Working with light: How to take advantage of different lighting situations to get stunning photos


Photography enthusiasts are told time and time again to ‘study the light’.

This is because a good understanding of light will drastically expand a photographer’s ability to create great images in the most dire lighting conditions.

If you are an experienced photographer, the following article will help refresh your understanding of some common workarounds to the challenges of working in different lighting conditions. If you are a beginning photographer, be prepared to have fun because learning to read and manipulate light can be quite a revelation.

01. Window Light

Window light is an excellent, readily available light source that’s perfect for portraits – particularly when shooting shy or reluctant models. The gentle illumination of natural light can be very flattering and it’s absolutely possible to achieve a professional result with minimal equipment.

It’s best to start by switching off any artificial lights in the room and experiment with opening/closing the various window coverings to control the direction of the light. It’s also good to play around with the distance between the model and the window. A shallow depth of field is usually best to blur out the background.

A Natural Softbox for Portraits
If the model is facing the light and the photographer is positioned between them and the window (without blocking the light of course), it’s possible to get a portrait of great delicacy with lovely catchlights in the eyes. Some interesting effects can be achieved with shadows and patterns from curtains and other window coverings too.

The Advantage of Side Lighting
Window light often produces a directional light that can be used to great dramatic effect. This kind of lighting has been done to death and yet it is still used to produce fresh and captivating imagery. Some people love the heavy shadows that may fall on one side of the face – if this doesn’t appeal – a simple white reflector will help.

02. Backlight

Photographers are often told to keep the light behind them and avoid backlighting their image. This is because the camera will automatically focus and expose for the brightest spot in the photo, leaving the subject in shadow or out of focus.

But we can’t always control the position of the subject and light. In any case, backlighting can be used to create cool atmospheric images in the most unforgiving sunlight. It can play absolute havoc on the auto settings on the camera however, so it’s best to use a spot or manual focus, together with a manual or semi-manual exposure.

Dreamy Imagery
Backlighting is often used to create dreamy lifestyle images. The underexposed background is little more than a blur and the entire image looks washed out or covered in a thin film of light that looks particularly good in the golden hour.

During the daylight hours, this gives the image a cool, whitewashed look.

Backlighting is also excellent for creating dreamy photographs of transparent objects such as fine clothing, netting and drapery.

Lens Flare
Shooting directly into the light will often result in a light phenomenon known as lens flare. This occurs when the light hits the lens to create a sort of burst of light. This can easily be avoided by shifting the angle of the camera. But some people actually love the summery aesthetic of the look. Remove the lens hood for the strongest results.

Photo by Simon Forster

If the light source is too strong, it can help to use the subject to block or partially filter the light too.

The most common way to use backlighting is to create silhouettes. These generally best work with strong, simple shapes and it often helps to shoot up towards the sky to remove excess clutter.

Here is a street scene that could have looked quite ordinary if it was exposed for the middle tones. Instead, the photographer has directed the camera straight into the light and underexposed the scene. The figures are turned into silhouettes, large areas are plunged into darkness and the misty golden light becomes the real focus.

Photo by Jonas Weckschmied

Here’s another example of how backlighting and silhouettes work in a more typically picturesque natural location. The sharp contrasts undoubtedly add a whole lot more drama that you might see with a standard daylight exposure. This is particularly useful aesthetic choice to make if the frame looks a bit busy and lacking in focus.

Photo by Tobias Keller

Smoke and Mist
Backlighting can be used to capture elusive and delicate trails of smoke, mist and fine particles in the light too.

03. The Blue Hour

Twilight – that half hour or so before sunrise and after sunset is also known by photographers as the blue hour. This brief period of the day provides a shadowy, wonderfully atmospheric light. Of course, the lack of illumination is the key challenge. So shooting in this period will typically require a slow shutter speed and/or a tripod.

Moody Effects with Slow Shutter Speeds
This kind of light is often used to shoot seaside images. The slow shutter speed blurs the movement of the water and the combination of a blue light cast on blue water can be used to create a minimalist, soothing effect.

