May 18, 2009

Looking for Light

One of my new favorite reads is Stu Maschwitz's Prolost blog. Here he breaks photos into three parts: Fact, Moment and Light. It is an easy to grasp description of what makes good photography good. Better yet, it is really neat to apply this three-layered thought process to shooting, and making better photos.

Go read that post. Then read it again. There is a lot to it, so I will probably refer back to it in several upcoming posts. Today, it is all about light.

Now turn off the flash on your camera. This post is going to be about finding light, not making it.

At the end of the last post, I suggested looking at people with the intent of seeing the light on their faces. From harsh midday sun to candlelight, every situation creates a different feel. Seeing it, and being able to intentionally capture it is a powerful photographic tool.

Most of the time, we are looking for nice, soft, pleasing light that gives enough shadow for depth, but not enough to make harsh lines or deep black shadows on faces. Obviously this means get out of the direct sun... So, I am discovering some of my favorite places to make nice on-the go portraits are..

Beside Windows
Wedding and portrait photographers have always done this, and master painters before them. Indirect light through big windows is often beautiful light. Add to this that the rest of the room (with artificial lights turned off) is usually darker than your subject area, making a nice background.


With different posing, you can do all kinds of things with the shadows as well. Find a willing model and have fun playing with different angles and poses. You will see that it is hard to get a bad photo by a big window.


In the Shade

On bright sunny days, take your subject into the shade. The sky will act like a big, soft light. Once you find some nice shade, you can play with angles to see what works for background or shadows. When there is no good background, just move in close.


In case you are wondering if it was a bright sunny day here... you can see the blue sky with light clouds in her eye reflections. The bright catchlight in her eye is the sun shining on the chimney of my house.


Big Lights Indoors

When there are no big windows around, or when it is dark outside, find a light fixture that has multiple bulbs, like a chandelier. Get your model close to the light, and it will act similar to one big light source.


When there is only bad light?

There is no such thing as bad light. You just have to realize what the light is doing, then get creative. If all you have is harsh light, play with your subjects until you have something you like, and make the most of the conditions.


Harsh shadows can be fun too... if that is what you want. The key is being aware of how the light is shaping your photo, especially your subjects' faces, so that you can make the photo you want.

Ok, now go find light and have fun with it.

Happy Shooting,

don j


  1. Love the car photo. Also like the angle on the big smile. Good stuff.

  2. Thanks Michael. That car made a great photo prop. That is at The Servants bookstore in Kaufman after their Murder Mystery Dinner last Friday.

  3. What were using and your settings?

  4. It was very very dark to be sure...

    Using the 5D, 24-70mm, iso3200, f2.8, 1/10...

    Then in Lightroom, +1.7 boost to the exposure, some noise reduction, desaturation, sharpening and curves adjustment for the funky look.

    Some other fun ones from the same time are on the zenfolio site...

    and those you can hold the mouse over the top rh corner of the photo to view the exif data about exposure etc.