How to find light and shadows

  • black and white portrait by Celeste Pavlik

How to find light and shadows

It wasn’t too long ago that I would seek out perfectly even, perfectly bright and perfectly direct light.

I quickly realized how much this style of shooting, while it isn’t wrong in any way, just wasn’t me.

I love capturing my subjects in pockets of light and indirect light, especially indoors. What this means to me is finding light that gently meets the shadows on my subject.  Give me that and I’m a happy girl!

I think most of us can find some of this type of light within our own homes. It can be easily overlooked because the light may only be a small amount (maybe only one light source) or indirectly coming from a window(s) and oftentimes we don’t think of using small spaces with less light and fewer windows.

But it’s those things that spark my creativity. It truly can be beautiful and dramatic and that’s what I strive for in my work.

I don’t remember exactly when or how I stumbled upon how incredible my master bathroom was for photographing my boys, but I’m so glad I did.  I’ve created some of my favorite photos in this small space.  As you can see in this pullback photo (shot with my 35mm lens),  our bathroom is a galley style bathroom and by no means is it huge.  It has one large window just above the garden tub and that’s it.  The great thing is the window is covered by shutters (great for manipulating the light how I want it) and the window faces a North’ish direction, not exact North but close enough.  Up until about 4 months ago there was nothing obstructing that window from the outside.  Unfortunately, a house was just built next door so now the light has changed a little, but I still have made the best of it and use this space on a regular basis.  The bathroom is located just off the master bedroom so I do have the advantage of getting some of that window light spilling over into the bathroom area if I choose.

natural light photography pullback

I want to show you an example of direct, flat light in this space.  For this one, I sat crouched down in the garden tub and had Colton sit directly in front of me (note: if I was really wanting to shoot from that angle and position, I would have used my 35mm, however, I wanted to show you the same lens, same settings, and same processing for this example).  The shutters were un-slanted and stayed horizontal in order to create the direct light.  Yes, there are catchlights in his eyes, but other than that I don’t find there to be anything intriguing about this picture.  This room can be extremely bright during midday and if I were to open up the shutters completely it would be perfect for a fun bath-time session with bright colored toys and tub crayons!

flat natural light photograph

For the next photo I slanted the shutters downwards.  I then had him sit right in the middle between the tub and the cabinets.  I told him to stay in the middle if he could (I want to avoid having to get rid of too much of the cabinets and bathtub surround if possible in post) and to just ‘do his thing’.  He’s 4 so that meant spinning around the floor in a 360!  He was being silly and laughing and this was my favorite from the 16 minutes I had with him.  Do you see how the light and shadows play around his chin, his neck, his shoulders, his ribs, even down to his toes?  Those shadows provide drama, they provide a depth to the photo in which I feel like I can reach out and tickle him behind his little ears.

directional and dramatic natural light photography by Celeste Pavlick

For this next photo of my older son, I actually shot it the next day and a couple hours later in the day.  Instead of having him sit on the floor I had him sit in the bathtub and I shot from above standing against the shower glass, again with my 85mm.  He was only about 2 feet or less from the open shutters.  This side light provides incredible shadows and light fall off especially on the camera right side of his face and shoulders.  I wanted that part of his face to be more shadowed and the other side light, yet still maintain the catchlights in both eyes.  Again, the angle in which he is sitting in relationship to the window makes for a nicely lit photo with nice shadows as you can see in the color version.  But my vision was to create a little bit more dramatic feel for it so I chose to make a black and white and achieved some of that drama in post processing.  However,  both the color and the black and white version have nice depth to them.  You can see how in the SOOC version it still has much more depth than the photo of Colton sitting in front of the cabinets directly across from the window.  This is because of his and my placement in relationship to the light source.

directional and dramatic natural light photography by Celeste Pavlick
directional and dramatic natural light photography by Celeste Pavlick

Hopefully these examples will help give you some ideas of how to shoot in indirect light and how to place yourself and your subject so that you can enhance the depth of light and shadows in your shooting!

About the Author:

Known for her dramatic use of light and admiration of black and white photography, Maryland photographer Celeste Pavlik has a gift for capturing a wide array of emotions in her honest and organic imagery of her subjects. While the subject of her lens is most often one, or all four of her sons, she also immerses herself in the quietness of macro and still life photography. Receiving acclamation in several juried shows, she is finding herself happily pulled in to the fine art world. Celeste is a Canon photographer, Lensbaby lover, freelensing fanatic and enjoys processing 90 percent of an image in ACR with a final polish in Photoshop and or Lightroom. Besides photography, Celeste likes to spend time with her boys, explore new places, bake and snuggle in one of her well loved quilts. Visit Celeste Pavlik online.


