The do’s and don’ts of using light well

  • 7 Boy in soft window light by photographer Megan Cieloha

The do’s and don’ts of using light well

The basics of using light well are universal to photography; they apply equally well to those photographers shooting on automatic or to those working in manual mode.

Learning to see and utilize light is one of the most important keys to creating the images that you envision.

These are a few simple dos and don’ts that will help capture the power of light.

Don’t use dappled light indiscriminately

Dappled light is the pattern of light that is created when openings in an otherwise solid surface allows a pattern of small areas of light juxtaposed and interspersed with small areas of shadow. A classic example is found underneath a leafy tree when the sun is high in the sky.

The contrast between light and shadow can be very noticeable in a dappled situation; sometimes enough that you can be dealing with both blown highlights and clipped shadows at the same time. Thus, dappled light is a situation that must be very purposefully utilized.

If you don’t know for sure that you will be able to control the bright and dark areas of the image, and aren’t also confident that the moodiness of dappled light suits the story of your image, it would likely be best to pull the subject just outside of the dappled light. Placing them either in smooth shade or open light will make your exposure choices easier and allow for a less moody image.

1 Dappled light plants by photographer Megan Cieloha

1.5 Boy in dappled light inside a kitchen by photographer Megan Cieloha

Do consider your subjects’ eye comfort

When photographing outdoors, or next to a window indoors, placing your subject so that they are looking directly towards the light source can result in capturing squinty-eyed expressions of discomfort.

Instead of having your subject look directly at the light, try placing them at an angle towards the light. This will still allow you to capture a nice amount of light across their face, without causing them pain in the process.

Another option would be to photograph an image that does not require eye contact with the camera. Allowing your subject to look down, or to the side, will avoid the squinty eyes and discomfort.

4 Boy in full sun in Sicily by photographer Megan Cieloha

4.5 Young boy in full sun on the Amalfi coast by photographer Megan Cieloha

Do move your subject until you create catchlights

Catchlights are the reflections of light that you can see in a subject’s eyes. They add a sense of life and a spark of interest to images.

In order to create catchlights, your subject will need to have some sort of light source casting light directly into their eyes. When comfortable (i.e. inside, on overcast days, under open shade, etc.) it works well for the subject to turn their face directly towards the light source.

If looking directly at the light is uncomfortable, it can be effective to place the subject at an angle towards the light (watching for the catchlights to appear before pressing the shutter) or use a secondary/reflective light source.

A store bought reflector is one way to create catchlights in situations where the subject is facing away from the light, but naturally reflective surfaces (concrete, light colored tile, windows, light colored walls, the open sky opposite the sun, etc.) are all readily available sources of reflected light for creating catchlights.

6 Young child with catchlights from window light by photographer Megan Cieloha

Don’t shoot with a window directly behind the subject

When you are first starting out it can be tricky to balance exposing for a subject placed directly in front of a light source. Until you learn how to separate metering from focusing your results will be best if you place your subject in a more even lighting situation.

8 Baby boy in soft window light in his nursery by photographer Megan Cieloha

Don’t be afraid of using less light

Shadows add depth and dimension to an image. A common misconception is that you need to add as much light as possible to the scene, in order to allow for the use of a low ISO and high shutter speed.

While it is important to maintain a reasonable ISO and shutter speed, avoiding low light situations will cause you to miss out on very dynamic and interesting photographic opportunities.

10 Toddler with iPhone in low light by photographer Megan Cieloha

11 Teddy bear still life in low light by photographer Megan Cieloha

Do keep your light use simple at first

Mixed lighting (i.e. a fluorescent overhead light and a tungsten floor lamp both emitting light in the same scene) can create a very tricky editing situation, as well as a slightly muddled appearance. Sticking to using one color/temperature of light at once will simplify your image and make the message of your images clearer and stronger.

13 Picture of boy at bedtime with a single light source by photographer Megan Cieloha

About the Author:

After growing up and attending college in the Willamette Valley area of Oregon, Megan married her high school sweetheart who had recently commissioned into the Air Force. They packed up all of their belongings and set off on an adventure with the US military as their tour guide. In the past 10 years they have called Del Rio TX, Spokane WA, Lincoln CA and Eastern Sicily (yes, the island in the Mediterranean!) home. Megan shoots with a Nikon D700 and various prime lenses, focusing on a documentary approach to capturing her family and their travels, along with taking an interest in fine art and macro work. Visit Megan Cieloha online.
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7 Comments

  1. Maria Manjelo Jul 22 2015 at 10:54 pm - Reply

    Oh my God! I am so glad i found this website! By an accident by the way. These are very helpful. Bookmarking this website. THANK YOU!

    • Megan Cieloha Aug 16 2015 at 7:07 pm - Reply

      The CM blog is full of information and inspiration, isn’t it? So glad you found us, Maria 🙂

  2. AnnaVanDemark Jul 23 2015 at 12:13 am - Reply

    Thanks for sharing this beautifully written and illustrated article, Megan!

  3. Amanda Myers Jul 23 2015 at 3:45 pm - Reply

    Dappled light from trees is my nemesis! Great tutorial, thank you!

    • Megan Cieloha Aug 16 2015 at 7:09 pm - Reply

      It’s a tricky one to conquer, that’s for sure. Thanks for reading, Amanda!

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