Light is what enables us to see.  For most cameras, light is necessary to take a picture (unless they are night vision, and I’m not talking about those right now).  It makes or breaks a picture.  It is the area hardest to excel in, and hardest to master, because light is always changing.

There are three main “sections” of light:

  1. Found or ambient light
  2. Color and intensity
  3. Introduced light

Found or Ambient Light

Found or ambient light is the normal, every day light that you get when you’re outside or inside, without turning on any light source except the sun (or moon, if you’re lucky).  But you can mess with it, just a little bit.


  1. Adjust it in the environment (for example: going inside, turning around, standing in the shade or sunshine)
  2. Adjust it in the camera (for example lowering your ISO)

There are three areas you can adjust for light in your camera:

  1. Exposure compensation setting
  2. ISO setting
  3. Histogram

Now, keep in mind as I briefly talk about these things: I don’t use any of these except for the ISO, since I can’t figure out how to see the histogram.  I did learn about all of this from my photography course I watched, so anything I say about anything except ISO is just repeated.

A Camera’s ISO is it’s light sensor.  The higher the ISO (for example, 1600) the more sensitive it is to light.  Having your ISO too high in a situation can make the image grainy.  That happens because you are telling your sensor to be so sensitive that it’s picking up electricity running through your camera.  There also isn’t one set ISO that’s too high; it just depends on the light you are in at the moment you take the picture.


My ISO was way too high when I took this picture–you can see the graininess in it.

With the histogram, RIGHT is BRIGHT.  If you “keep the mountain in the middle” your light should be good.  If any part of the mountain is touching the right side, you’re probably blowing out the highlights, and you can never get back parts of the picture that you’ve lost because you’ve over exposed.  If any part of the mountain is touching the left side, your highlights are very dark.  Sometimes you want a dark picture, and then that’s a good thing.  Even if you don’t, it’s easier to salvage a picture that’s too dark than one that’s too bright.

Even when you don’t play with exposure settings, like me, you can mess with the light.  Analyze where the light is coming from in relation to your subject, and move your subject and/or yourself in relation to it, depending on where the light is best.

“It’s not the light, it’s where you are in it.” –Jim Stanfield

As far as the actual light goes, don’t shoot outside in the middle of the day–especially in the 11 o’clock to 1 o’clock or 2 o’clock hours when the sun is high up in the sky–as long as you can help it.  That light just isn’t good.  The light around sunrise and sunset is the best, but it’s good a few hours before sunset too, and usually for like an hour or so afterwards.


This picture isn’t the most amazing one I’ve ever taken (my composition could’ve been way better), but the light is wonderful–almost golden.  This makes a way better picture than the light at noon:


Everything looks bleached and blown out.  It’s worth waiting a few hours to take better pictures.

Color and Intensity

The first step in taking a photograph is figuring out the relationship between the subject and the lighting.  Part of that is the color.

There are two types of color in your pictures:

  1. The color of the different types of light
  2. The colors in your pictures


This picture has a lot of colors going on in it with the Christmas lights, but the overall color is red.  It gives off a warm, cozy feeling.


However in this picture, the light is blue and it makes the snow feel colder than if it had been, say, yellow.

Desk pic

The light in this picture is very purple.  It adds interest, and it makes it more sad and empty looking than white light would have


And look at the colors in this photograph.  The blue makes it seem more cold and sad (it was raining), but it also makes the bright red of the taillights of the cars in the distance more attention-drawing.  You can see the red light reflecting off the train as well.

Every kind of light has a color to it, and you camera will see that–see it better than you, a lot of the time.  Often it helps determine the mood and interest of your pictures.

The light at sunset often has the best color to it–gold, pink, or red light.


It’s almost surreal.  And look at all the golden and blue light in this picture:


Taking pictures of a sunset is amazing, because sunsets are beautiful.  But photographers shouldn’t forget to turn around and use the beautifully colored light produced by a sunset to their advantage.


Another way to add (or fix) color in your pictures is to make them black and white.  See my post on black and white pictures here.

You can use Reflected Light in your pictures.  It is softer and it usually picks up the color of the thing it’s reflecting off of.


In this picture, the inside of the closet it all lit up because light from a nearby window was bouncing off the white door of the closet.  It created a really good light source and made the photo very white.

Most cameras have a White Balance.  It adjusts the color of the picture back to white.  Have you ever seen a picture that was taken inside, especially at night time, and it just looks yellow?  That’s because the white balance wasn’t turned on, and the camera picked up all the yellow in the overhead lights.