  1. Mary Feb 25 2013 at 11:04 am - Reply

    Loved this! Your use of light is incredible and inspiring, Celeste 🙂

  2. Beckie Lehlbach Feb 25 2013 at 11:07 am - Reply

    LOVE these examples Celeste! I am a recovering flat light-aholic and these tips are just what I need! 🙂

  3. Lacey B. Feb 25 2013 at 11:35 am - Reply

    Wonderful examples Celeste!! I just love your work!

  4. Jo Clark Feb 25 2013 at 11:50 am - Reply

    Great post Celeste! Your use of light and depth in your images is always so heavenly!

  5. Dana Foley Feb 25 2013 at 12:01 pm - Reply

    Loved reading this Celeste! Love your use of light!

  6. Kelly R Feb 25 2013 at 12:06 pm - Reply

    Great post Celeste!
    Super inspiring!

  7. Adele Humphries Feb 25 2013 at 12:12 pm - Reply

    Beautiful examples of how to find gorgeous light Celeste.

  8. Sarah Vaughn Feb 25 2013 at 12:24 pm - Reply

    Wonderful Celeste! I love hearing how you think – because you are such a master at dramatic indoor light. You know how much I adore your work. Love love love!

  9. Mikki Feb 25 2013 at 12:39 pm - Reply

    So inspiring, Celeste!! Thank you so much for the pullback! Would have never guessed the opportunity in your bathroom. 🙂

  10. Erica F. Feb 25 2013 at 12:50 pm - Reply

    Beautiful images Celeste! Great post!

  11. Adeena Feb 25 2013 at 1:11 pm - Reply

    I’m a huge fan of how you use light! Thanks for the great tips. 🙂

  12. heidi Feb 25 2013 at 1:18 pm - Reply

    Loved this one, Celeste!

  13. Kira Feb 25 2013 at 2:05 pm - Reply

    Thank you Celeste! You’ve been so kind to give me feedback when I’ve been trying to use directional lighting in the past, but it was so helpful and fun to see how you set it up and know what you look for. I adore your processing for the last picture of your son in color.

  14. Lisa Benemelis Feb 25 2013 at 2:15 pm - Reply

    This is awesome, Celeste!!! I am so in love with your use of light and I am excited to try some of your ideas. Gorgeous images !!

  15. Stacey V Feb 25 2013 at 2:27 pm - Reply

    Love seeing the background on your gorgeous work, Celeste! Thanks for sharing!

  16. Barb Paa Feb 25 2013 at 2:57 pm - Reply

    I am so in love with your photos. Thanks for showing me that it isn’t alway about the location!!!! 🙂

  17. Eileen Feb 25 2013 at 3:58 pm - Reply

    My bathroom is that exact same style. I’ve been thinking I want to try some shots in it because it has a big window over the tub, just like yours.

    Now I have even more incentive.

  18. Jodi Feb 25 2013 at 4:04 pm - Reply

    such a fantastic article, celeste! love seeing the surprising spaces you create your gorgeous images!

  19. Cate Feb 25 2013 at 4:07 pm - Reply

    Your work is divine! Love this post! Inspiring! If only I had blinds in my house! Fortunately, I learned from Kate Parker in her breakout that a garage works well too!

  20. Maureen Petru Feb 25 2013 at 4:21 pm - Reply

    Celeste – I just love the images. I crave to carve out my children using light such as you did here. It is actually something I have been practicing lately. I am wondering if you can share whether or not you find certain f/stop ranges work better than others? I really only use my 50mm (the 35 is the next one up to bat for my next purchase), and I find that I shoot quite wide open most of the time. Typically around f1.4 to f2.0 regardless of the light. Do you recall your f/stops for the above images? ~Thanks!

    • Celeste Pavlik Feb 25 2013 at 9:36 pm - Reply

      Hi Maureen! Thank you so very much for your kind words. I love that someday I’ll hopefully have an entire book or a few books with all the photos I’ve taken of them over the years. 🙂 My settings for the close up portrait were 85mm lens at 2.5 ISO 2000 Shutter speed 1/250. On that one I was going for minimal noise so shot a little more open than I typically do to keep my ISO lower. On the 2nd shot of my son throwing his head back and laughing the settings were ISO 1600 ss 1/320 and f 3.2. The sweet spot on that lens for me is about 2.8 – 3.2 and I typically keep it in that range for portraits because the clarity seems to be better. It really just depends on how much light I have though and my vision for a particular photo because often times I like a gritty/grainy feel to my images so I can’t say that I always shoot at one particular f stop. I hope that helps!

  21. Ariana Falerni Feb 25 2013 at 5:11 pm - Reply

    Wonderful tutorial Celeste! The way you capture your boys is so artful and inspiring!

  22. Carla Bagley Feb 25 2013 at 5:44 pm - Reply

    I love it! it makes sense how the directional light can make a nice picture become a wow picture:)

  23. Narelle Bailey Feb 25 2013 at 5:54 pm - Reply

    Love this post and the examples you have shared.