Photo by Dorini Damsa

Warm Elements for Contrast
The blue cast of this hour looks great with complementary shades of orange. This means that candles, fires, street lights and lamps can be used to provide a fantastic rich image full of gentle contrasts and multiple illumination.

Side Lighting and Textures
The sun is below the horizon line during the blue hour, so the subject is cast in a strong side light. This can be used to highlight the textures and form of a scene.

04. The Golden Hour

The famed ‘golden hour’ is the easiest lighting situation in which to get stunning photos and it’s no surprise that lots of photographers specifically plan their shoots around this time of the day.

To make the most of this warm, soft and golden light, give yourself plenty of time to familiarize yourself with your location well before the golden hour hits and be prepared to work quickly.

The Ultimate Light for a Variety of Situations

Photo by Christian Joudrey

It often helps to change your approach as the light changes and start shooting silhouettes as the lighting fades.

Photo by Teddy Kelley

05. Wet and Overcast Weather

Many people are reluctant to shoot in overcast weather because large areas of light-grey cloud can look boring and the light can seem quite flat. But all that cloud cover actually works as a huge light diffuser. This kind of light can provide a wonderfully rich illumination with a huge range of tones. If the sky looks like one flash wash of grey, it often helps to eliminate the sky from the frame entirely. Stormy clouds are obviously much more interesting to include.

Photo by Nicomiot Photographies

Flattering Portraits
Overcast lighting is soft and diffused, so it’s perfect for portraits. The main challenge is to avoid that muddy look. A classic technique is to examine the light on your hand, then shift your position until you can detect the subtle direction of the light. The model should then be placed in position so this light hits their eyes to create highlights – also known as catchlights. Often it helps to position the model low and have them look up towards the sky and into the camera frame.

Neutral Colours
Overcast light generally has a grey quality that tends to neutralize color. This can be used to create a subtle colour scheme. But it can also be overcome by introducing a bright splash of colour.

Photo by Dawid Sobolewski

Minimalist Compositions
Foggy weather can easily turn everything into one wash of neutral, washed out grey. But this means that there is lots of room to create a quietly powerful image with an extremely simple composition.

06. Strong Daylight

Bright daylight provides a lot of options. But all that illumination generally needs to be carefully manipulated to achieve appealing results.

Fill Flash
A common problem with strong daylight is the sharp contrast caused by ugly and distracting shadows. This is when it really helps to use a flash for the darker areas of the image. When shooting portraits, expose for the brighter background, then use the flash to light the subject’s face. This will help create an even, color-rich image with an effect somewhat like this.

Using Open Shade
Strong daylight usually spills into open shaded areas to create a more diffuse, gentle light that is generally more workable. Of course, the further from the light, the more gentle the light will be. Strictly speaking, this image isn’t shot in full shade, but it does show how shade can be used to cut down on the strength of daylight.

Shadow Patterns
If the daylight is not too strong, the filtered light of a tree in shadow can be used to introduce patterns into the image.

Action Shots
The best thing about strong daylight is that it provides plenty of illumination, so there is lots of room to use a high shutter speed for super fast action shots.

Photo by Atlas Green

07. Artificial Street and City Lights

It’s no secret that night lights can be used to create great light trails with long exposures. But these images can feel a little cliched after a while. A more interesting – and potentially subtle – way to use city lights, is to layer them with other light sources.

Cityscapes at twilight
As mentioned earlier, street lights can be combined with the dim light of twilight to create rich colorful urban images.

Neon Lights
Neon lights can also be used to light a subject’s face. This can definitely be tricky so it plays to spend some time experimenting with different light courses and positions.

Mobile Light Sources
There is a huge range of alternative – and mobile – lighting options readily available to most people. Electronic tablets, phones and even light beads or fairy lights can be used to layer up artificial night light.

Photo by Naletu

Light trails
Those who simply love light trails, can lift them beyond the ordinary by focussing on a single color value.

Finally, challenging lighting doesn’t need to be mysterious or elusive. There are lots of opportunities to make stunning imagery in less than ideal situations. All you really need is a willingness to absorb some new techniques and the passion to explore the options. After all, the best photos come from an exploratory approach and a desire to see the world anew. That’s what makes so most of us passionate about photography anyway.