, warm light and soft shadows. Excellent for portraiture.
  • Midday With the sun directly overhead, the light is generally too stark for taking pictures of people or landscapes, as it creates harsh dark shadows.
  • Afternoon This is the time of day when you can find beautiful, deep blue skies and puffy white clouds. Excellent for landscapes.
  • Late afternoon More beautiful, warm, golden light. Also an excellent time for portraits and west-facing landscapes, particularly about an hour before sunset.
  • Sunset Look for the best colorful skies about 10 minutes before and 10 minutes after sunset. You'll probably need a fill flash if you're going to take pictures of people outside around sunset.
  • Dusk, evening The moments when there's still some purple tinge to the sky are a great time to take pictures of city skylines and landscapes, but you'll need a tripod to hold the camera steady.

Light is everywhere!
When composing a photograph, it's important to be aware of all of the light that goes into it—not just the most obvious light sources (the sun, your camera's flash, an overhead fixture, the light from a window), but also the light that's reflected off things or coming from secondary sources. This is especially important when you're photographing something with a reflective surface, such as a window, mirror, or even your subject's glasses.

If you're getting some distracting glare, try moving your subject slightly to one side or the other, or move yourself in relation to the subject. You'll frequently find that a very small adjustment will eliminate the problem.

Nature? but better
Everyone looks better in natural light than in the harsh glare of the typical camera's built-in flash. But sometimes, nature just doesn't provide enough light or light from the right direction. In those cases, there are some tricks you can use to pump things up a bit.

  • Fill flash This is a technique that uses the flash to lighten areas which would otherwise be in shadow, even when the background is getting plenty of light. Most compact cameras have a fill flash setting. It's most useful to properly expose a subject against a brighter background, such as window in an otherwise dim room. Using the fill flash, the camera will base its settings on the light of the background and use the flash to illuminate the subject, as seen in the photo of the dog to the right.
  • Bounce flash A somewhat more advanced tool, a bounce flash is an external flash unit that generally attaches to a camera and takes the place of the internal flash. The bounce flash allows you to aim the light of the flash somewhere other than directly at your subject—usually at the ceiling—so that the light that reaches the subject is softer and less direct, resulting in softer shadows and more natural light.
  • reflector
  • Reflectors As the name implies, reflectors are generally light-colored objects used to reflect existing light (either from lamps or natural sources) onto a subject. Much like the bounce flash, this results in softer light on the subject. Reflectors can be shaped like umbrellas, thin circular disks, or flat boards. In a pinch, any solid, flat, light-colored object will do. I've even used a bedroom mirror taken off the wall to reflect light onto a subject. Reflectors are often used to provide another light source on the subject, to lessen shadows cast by the primary light.

Tricks of the light
There are lots of fun tricks you can do with light to enhance your photography. Most of them involve breaking the rules we've been telling you about all along!

It's easy to create stunning silhouettes. For example, position your subject with the light coming from behind, then set your camera's light reading on the background instead of on your subject. This will result in your subject being underexposed—i.e., in silhouette—against the background.

You can also try setting a long shutter speed in a dark scene, and moving a light like a flashlight, sparkler, or laser pointer around in front of your camera. You'll be able to see the trails of light in your photo. (There's actually an entire school of photographic art based around this, called light painting.)


Related Media

DSLR setups for the portrait taker
DSLR setups for the portrait taker

Whether you want to take photos inside or out, every portrait photographer needs the same kind of gear.

DSLR setups for the sports enthusiast
DSLR setups for the sports enthusiast

Is that a super telephoto lens in your hand, or are you just pleased to be taking sports photos?

DSLR setups for fans of the great outdoors
DSLR setups for fans of the great outdoors

With a modern DSLR in your hand, the world's beautiful vistas are your oyster.

Mastering the use of light in digital photography
Mastering the use of light in digital photography

Make light work with you instead of against you for beautiful photographs.

learning center home

DSLR Learning Center
DSLR Learning Center

Info articles, buying guides, everyday deals and more.