  24. Jess H Feb 25 2013 at 6:27 pm - Reply

    Such beautiful images Celeste! You use light in such a magical way. LOVE.

  25. Karen Porter Feb 25 2013 at 7:55 pm - Reply

    Thank you Celeste for sharing this! I love how you find pockets of light and your images are stunning. Very inspiring for me to go find more pockets of light.

  26. Angie Feb 25 2013 at 8:27 pm - Reply

    I loved this! You use light so beautifully.

  27. Kim Peterson Feb 25 2013 at 10:01 pm - Reply

    Thank you for the tips and inspiration!

  28. Lucy K. Feb 26 2013 at 1:02 am - Reply

    Thank you so much for this, Celeste! Very helpful and inspiring. Your work is amazing!!!

  29. Lisa (Tout Petit Pixel) Feb 26 2013 at 3:12 am - Reply

    This is incredibly inspiring, Celeste! That B&W image on the floor is to die for!

  30. Sarah Feb 26 2013 at 12:43 pm - Reply

    Celeste, this was such an awesome post!!! Thank you! I have been finding myself wanting to move past the “flat” & “even” lighting that I had always previously tried to get in my images. Maybe being around Clickin’ Moms for the past year has pushed me in that direction?! 🙂 Thank you for the examples & showing how to find those pockets of light. I’ve still got a long ways to go until I understand some of this- but it’s exciting to start learning it.

    • Celeste Pavlik Feb 26 2013 at 10:42 pm - Reply

      Thank you Sarah! Once you find those special pockets of light you will notice how different you feel about your work!! <3

  31. Tine Feb 26 2013 at 1:25 pm - Reply

    Thank you for this!! I am at the point where I have become tired of the flat light look, but still- that’s ”all” I look for when photographing. I needed this incentive to look for different light. Your examples are beautiful

  32. Jessica Reischel Feb 26 2013 at 9:25 pm - Reply

    Lovely Celeste!!! <3

  33. jennifer Feb 26 2013 at 10:44 pm - Reply

    Gorgeous Celeste!!! <3

  34. Celeste Pavlik Feb 26 2013 at 10:48 pm - Reply

    Thank you to all of you for saying such kind things!! I appreciate each and every comment!! <3

  35. Angela Feb 27 2013 at 12:51 am - Reply

    These images were absolutely stunning to me. I love your blog too. Now I’m on my computer finding pictures of my children with shadows and trying to make the shadows and light even more dramatic. I have been playing with curves in CS4 and converting it to B&W. But they aren’t as dramatic as I’d like. I also have Lightroom. Would that be a better place to start in post processing? And tips would be REALLY great!


    • Celeste Pavlik Feb 28 2013 at 10:25 am - Reply

      Hi Angela!! Thank you so very much for your kind words, they mean a lot!! For me when I do a black and white conversion I start with the conversion in ACR and then pull in to CS5 and add a black and white gradient layer and typically I will make some minor levels adjustments. I do have lightroom but embarrassed to say I have never opened the box!! It’s on my to do list to learn this year!!

  36. Tristan B. Feb 27 2013 at 12:57 am - Reply

    Excellent examples + beautiful photographs, thank you Celeste!

  37. Beth Simpkins Feb 27 2013 at 11:47 pm - Reply

    This was very helpful Celeste and I always love seeing your work!! Thank you!

  38. Karen Cooley Feb 28 2013 at 9:41 am - Reply

    Oh Celeste, this was a great article!! So helpful. I really need to examine my house and see if there is any hope for photographing within… I’m sure there must be! 🙂

    • Celeste Pavlik Feb 28 2013 at 10:26 am - Reply

      Thank you so much Karen!! I know there must be some fabulous locations somewhere! Come back and share a pic or two!!! 😀

  39. Celeste Pavlik Feb 28 2013 at 10:27 am - Reply

    I’m overwhelmed with all the kind responses! Thank you so much everyone for your lovely words and compliments!!!

  40. Vandana Jain Feb 28 2013 at 9:46 pm - Reply

    Simply beautiful!!!

  41. Tumbleweed Photography Studio Mar 04 2013 at 6:34 pm - Reply

    Isn’t it funny how sometimes the most unexpected places can make for some of the most beautifully lit photos!

  42. Lisa Nicole Mar 13 2013 at 10:31 pm - Reply

    Thank you so much for sharing and for the inspiration!! I have recently discovered how much I love this kind of lighting!
    I will be looking in my bathroom now too 🙂

  43. Michael May 06 2013 at 2:55 am - Reply

    I love the black and white photo. I wish you would do a “how to” tutorial on how you created this image. I love your work. Thanks for sharing.

  44. Unaiz May 28 2013 at 8:07 am - Reply

    Great Info..! Thanks for sharing. 🙂

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