We talk a lot about what to take photos of, what moments to capture, how to compose our photos and how to make them sharp and in focus – and all of that is super important, but it’s light that makes a photo. Literally – light actually makes a photo. The mechanisms and settings of the camera all work together to let light into the camera and onto the digital sensor, creating the image we see on our screens.
So naturally, if we want good photos, we have to have good light, and we have to know how to use that good light.
If you’ve read my free e-doc on how to fix your blurry photos, you’ll know that the answer to many photographic problems is more light, more light, more light! More light is also the main factor that allows any camera, even the lowest quality and most basic, to take a potentially fantastic shot.
So let’s talk about getting more light.
Hands down, the best way to get more light, is to get outside and shoot in daylight. That’s not always possible, or may not be what you want, but if you ARE outside, things get so much easier – well, sort of. Even outside during daylight there are things to think about.
First, is it sunny, lightly overcast or downright gloomy? Downright gloomy (think dark and ominously stormy), is probably actually not a whole lot better than being inside, but lightly overcast is widely considered perfect for portrait photography.
Overcast is easy – the light is even and diffuse and wraps nicely around everything. It can, however, flatten everything out and not provide enough contrast. You want a little bit of gentle shadowing around facial features to provide definition and shape. What you want to do to make sure the light on your subject is not too flat is to let the light hit your child’s face from the side – this is called directionality of light. To figure out how the light hits the face to create gentle shadows and definition, turn your subject around 360 degrees while you look at their face and simply look for those shadows and contrast. When you see them, take the photo.
TIP: Now, with a two wee kiddos of my own, I know very well that you aren’t likely to get much cooperation in getting your little one to slowly turn around while you stare at their face at close range. Instead, you can hold your hand out in front of you, looking at your palm, and look for those beautiful gentle shadows between your fingers. When you find just the right spot, stick your kid in it and snap away!
One other thing to do is to make sure there is some light in your little one’s eyes. To avoid dark and shadowed eye sockets, have your little one look up towards the camera JUST enough so that you can see some catchlights in their eyes.
Sunlight is a whole other beast. Strong sunlight creates harsh shadows, so many photographers look for open shade. Generally, all the rules for overcast shooting apply in open shade. (What's all this about open shade? Pioneer Woman tells us.)
But if open shade isn’t available, you’ll need to be open to embracing a high contrast image. Really the only thing you can do is to try to shoot in that full sunlight in early morning or evening time when the sun is lower (and creating nice directionality), and is not so strong. You can try your hand a backlighting too, if you know how to operate you camera in a way that lets you expose for the light on the kids rather than in the bright sunny background.
I totally get it. Lots of photoworthy moments happen inside. You aren’t going to haul the kids outside for every portrait. And you may very well want to capture an inside moment or surrounding.
Unless you are fantastically lucky and live in a house with humungous windows, there is a lot less light inside than out – the difference is often bigger than you think. Here are a few tips on how to make the best of the light inside for your photos.
Window and doorway light
First, place your subject by the window. You have a great opportunity here for light directionality because the window is only in one location (as opposed to outdoors where the light seems to be everywhere around you). Use the natural directionality of window light to hit your child’s face sideways on, rather than taking the photo straight on with the window behind you. Position them with the window to their side and have them turn towards the window just enough so that you have catchlights in both eyes.
Glass or open doorways work similarly. Doors and windows of different sizes and heights off the floor will direct light onto your subjects differently, so experiment around your home – looking or pleasing gentle shadows on facial features. You will want to avoid strong direct sunlight coming through the windows, so choose the window and/or time of day so that the window provides a soft even light. Alternatively, you could use a white drape or sheer to diffuse direct sun rays.
Second tip; think about reflection. Light coming in from a window or door may be much stronger than you think so that the parts of your subject in shadow come out too dark, or perhaps the window or door light don’t reach the location of your subject, or your subject (being as cooperative as a two-year-old toddler) isn’t facing the window in the way you want. You can use anything with a very pale neutral colour (preferably white) to reflect, or ‘bounce’, the light back from the window or door onto the shadowy side of your subject. This is easy in rooms with white painted walls, but you can use white sheets or towels, chairs or anything really, to light up the shadows and even out the light a little bit. You can start by looking for areas in the room where there is some natural bounce-back of light, or you can intentionally introduce some reflective surfaces.
Tip number three – flash. Love it or hate it, sometimes it’s necessary.
I talked about white drapes and sheers, and white reflective surfaces above – that’s because daylight is ‘white light’ and we don’t want to introduce colours that accidentally tint our kids yellow or blue or pink. Your camera’s flash is also a white light, so if used well, it can mimic daylight.
But what does it mean to ‘use flash well’? Things can get tough here, because most cameras with a built in flash offer very little flexibility. What you want to do, however, is encourage your flash to be as much like daylight as possible; you want to make it bigger and more diffuse, soft and even. If using a pop-up flash on your camera, try holding a piece of white paper in front of the flash – this will spread the light out through the paper. You may find your photo is too dark as a result, so you will need to dig into the settings and increase your flash compensation (making the flash more bright). You can also buy gadgets that help diffuse pop-up flash light.
You also want to use that mimicked daylight with directionality so it’s not a harsh strong light directly on to your subject. Again, this is hard with a pop-up flash since you can’t move or control the ‘aim’ of the flash. Try using a white card to ‘aim’ the flash to bounce off a white wall or ceiling.
If you want to get more serious about flash photography and your camera can accommodate it, investing in a removable flash will open up many more possibilities. There are many more opportunities to diffuse and bounce a removable flash, and you can even take the flash right off the camera and control it with a triggering system to take ultimate control.
There is one more thing we can use to light up our indoor photographs, and that is artificial light – the light available in the room that is not daylight (think lamps, chandeliers, etc.). You can use artificial light just like any other light – aiming for good diffusion and directionality, but there is a major disadvantage here. Artificial room light is rarely white light- and although our EYES won’t see the colour cast on our children’s faces, our cameras will. Typical incandescent bulbs colour our subjects yellow, while fluorescent light sources colour us blue. If you need to use artificial light to light your subjects, delve into your camera settings and adjust your ‘white balance’ to tell your camera what light conditions you are shooting in.
One last important piece of advice is to not mix your artificial light sources with daylight or flash light, which are both white light. If you do, you will have a mess of different light colours in your photo and you can’t fix this with white balance settings.
Moral of the story
Get outside. Enjoy lightly overcast days, shooting away easily. In strong sunlight, look to shoot in open shade, or try backlighting and shooting in early morning or early evening conditions. Inside, make the most of windows and doorways to light up your kiddos, try looking for or introducing light reflection, and when daylight just isn’t doing the job, experiment with diffusing and directing the light from your flash, or as a last resort, work with the artificial light available.
In case you are not yet convinced at how important light is to your photos, you probably have yet to read my FREE Guide – 6 Reasons Your Photos of Your Kids Are Blurry (And How To Fix Them!). Grab it here.
Now, get out there and capture the perfectly lit moments! I’ve said it before because I mean it: practice makes perfect and you can always try again. Be sure to send this post onto every other mom you know who would love to take more beautiful photos of their children.
And when you get those beautiful gentle shadows on your gorgeous kidlets, share the love. Hop onto Instagram and Facebook to post your pics! Use the hashtag #funlove_bettersnaps and tell us about those magical light conditions you shot in.
Three, two one - go have fun!