Finding Good Light | Anywhere, anytime

For the purpose of this discussion, we're talking about shooting portraits - the rules for good light are different in landscape photography, still life, sports, etc. But for most of us, our people-photography skills are what we want to beef up, so let's dive in. Happy Monday, y'all! Today over on Facebook I [awkwardly] chatted a bit about finding good light, because, um, photography is all about light (for you grammar nerds out there, the very word is derived from the Greek "photos" meaning light and "graphe" meaning drawing - so it literally means drawing with light. You may now look cool at parties with your ultra hip knowledge of ancient Greek. You're welcome.*)Finding good light is HARD sometimes, guys. Light is a tricky master, especially when you're using only available natural light. Most people fall into one of two camps: those that think, "If the sun is shining, it'll be great for photos! Let's take pictures at high noon when it's brightest!" and those that think "We can only take pictures at sunrise or sunset, because I read that on a photography blog! The sun is evil!"The truth is - are you ready? -

Both camps are correct. 

- Or at least, not wrong. Let me explain.You can take gorgeously lit, well exposed photos any time of day. You just have to know how to adjust for the light you have available. Let's break this down into different scenarios, shall we?

1. Sunny day, sunrise.

Yes, Camp 2, I see you - sunrise is magical. When the sun is just cresting the horizon, there's a rosy glow that wraps everything in soft, warm light, and y'all know that's a photographic goldmine. If you're shooting with the sun behind your subject (backlighting), you're going to want to overexpose just sliiiiiiightly to make sure you're getting enough light on your subject's face. If you know how to meter for light, this basically just means you meter for your subject's face, not the entire photo.

2. Sunny day, midday.

High noon doesn't have to be scary! There is definitely a wrong way (or at least, an unflattering way) of photographing people when the sun is high in the sky - but there are many right ways, too (or at least, flattering ways). If you're outdoors on a sunny day, look for open shade, and put your subject in it. Open shade is a spot of solid shade where you can look up and still see the sky. A covered porch = NOT open shade. In the shadow of the side of the house = open shade!  See how that works?

Open shade to look for:

  • Alleys. The space between two buildings gives awesome open shade. The sun's rays are softly reflected by the surface of the buildings, giving you ample light for your subject, but there's solid shade to prevent the harshest light from hitting your subject's face.
  • Under trees. This one can be tricky; watch for dappling. Look for a nice pool of solid shade with no leaf-shadows. Position your subject facing the direction of the sun, but make sure no stray direct light hits their face.
  • Large shadows. The side of a house, a fence, a grocery store, a wall - you name it, I've probably shot there. Just because it doesn't look fancy or photogenic (you should see some of the alleys I've shot sessions in!) doesn't mean the light won't be incredible. You can always crop out parking lots, trash, dumpsters, etc.
  • Assistants. Enlist an assistant to hold up a sheet of cardboard, a diffuser, or something else to create a patch of solid shade.

Sometimes there's just no escape from the sun, however.

You're in the middle of a field/prairie/parking lot/soccer field/etc with no shade to be found. Don't panic! You can still make the light wrap softly around your subject. Position your subject with their back to the sun (even at high noon this is possible - the sun is RARELY directly overhead in the sky) and expose for their face (see #1). Can't tell where the sun is in relation to your subject? Hold up the back of your hand, and observe it while you turn slowly in a circle. When the skin on the back of your hand looks smoothest and softest, you've found your best light. Just pop your subject into the same spot, and start shooting.

2. Sunny day, sunset.

Everyone's favorite time for photos! And with good reason - it's pretty magical. The sun gets low in the sky and the golden glow lights up the world. Everything and everyone looks better at this time of day. The only two things to watch for are squinting (don't make them look directly into the sun, guys! That's just mean.) and backlighting (you can do it, but you have to remember to expose for their face, not the entire scene.).

3. Overcast day, any time.

Overcast days are your FRIEND. The clouds do all the work of diffusing and softening the light for you, making it really easy to get even lighting on your subject's face. Depending on how thick the cloud cover is, though, you may have to fight a few shadows on the face. This is another place where the back-of-the-hand trick comes in SUPER handy, because it's hard to tell where the sun is in the sky when there's a cloud cover.Now you're totally ready to be this guy. Go forth and shoot well-lit photos!Here's the video!*kids, I jest. Pulling out random etymological references to ancient Greek will never help you look cooler at parties. 

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 Emily Lapish is a lifestyle photographer in Chattanooga, TN specializing in all things family-related. She spends her time fending off wild animals raising three boys with her husband, and enjoys long walks through Target while cradling a hazelnut latte. To book your birth or family session, or to schedule a free consultation, click here