Let me tell you a story. When my eldest son was born, I took photos of him with my phone. A lot. I was frustrated with the quality of photos from my phone, and I knew that if I had a “fancy camera,” all of my photo troubles would disappear. Then I got my DSLR, and guess what! My photos were only moderately better.
Does this sound a bit too familiar to you? If you can relate, then chances are that you have the same problem I did -- not knowing how to find the light! We can see light all around us, yet it’s something that is so easily overlooked in everyday life. Light changes constantly from place to place and throughout the day. A good photographer knows how to most effectively use the light available to them. Whether you're taking up photography as a hobby to capture lasting memories of your family or aiming to make photography a career, this primer will give you a great foundation for finding and understanding the light.
Have you heard other photographers complaining about shooting in harsh sunlight? Perhaps they’ve even advised you to avoid shooting in full sun. Unless you’re a vampire, this is a rather silly recommendation. (Though, Seattle isn't too far from Forks... 😂)While it can be a bit tricky when the lighting is so harsh, it is definitely possible to get beautiful photos midday!
The easiest way to conquer the harsh sun is to step out of it and into some open shade. Open shade gives your subject nice, even lighting without any harsh shadows. How do you find open shade? Look for shaded areas that are still open to the sky. For example, standing in the shadow of a building or a tall tree is open shade. However, standing under a gazebo or a thicket of trees is not. If you’re unsure where the best place to pose your subject is, have them stand within 2 feet of the edge of the shaded area. This allows them to be illuminated as much as possible while still being shaded from the sun.
Are you in the middle of a field or beach without any shade in sight? Not a problem! Position your subject so that they are facing their own shadow. This will allow their face to be evenly lit, and your subject won’t be squinting!
Isn’t it amusing that seasoned photographers want to avoid full sun, yet budding photographers are afraid of overcast days? If this sounds like you, learn to embrace those clouds! Cloudy days provide beautiful, soft lighting -- perfect for creating print worthy portraits.
What makes cloudy days so great for portraits? Well, if you remember anything from your high school science classes, light refracts when it hits water. Since clouds are made up of many tiny droplets of water, all of that refraction means you have light coming from every angle. This is what’s known as diffuse lighting, and it’s super flattering on people. Diffuse lighting softens features and can even mitigate fine lines and wrinkles. And best of all, you can shoot your subject from any position!
Golden hour is truly magical. Photos taken during golden hour have this glow about them that you just can’t achieve any other time of day. In fact, many portrait photographers will only schedule clients during golden hour.
When is golden hour? It’s the time of day when the sun gives a golden glow, the shadows have softened, and the rays of the sun are no longer as harsh. As a general rule, golden hour takes place one hour after sunrise and one hour before sunset. However, depending on your location and the time of year, it can fluctuate greatly. For example, golden hour lasts a mere 30 mins in Honolulu, HI, no matter the time of year. In Anchorage, AK, golden hour fluctuates from an hour near the first days of spring and autumn to 90 minutes near the first days of summer with golden hour lasting all day long in winter! So how do you know when golden hour takes place? There are many different websites and apps available that will tell you exactly when golden hour is in your part of the world.
When you shoot during golden hour, backlighting is a great way to take advantage of those golden rays. Much like during full sun, you want your subjects facing their shadow. You’ll notice that when your subject is positioned this way, they will have a halo of light around them. It will be particularly noticeable in their hair.
Backlighting can be tricky. Too much sun coming into your lens will cause haze in your photo. While some haze can be lovely, during the early stages of golden hour you will want to filter the light so that your images don’t get overly hazy. Shooting so that the sun is coming through some tree branches is a great way to filter the light. You can also use a lens hood to help mitigate some of the haze.
Get out and Practice!
Regardless of which lighting situation you find yourself in, you’ll want to make sure that your photos are properly exposed. By spot metering on your subject’s face, you will capture your subject in the best light possible. To ensure that you’ve nailed the exposure, you should periodically check the histogram on the back of the camera. Simply looking at the LCD on the back of your camera might be deceiving depending on how bright or dim your screen is.
You now have the basics for shooting outdoors during any time of day. Are you excited to get out there and shoot? Don’t be afraid of the sun, or the lack thereof. Understanding light might not click right away, but with enough practice, you’ll see your photography skills grow tremendously! And if you're interested in having someone else capture your family's memories outdoors, I would love to hear from you!