5 steps to improve the light in your photos right now

  • photo of sisters standing by the water by Anita Perminova

5 steps to improve the light in your photos right now

The word “photography” comes from two Greek words meaning “light” and “drawing”, together meaning “drawing with light”.

Without light it would be hard to create a photograph. Learning to use natural light effectively and understanding how the light works is essential for all photographers.

We take photos with the aim to tell stories, to convey a mood and an atmosphere, to communicate to the viewer what it was like to be there at that exact moment. By finding the best light and angle to a subject before clicking your shutter can help you take your image to the next level.

I’ve outlined five steps you can take to improve the way you use natural light in your photography without spending a penny.

1. Expose for the highlights

When exposing your photo, look for the brightest part of the frame and expose for that. If you opt to expose for the shadows, especially in a high contrast situation like middle of the day sun, your highlights will be blown out and most likely unrecoverable in the editing process. Overexposed images like this are unpleasing to the eye and pull the viewer from your desired subject.

Choosing to expose for the highlights creates a more pleasing image with good tones that don’t distract the viewer. If exposing for the highlights does not work in highlighting your subject as the focus of the image, consider moving your subject so the light falls as you desire on them/it.

The LCD monitor on the back of your camera is a great tool to use when checking your images for focus and composition, but when it comes to determining exposure, using the LCD can be somewhat deceiving. I always make sure that Highlight Alert setting (“blinkies”) is enabled. It will show to you where the overexposed/blown out areas in your images are located. The image preview blinks in areas that are completely white and have no detail.

pic of kid jumping in the waves by Anita Perminova

2. Consider the color of the light

Be aware that the quality and color of the light will change according to the time of day, season and weather. That means that different kinds of natural light will make the same scene look different.

  • At high noon on a sunny day the light is the most neutral.
  • The color temperature of light in the shade is always blue because the light source is the blue sky.
  • The light can appear white or grey on an overcast day if the cloud cover is thick and the sun is higher in the sky.
  • When the sun is lower in the sky at sunrise or sunset the light passes through a thicker layer of atmosphere which filters the blue light leaving the red color.

picture of girl by a greenhouse with sunflowers in it by Anita Perminova

To a photographer, it means getting correct white balance right in camera. Digital cameras need help to compensate for different types of lighting and render a white object white. The white balance setting helps to get the colors on your images as accurate as possible. While many cameras have an easy to access button to adjust white balance, I recommend reading your camera manual to clarify.

White-Balance-Color-Temperature-Kelvin-Reference-Chart-for-Photographers

Learn how to use Kelvin to set your white balance here.

3. Find pockets of light

Observe light in your everyday life, how it interacts with everything around you, coming through the trees, or hitting the grass, the snow, or the streets.

Look for pockets of light, the areas where the light shines in and is dark around the edges, observe how the light falls on your subject and how it casts shadows. Using these pockets of light to highlight your subject will result in more dramatic images and help to create layers of depth within a photo.

picture of girl on a rocky beach by Anita Perminova

4. Use locations based on your light choice

To me, when shooting outdoors, the location scouting is based on the type of light I want to get in my images. For instance, if you want to get a lot of haze and flare, search for open areas. Make sure the background is shadowed and there is something that can block, filter, or direct the light like buildings, trees or mountains.

photo of woods with pretty light and a starburst by Anita Perminova

5. Utilise the available light to your advantage

Take the time to look at the light around you and think about what you are trying to achieve. It’s critical to find the right time of day to shoot your outdoor scene.

Golden hour and backlighting:

In photography, the best time to have a soft, diffused light in your images is the golden hour. The golden hour, sometimes called the magic hour, is roughly the first hour of light after sunrise, and the last hour of light before sunset. This type of light is more directional, has less contrast, and easier to control.

Golden hour is perfect for backlighting. The sun must be in the background of your subject, which will also show the rim light around the edges of the subject. Another way to make backlighting easier is to find something to filter the light through like some bushes or trees, clouds make a great filter on cloudy days, or you can try using your subject or a building to partially block the sun. You can also add haze into your images by allowing the sun to enter the lens and hit the camera’s sensor. The result is a backlit image with a beautiful, hazy glow (warm in evenings and cooler in mornings). The best way to control haze is trying different angles by simply moving around until you get the perfect spot.

backlit pic of girl in a yellow dress on a beach by Anita Perminova

Overcast and cloudy day:

The sky becomes a giant soft box for the sun on overcast days and it means that you can work throughout the day with a consistent light source. However, there can be some challenges to deal with.