Look how yellow that picture is.  Those felt hammers are pure white, but because I took this picture in a basement where the nearest window was probably 15 feet away, there wasn’t any natural light around.

Some people really like the yellow affect, but if you don’t, there are settings to correct it.

Below I have taken five pictures.  The sources of lighting were two windows, four overhead lightbulbs in two overhead light fixtures, and two strings of decorative lights.  I did not change the lighting in any of the pictures.  The aperture on all of them was f/4.0, and the shutter speed for all of them was 1/25.  The only thing I changed was the white balance settings.


Sunny/Daylight Setting: How things naturally look–“just as they should be”–to the camera.


Tungsten: Cools things down with a blue coat over the picture, to combat the yellow.


Fluorescent: Adds magenta to the picture to get the green of florescent lighting away.


Cloudy Day: It warms up the scene, adding a red or yellowish tint for super bluish or grayish scenes.


Auto White Balance: This turns everything back to white.

There’s also something called light intensity that I want to mention here.  Your camera can’t deal with a lot of intense light very well.  That’s why it’s super hard to take a good picture of a buffalo (or a black cow).  They’re so dark, and because of how they are shaped one side of them is usually in shadow.  On a camera that looks like one side is brown and one is black, since you camera can’t combat the light and see into the darkness.  If you expose for the dark side the light one will look practically white it will be so blown out, but if you expose for the light the dark side will look black.

A good rule of thumb is this: If you or your subjects have to squint because of the light, the light is too harsh.  When you’re shooting in harsh light and it can’t be helped, however, get into the shade, dial down the exposure on the background and use a separate flash with a soft box or a tissue on it, if you have one.  But don’t do anything with flash until you’ve read about introduced light.

There’s the other extreme though–overcast.  Dark objects are way easier to see in overcast light because there’s no highlights or shadows since the sun isn’t out.


But sometimes it’s about the moment, not about how good the picture is.

Introduced Light

If you think, “oh, she’s going to talk about flash now,” you’re right, but not completely.  There’s more to introduced light than flash.  I don’t have a flash except the one built into the top of my camera, so I am going to start with the flash and then talk about the interesting stuff later.

Let me first say that the flash on top of your camera is usually not something you want to use.  Every once in a while it comes in handy, but the pictures taken with it usually aren’t very good ones as far as lighting goes.  Most of the pictures I see taken with flash (at least, how most people think of it), are blown out.  Think dark background, white faces, and red eyes.

Never, NEVER use the flash straight on (unless you can bounce it or cover it up with a tissue or fabric).  GET YOUR FLASH OFF YOUR CAMERA!  Put it off to the side and get a soft box, which is basically a $50 box of fabric that goes over the flash and diffuses the light.  If you don’t have a soft box, use a kleenex.  If you don’t have either of those things, bounce the light of something–the wall, the ceiling, the floor, your shirt, someone else’s shirt.


For this photo, I used the flash on top of my camera and bounced if off a white piece of scratch paper.

Move the flash around, play with it, dial it up and down.

  • Dial it down 2/3 of a stop or a full stop.
  • Diffuse diffuse diffuse.  Or bounce it off something.  Make it less strong!
  • Be within 10 feet of your subject if you’re using a flash.  It only goes so far.
  • Watch your histogram–if anything is touching that right side, you’re blowing out the highlights.

You can also use your flash to freeze action by doing something cool called “dragging the shutter”–opening the shutter long enough to soak up all the ambient light from the background, but use a little flash to light up those in the foreground.  You have to do it well for it to look good, though.  I can’t.

So with flash, you’re usually better off not using it.


This picture’s fine, I guess.  You can see the rock formations really well and all.  But is it really better?  Look at this one below.  That one’s dark, and in a way, it’s nicer.  It’s not all blown out.


Okay, now for the fun part.

You can use all kinds of light sources that aren’t “normal” in your pictures.  For example: car taillights and headlights, firelight, reading lamps, flashlights, etc.  Use reflectors to bounce light.  Keep in mind, a reflector is anything from those fancy things that you buy at the store to a T-shirt to a piece of poster board painted white or silver or gold.

I’ve taken some really cool pictures of my brother with just his bedside lamp for light, and one of him sitting on the toilet reading a book and brushing his teeth to the light of his headlamp during a power outage.  Unfortunately, I can’t share them.


In this photo of my hand, the only light source was the lamp behind my hand.  On another note, the ISO was too high so it’s rather grainy.

Light is hardest to master, but it’s worth it.  It can be what makes a picture truly amazing.  ??


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