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L is for Light

Golden Sunset over Trees
Posted by on December 1, 2012

As mentioned in earlier blogs the Christmas period is also known as the Festival of Light. As  winter deepens (in the Northern hemispheres) the days get shorter, more artificial light sources are needed to brighten up the day. For Christmas this means not only using candles but also the Christmas lights that are used to decorate the tree and the house. The benefit with these lights is that they give a nice soft glow to everything, in contrast to your normal lamp lights.

Having enough and the right light for your photos can be very tricky and there are different tips and tricks for different situations. Most likely during the Christmas period you will be taking your photos indoors so it is important to think about the light issues you might encounter.

The Challenge of Indoor Light

Using your flash

Your eyes are the most amazing things, seeing in places that cameras often struggle and we take for granted the light in a room. Most people will use the automatic settings on their camera when taking images in low light. This often means that if the camera thinks there is not enough light available, it will use any built-in flash to make sure you can see your image. The problem with an on board flash is that it gives a very harsh light, which gives everything that washed out and unflattering look, including the overly common and unwelcome ‘red-eye’.

If you take a lot of photos indoors, switch your inbuilt flash off. Make up for the lack of light by using either your camera settings or indoor light sources. On your camera increase the ISO as this will help producing better images. For alternative light sources switch on lamps but steer them away from the object you are taking an image of. Bounce the light of the wall to get a softer and more natural look.

If you really want to use your flash, try to use a separate mounted flash with both swivel and tilt functions. This gives you far greater control over the light and gives you the option to point away and bounce the light of the wall. If possible use a diffuser which softens the flash light and again gives a more natural look.

The scene

When taking an indoor photo there is a lot of distraction going on that can take away the focus of your object. Clear up any clutter that is lying around, it’s a good excuse for a quick tidy up. How often have you seen pictures whereby your eye is distracted because of rubbish, laundry or any other unwanted items lingering in the background?


Check for your own reflection. Many things can bounce back your own image on the photo which is what you want to avoid wherever possible. Move glass wear and shiny objects out of the way, stay well clear of mirrors and windows. Although you want to use the light bouncing effects of mirrors and windows, you do not want to have them in your photo.

The Challenge of Outdoor Light

Knowing the sun hours

Whilst with indoor photography you can in general manipulate your light sources, this is far more difficult when you are outdoors. When taking outdoor images it is important to understand the impact of light during different times of the day. One fantastic resource is called The Photographers Ephemeris which can give you precises times wherever you are.

Most of you will know the “golden hour” of the day when there is near perfect light for your photography. This is the hour just before sunset or just after sunrise. During this hour the sun shines so low that you will have long shadows and the harshness is gone, giving everything a nice warm glow. Depending on the weather you will have some great imagery to play with. I always love it when there are clouds lingering in the sky, diffusing the sunlight just that little bit more and creating a red / orange light.

The next best time to take photos is just after the “golden hour” when there is still that little bit of light left but there is no longer any direct sunlight. You will have to make sure that, like with indoor photography, you switch your flash off as the camera will try to compensate for lack of light.

If you do not want to be out this early / late or do not have the opportunity, try to go for the mid morning or late afternoon hours. There will be plenty of natural sunlight around, but it will start to get that softer glow and creating longer shadows. You will have to work less fast than during sunset or sunrise, but still time is of the essence. An hour later and your lighting will have changed drastically, making a real impact on the photos you are taking.

One the worst times of the day is to take photos during midday. At this time the sun is as it’s brightest and highest in the sky. This results in very harsh light and short shadows, all driven by the lack of opportunity for the light to bounce. It gives your photos that white washed look that can be quite unflattering, without depth, emotion or engagement with the viewer.

Some types of photos can actually benefit from the harsh, uniform midday light, giving much better results. When working in or around water, it is better to have this stronger sunlight as the light will penetrate deeper, giving the water that very blue, indefinite look.

Working with the scene

Like with indoor photography, the scenery often makes or breaks a photo. Try to move around until you have an angle that has as little clutter as possible. Especially try to avoid lamp posts and bins, unwelcome at the best of times you want to check they don’t sprout from somebody’s head.

The simplest rule is: The less clutter, the better your photo.

Even with the great advantages of Photoshop, you will not always be able to remove obstructions from your image. Take those extra minutes when framing the shot to avoid disappointment later.

When taking outdoor photos pay attention to what is around you. Try to use any natural shapes to frame your photo. Again, check for any unwanted objects, for example graffiti on the wall, peeling posters or paintwork or rubbish on the street. Unless of course these are the focus points of your work! But even than, check for anything you do not want.

Painting with light

We have new ways of playing with light in photos that earlier generations couldn’t even dream of, one the most popular which is called painting with light. Its is a great and fun way to take photos, especially when you want to involve children. In order to do painting with light, you have to use your imagination and memory as your subject uses a light source as a paintbrush and take an image of what you are doing. Sounds easy and complicated at the same time. But it’s great to try out, especially now the evenings are darker. If you can get the hang of it, you can even try it on New Years Eve with some sparklers.

The kit you need is quite simple and most of it you will have available:

1. For the best results you will have to use a digital camera. The reason is two fold. One you can see a direct result of what you are doing, and quickly can make adjustments. Second you set your exposure times quite easily. The longer the better.

2. A flat surface or a tripod for your camera. As you are working with long exposure times it is crucial your camera is still throughout this time. A tripod is perfect for this, but if you do not have one, try to use a wall or any other stable flat surface (parked car, bicycle or tree will do). Make sure your camera cannot topple over!

3. A light source. You can try different light sources, but most people will use a flash light or torch. Alternatively you can try to play with sparklers, glowsticks or if you know how to do this fire. But I would not recommend that to any beginners.

4. Most crucial, a dark location. Now that can be quite difficult as you will need to make sure there is no artificial light that can influence your photo. If you want to take your photos in the street, ou will have the change of car lights messing up your image. So try to find a park, beach, garden or any rural area. The darker the better.

How it works:

Put the camera on it’s stable position, either through tripod or wall. Take an initial sample shot, both of just the scene and where you are planning to stand. This will make sure that your “painting” will be in the shot and the composition is as you want it.

Next set your exposure as long as you want, the longer the better, although it depends on your “painting”. Also stop down the aperture.

Now you are ready for your “painting”. Press Click and start painting. Either make the broad strokes as you would do with a paint brush, or keep it very tight as if you are writing with a pen. The slower you go the brighter the area will be, so work in a fast but steady pace. If you linger to much in one place you will get a burn in your image. Once the shutter closes you are done and can inspect your photo.

Keep playing until you are satisfied with your result. It’s a great way to have fun outdoors in the dark and cold winter evenings.

An example (with good music) of playing with light using video from INXS.

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