First of all, although the light is soft and diffused it’s coming from overhead. If you can’t subtract overhead light, just get your subject to look up in order to help the light to reach the eyes, create beautiful catchlights, and make sure the deep shadows in eye sockets (i.e. racoon eyes) have disappeared. Second, with the light coming from above and all the sides images can appear flat and two-dimensional. You can remove the overhead light by giving the light direction and force the light to hit your subject at a better angle. Look for a natural barrier to provide the shadows, a row of trees, or a building, or basically any place that is blocking some light from overhead and/or on the side. Always know where the sun is, even if you can’t see it, and face your subject towards the sun.

portrait of young girl with leaves in the foreground by Anita Perminova

Shooting in full sun:

I adore how the midday sun creates amazing blue skies and turns the whole world vibrant. This is the light in which we live our life and want to document it. Remember that harsh or hard light creates dramatic shadows. Pay attention to where the sun is and try to capture the whole scene instead of attempting a portrait. Make sure that the sun is shining directly on your subject.

photo of girl in a yellow dress by the water by Anita Perminova

Please remember, you must practice shooting in unique types of light. The aim is to train your eyes to recognise different lighting scenarios and eventually to be able to predict accurately when the light is interesting by looking at it so you know exactly when to take a photo that will convey your vision to a viewer.

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Without light it would be hard to create a photograph. Learning to use light effectively and understanding how it works is essential for all photographers.

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About the Author:

Anita Perminova is a portrait photographer, filmmaker, and a contributing artist at Offset living in the beautiful city of Amsterdam, The Netherlands. She's passionate about turning real life into fine art. She loves to create simple, yet classic, emotive portraits of her children and capture details that define the present stage of their childhood in just one frame. Visit Anita Perminova online.
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81 Comments

  1. Jennifer A W Oct 17 2016 at 12:57 pm - Reply

    Right now, I’m loving backlight…but it might be different next week.

    • Anita Oct 18 2016 at 10:34 am - Reply

      Backlight is magical! my preferred light during the golden hour especially.

  2. Amber Oct 17 2016 at 4:32 pm - Reply

    Can every type of light be my favorite?

    • Anita Oct 18 2016 at 10:37 am - Reply

      Absolutely yes! i love shooting at all times of the day because it gives completely different look and mood to my images. I love the variety 😉

  3. Kelly Sroka Oct 17 2016 at 4:49 pm - Reply

    I love the light as the sun is going down–the golden rays that illuminate nature.

    • Anita Oct 18 2016 at 10:41 am - Reply

      Thank you Kelly, it’s amazing! I always feel grateful to be able to capture those.

  4. Kaela Oct 17 2016 at 8:35 pm - Reply

    Awesome article!! I love golden hour light! Would love to shoot at that time more often!

  5. Gen Oct 17 2016 at 9:27 pm - Reply

    Thank you for these advice! Love the article!

  6. Rishelle Oct 17 2016 at 9:54 pm - Reply

    Low backlight or filtered backlight <3

  7. Melia Oct 17 2016 at 10:43 pm - Reply

    Evening golden hour always makes me giddy with my camera!

  8. Jennifer snavely Oct 17 2016 at 10:45 pm - Reply

    Pockets of light

  9. shari S Oct 17 2016 at 11:11 pm - Reply

    Great tips, thanks!

  10. Lauren Kirkham Oct 17 2016 at 11:46 pm - Reply

    Great article! I love hazy backlit images!

  11. Leslie Swaim-Fox Oct 18 2016 at 9:10 am - Reply

    This is such a helpful article! Great overview but lots of details to think about in different types of light! Thank you!!

  12. Mari Sierra Oct 18 2016 at 9:16 am - Reply

    My favorite light is golden hour… sounds cliche but there’s something magical about it

  13. Amanda Myers Oct 18 2016 at 10:39 am - Reply

    I definitely prefer backlit golden hour photos- probably like almost everyone else! But they are so pretty, right?

