Photo Tip Friday: how to see light

– Posted in: photo tip friday, photography, photography tips

Six years ago when I was first trying my camera completely in manual mode, making manual my new best friend–(hey speaking of, have you made the leap? Go from automatic to manual after reading last week’s tip)–I thought FUDGE. If I could only understand LIGHT.

And then I was all Duh Dude. Photo literally means light. Photography is the art of recording light. Because there’s so much more to making a dynamic, engaging, interesting picture than just getting the settings technically right.

And then then then I was all I better start learning to see the light and I’d better start now.  

Enter this week’s Friday photo tip:

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Generally speaking, I don’t recommend using your camera’s built in flash and while I own a Nikon speed light SB-700, I almost never, ever use it. Maybe less than 1% of all the photos I’ve snapped have benefitted from that speed light? Seriously. Instead I rely heavily on the light that’s available.


The fabulous news is there are so many different kinds of available light! Let’s run through some of them with examples:

1. Dawn and twilight–that golden light. That sweet light.  Sometimes that hazy light. It glows. It’s softer. Many photographers find this light most flattering and desirable. Dreamy light.

My sister and her family at sunset. Sweet and soft and golden. ISO 200, f/1.4, 1/640 sec
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2. Bright sun (think high noon)–great for high contrast images and sharp shadows, but be careful with it because it’s easy for an image’s details and highlights to be blown out by all that light. I’ve found that I frequently like to turn my “bright sun” images into black and whites.

Leo and Gus at the park midday. Notice the high contrast. ISO 125, f/1.8, 1/4000 sec
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Hosing off the kids in the afternoon heat. ISO 160, f/2.5, 1/640 sec
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3. Overcast light–I actually really like shooting in overcast light. It’s an even light. It’s diffused. It looks good on people’s faces. It’s bright, but not too bright. Nice overall tones.

ISO 200, f/1.6, 1/200 sec
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4. Bright window light–you can face your subjects directly across from any window for full on light. This will make for less shadows, less depth. Usually what I’ll do is put my subject half in/ half out of bright window light–just to create a little more depth. Seems to let my subjects’ personalities come through better. Here are three different placements.

Full window light. ISO 200, f/1.8, 1/500 sec
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Side window light. ISO 640, f/2.8, 1/500 sec
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Pulled back from the window light. Another version of side window light. ISO 1600, f/2.2, 1/125 sec.
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5. Spotted window light–don’t be afraid of this mottled light. Even light is easier to manage, but spotted window light helps show mood.

My niece Ava and her friend at a birthday party. ISO 500, f/2.0, 1/160 sec
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6. Back window light–this light is great for creating dramatic images and silhouettes.

ISO 400, f/2.5, 1/320 sec
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What’s the first step to use all the available light around you?

To learn to use the available light around you, you must learn to see light. To learn to see light, the first thing I’d recommend doing is putting your camera away. Tuck it back into your bag or sit it on your desk. If you’re like me you’ll probably put it somewhere obscure or out of reach so your children don’t swipe it or bother it while you’re busy. Oh, just me then? Put the camera down.

Now. Be still. And simply——————>      Bust out your patience   —————->      And   ————————>      Observe.

I feel the same as Mr. Erwitt.
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Look at the light around you. Where does it fall? How does it fall? Where does it pool? Where is it even? Where are the shadows? Is there contrast? Is the light bright? Muted? Dappled? Harsh?  Reflected? W H A T? You have to notice it first. See it. Then feel it.

Next look at potential subjects in the space with you. Maybe your dog or your cat or your baby or your toaster or your coffee mug or this toy or that flower. How do those potential subjects respond to the light around them? What if you moved your mug just so? From in full window light to partly in the shadows beyond. What changes, if any, does that make to your image? Does that image feel any different? Once you notice the light, you’ll see further into the scene. Notice it, play with it.  Only then can you manipulate it or leave it alone to create the most effect, to create mood, to create something more satisfying when you gaze upon the subject and scene.

Because here’s the thing. A very important thing:

Your camera doesn’t give a rat’s rear end about what your subject is. You might, but it doesn’t. Instead your camera is looking for light and shadows. It’s sensor is too busy translating the light and shadows into the image your eye just saw. So, give it those two things!   


Now go forth and observe! Go find the light. And of course come back and visit and tell me how you’re doing. I promise you something.

When you learn to see light, the way you view the entire world will change.


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I'm a mom of five, wife to one, life-long Louisvillian. Six years ago I put down the key to my middle school classroom and picked up a camera instead. Now a pro photographer, writer and activist, I blog to share with you those passions and to spread good feelings through the words and pictures you find here.

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6 Comments… add one

January 17, 2014, 5:17 am

I love playing around with light. Some of my favorite pictures were taken with a strong backlight. It’s dramatic and so different. One of the biggest challenges for me now that I want to get better at food photography, it’s making me look differently at light. I need light and no shadows (at least for my style). So, props. :)

Your photos here are gorgeous. Great tips.
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Carolyn Y January 17, 2014, 1:39 pm

I’m loving all these tips.
And started to work towards manual….
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January 17, 2014, 2:37 pm

Great tips – I use our side window light so much. It’s stunning in the afternoon.
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Kim January 17, 2014, 3:16 pm

I confess that I only recently discovered the truth about flashes. I leave the flash off on my phone camera most of the time now because I prefer to work with the light that is available.
Love love love the way you used the light (and explained it!) in this, Sarah!
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January 19, 2014, 3:07 am

I adore this series. We have a HUGE front window that faces south, so we get glorious light. I wish I was home during the light more since it fades so quickly during these months.
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Gwenn Panny June 1, 2014, 8:57 am

You really take beautiful pictures. Love them.
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