Training staff to take good photos part 2: Light


Photography: it’s not just the wonderful act of freezing a moment, an emotion in time, it’s ‘painting with light’. Someone, somewhere said that and I’m afraid I have no idea who…but I take it to heart.

Golden hour light haloes the subject in this portrait

Light is a key (if not the key) component of photography and it can massively affect the resulting shots you can get. So let’s skip on into my overview of light, how it affects your photos, and how to use it to your best advantage.

1. Natural vs. Artificial light

The first thing to know, is that in most situations natural light is king, and artificial light kind of blows. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about the people who have huge light-rigs and individual soft boxes and all that jazz: those have a lot of positives to using, but you’re just starting out, so let’s not worry about that. What I’m talking about is the difference between natural light and those god-awful strip lights we all work under in offices or event rooms. In that situation, natural light is your bestie.

The sun will often provide its own issues (it can be too harsh, or unpredictable, and we’ll discuss that further down), but in general, it’s the easiest light source to focus on when you first start learning about photography.

And one of the reasons natural light is preferred to artificial light, especially indoors, is it more accurately reflects colours to us. Artificial light affects the white balance of an image (i.e. how accurately the whites in a photo are recreated by the camera). Artificial lights often throw a particular colour cast into the room, and more often that not that colour is yellow. And because our eyes are so much more sophisticated than a camera, we know how disappointing it is to take a photo indoors, and have it look so much more sepia than it did to our eyes. I mean, you were pretty certain when you took it that your colleague didn’t have jaundice, but now you’re kind of wondering if you should send them to the doctors. That’s how much artificial light can affect your shot.

Artificial light can also make it harder to get a sharp photo, because although the scene looks perfectly light to your eyes, your camera disagress, and it’s struggling to get enough light in through the lens to get a reasonable shot. And pro tip: don’t rely on a quick look at the back of your camera’s LCD screen to confirm a shot is sharp. It may look like it is on first glance, but it’s kind of a fibber, so use the zoom function when viewing and zoom in on the key part of the image to check if it’s actually sharp or not – that’s the best test you can do without seeing the image on a larger computer screen.

So if you’re looking to get some great shots inside, look for the windows, doors and skylights that will provide natural light you need to not only help balance out the colour, but provide a light boost to the camera so you can get sharper, less-grainy photos.

Taken in hard light, the overhead sun obscures part of this man’s face as he poses for the photo

2. Hard and soft light

Hard and soft light is another way that pesky light can affect your images. ‘Hard’ light creates a harsh shadows and edges in your photo, with ‘blown out’ areas of light (i.e. parts where the light is so bright it’s just a solid patch of white in your image with no real detail). ‘Soft’ light is the opposite: it smooths out all it touches, is less contrast-y, and is eminently flattering to everyone.

With natural light the ‘hardest’ light happens when the sun is directly overhead. It’s like sitting under a naked light bulb dangling from a ceiling: not your finest look.

Ways you can change from hard light to soft.
What you want to do is find the ‘soft’ light in a situation. If you’re outdoors, this means looking for a shaded area, or (if you have this sort of flexibility in your shoot) waiting for cloud cover or a cloudier day.

If you only have hard light, and no shaded areas nearby, what you want to try and do is diffuse or reflect the hard light and ‘fill in’ the shadows as much as possible.

You can do this by:

  • finding nearby white reflective surfaces that will bounce light off them without casting a colour onto your subjects. Or, portable/collapsible reflectors are reasonably affordable at about £15 a pop and worth investing in. (Coming up in next month’s newsletter: the key things to buy for your in-house photography kit). Reflectors are useful for helping remove shadows from a photo involving one or two people, or small objects/subjects. Sadly they’re less useful for large groups.
  • you can also diffuse light by placing something in between your subject and your light source, like white and gauzy material. If you’re inside and find the light coming through the window is throwing hard shadows

3. Light direction

Where your light is coming from drastically affects your image. Remember we said before that ‘hard’ light is like an overhead bulb: it throws unwanted shadows across the face, especially across the eye area. In this instance you want to find a way to either reflect the light (as we mentioned previously) to get rid of the shadows, or move the subject to another place, if possible, where the light is coming from a better angle, or is diffused (such as in shade).

If you’re inside and the light is coming from behind a person, this produces a backlit photo – a silhouette. Standing with the window (or natural light source) directly behind the subject will result in too much light in the background and not enough light on their face/front. If you’re looking for an artsy photo (or one that doesn’t identify the subject), this could be something to try, but in general you want to avoid this.

However, if you’re outside (and especially in the late afternoon sun), having the sun behind the person you’re photographing can result in a lovely hair light ‘halo’ effect. This doesn’t always work, so you’re going to have to play around if you can with where your people stand, finding shade and soft light.

So, as a very (very) simple and general rule: inside? Have your person facing the light source. Outside? Have the light source behind them.

Side lit
Side lit photos can produce some interesting and dramatic results, and may be one of your choices if you’re in an event room with fixed natural light sources (i.e. windows). Bear in mind you’ll get some more dramatic shadows from light coming in at a side angle.

Front lit
This is the ideal you’re often aiming for. If you’re inside, aim to get your photo subjects facing a window or natural light source to get the best possible lighting for them. If you’re taking photos at an event, and you find that the same people are sat or stood in the best natural light shots, find a good point to gently ask people can rotate or swap seats – perhaps immediately after a coffee break as people return to their activities. This way you’ll get a good range of shots and people, instead of the same 3 people in each photo.

Golden Hour lighting
The hour directly after sunrise and the hour directly before sunset are usually a photographer’s two favourite hours of the day. The light is gentle and diffuse, giving it the beautiful ‘golden’ glow of its name. It makes almost everything look a little angelic. It honestly might not be the sort of look you’re going for in your communications, but it’s worth keeping in mind as hours that give you beautiful lighting direct from mother nature.

They key thing, if you’re working on becoming your team’s in-house photographer, is to practice! Start to take note of the light around you when you rock up at an event or need to take a few quick snaps for social media. You’ll soon start to instinctively notice where the light is coming from, and how to improve the scene so you can get the best possible shot.

Does your team need a little help with internal photography training, and you’d like something a little more bespoke than a blog post? Get in touch and let’s chat about improving your team’s internal photography capacity through specialised training.

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