  14. Amanda Myers Oct 18 2016 at 10:40 am - Reply

    Although I like experimenting with different types of light, I gotta always fall back on backlit, dramatic golden hour pictures. They are so pretty, right?

  15. Alyssa Ahern Oct 18 2016 at 11:26 am - Reply

    Love this, Anita!! My favorite type of lighting is backlighting. Your images are amazing!!

  16. Jackleen Oct 18 2016 at 12:42 pm - Reply

    Loved your post! I’m actually a huge fan of overcast days 🙂

  17. Brandie Oct 18 2016 at 2:55 pm - Reply

    Great article and tips! I love sun flare!

  18. Heather Oct 18 2016 at 5:22 pm - Reply

    I have always loved golden hour and I am just beginning to learn how to use it for backlighting. Great article!

  19. Mary Colleen Grier Oct 18 2016 at 5:49 pm - Reply

    I love dramatic window light and exposing for the highlights 🙂

  20. Kellie Oct 18 2016 at 6:06 pm - Reply

    Great article and always beautiful photos, Anita! My fave light is definitely backlight.

  21. Chrissy Mazer Oct 18 2016 at 8:23 pm - Reply

    I love side light =) And strange light sources like refrigerators and tablets.

  22. Jessica Nelson Oct 18 2016 at 8:37 pm - Reply

    This is a fantastic article. I just love #4 and shooting in full sun, but backlighting is also a fave. 🙂

  23. Jamie Shortt Oct 18 2016 at 8:54 pm - Reply

    Hmmm, I don’t know if I have a favourite type of light, lol – but, I can say that I’m still trying to master the art of golden hour light!

  24. Brittany Anderson Oct 18 2016 at 9:29 pm - Reply

    Sun Flare and backlight have to be my favorite.

  25. Emily Hamson Oct 18 2016 at 9:42 pm - Reply

    Thanks for the wonderful reminders of different light! I often get so involved in shooting one type of light that I forget to keep looking for different kinds of light in the same places. Backlighting is my favorite!

  26. Emily Hamer-West Oct 18 2016 at 10:35 pm - Reply

    Lately I’m loving moody light.

  27. Kim L Oct 18 2016 at 11:25 pm - Reply

    This spring and summer it has been all about the backlight!

  28. Lindsay Oct 19 2016 at 8:37 am - Reply

    Thanks for the article! I always struggle with the highlights and you had some great tips.

  29. Anna Oct 19 2016 at 1:58 pm - Reply

    Wonderful article! Backlighting is definitely my fave. 🙂

  30. Ophelia Oct 19 2016 at 5:54 pm - Reply

    I think my favorite type of light is backlighting.

  31. Nicky Merkel Oct 20 2016 at 3:30 am - Reply

    Great article! My favorite lighting is my trusted and true golden hour

  32. Sharlyn Oct 20 2016 at 4:12 pm - Reply

    Soft, white window light would be right at the top of the list, but I would love to get better at shooting in full sun! I’m starting to love the look of those kinds of photos!

  33. charmaine Oct 20 2016 at 9:12 pm - Reply

    Golden Hour light can’t be beat.

  34. Anda Panciuk Oct 21 2016 at 9:56 am - Reply

    Great article, Anita! I’m kind of loving dappled light right now, although I wish I could find more of it. Still afraid of full sun. 😉

  35. shannon benfield Oct 21 2016 at 10:21 am - Reply

    Thank you for the great article, I love back light and golden hour!

  36. Ashley Oct 21 2016 at 10:24 am - Reply

    Great article! I’m currently obsessed with backlight… although, that may change next week 😉

  37. Chanel Oct 21 2016 at 10:59 am - Reply

    I love rim lighting but dramatic sidelight is also a favorite!

  38. RK Oct 21 2016 at 11:10 am - Reply

    I love golden hour, like many others here!

  39. Angela Oct 21 2016 at 1:37 pm - Reply

    Great points in the article! I wonder – do pick your lens first or your location?

  40. erica Oct 21 2016 at 1:47 pm - Reply

    My favorite is golden hour but I don’t shoot much in that. I shoot during day, natural light usually, have tried to improve on full sun.
    Great article , thank you!!!

  41. Ebony Oct 21 2016 at 1:50 pm - Reply

    Beautiful images and wonderful tips!

  42. Donna Denee G Oct 21 2016 at 2:08 pm - Reply

    My favorite light is low light – whether it’s a sliver of small, hard light or a soft, diffused low amount of light. I’m blaming this infatuation on taking Megan Cieloha’s MNLI class and the influence of Caroline Jensen’s Moody Kitchen website! 🙂

  43. Amy Oct 21 2016 at 3:35 pm - Reply

    Great read and beautiful images! I love using Kelvin! It was a total a-ha moment and game changer for me!

  44. Jessica Oct 21 2016 at 7:22 pm - Reply

    Great tips! I love it!

  45. Kati S Oct 21 2016 at 7:40 pm - Reply

    Golden hour light is still my favorite!

  46. Gabrielle Malcuit Oct 21 2016 at 7:54 pm - Reply

    I love sunset light and shooting with backlighting!

  47. Magan Sheffield Oct 21 2016 at 8:35 pm - Reply

    Great post! I love back light and of course golden hour.

  48. Sopo Oct 21 2016 at 9:10 pm - Reply

    Pocket of light

  49. Leah Oct 21 2016 at 9:51 pm - Reply

    I love golden hour light and sunrise <3

  50. Nikki Tewes Oct 21 2016 at 10:05 pm - Reply

    I definitely love golden hour light.

  51. Pam Moleski Oct 21 2016 at 10:14 pm - Reply

    love a little backlighting but I don’t get to shoot with it very often. I’m learning to embrace the fluorescent lighting that is prevalent in the model railroad community

  52. Leslie Eglseder Oct 22 2016 at 12:55 am - Reply

    I am just getting started so I am loving natural light. I start Into Into Natural Light soon and excited that I will learn new lighting to love. My fav light is when it just casts a rim around my sons fine blond hair.

  53. Sarah Oct 22 2016 at 12:58 am - Reply

    This is so great. I’ve got to get better at exposing for the highlights. Thanks, Anita!

  54. Noemi Oct 22 2016 at 1:26 am - Reply

    Beautiful images and wonderful tips! Thanks for the chance to win. My favorite light is directional dramatic light.

  55. Erin Oct 22 2016 at 8:47 am - Reply

    Thanks for this article! I love golden hour backlight!

  56. Chandra Oct 22 2016 at 10:42 am - Reply

    i <3 the light during the golden hour. =)

  57. Denise Oct 22 2016 at 11:28 am - Reply

    Backlighting and golden hour are my absolute fav.

  58. Beth Cagnoni Oct 22 2016 at 12:07 pm - Reply

    I love this! Lensbaby is next on my wishlist.

  59. Jacqueline Reyna Oct 22 2016 at 12:09 pm - Reply

    Wow…the light in these photos is so rich and beautiful. Wonderful post!!

    • Anita Oct 22 2016 at 6:50 pm - Reply

      Thank you so much Jacqueline!

  60. Tracy Oct 22 2016 at 7:21 pm - Reply

    Of course I love a backlit golden hour image. But I also love some open shade ❤️

  61. Jillian Baudry Oct 23 2016 at 7:42 am - Reply

    Gorgeous images and great tips, thanks Anita! I love backlighting but really need to overcome my fear of full sun!

  62. PattyL Oct 23 2016 at 9:23 am - Reply

    Backlight for me!

  63. Renee Oct 23 2016 at 12:12 pm - Reply

    Evening light and/or right after it rains (during daylight of course).

  64. Helen Oct 23 2016 at 4:05 pm - Reply

    I love any kind of simple light for documentary outdoors photos. Soft light from overcast skies, or bright sunshine – either works for me!

  65. Stefania Oct 23 2016 at 6:58 pm - Reply

    I just love when I can get a sunburst in an image. One thing I’m learning to embrace lately though is overcast, drab days. We have a lot of them where I live, so I’d better learn to love ’em!

  66. Susan Oct 25 2016 at 10:02 am - Reply

    Great article Anita!! Love all your beautiful photos!

  67. Tony Tremblay Dec 22 2016 at 9:51 am - Reply

    Wow, great article. I love your photos by the way !!

    • Anita Dec 24 2016 at 12:39 pm - Reply

      Thank you Tony!

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