Exploring the Fundamentals of Light to Improve Your Photos

Exploring the Fundamentals of Light to Improve Your Photos


Let me point out from the start, it doesn’t matter what camera you use. From a fancy DSLR to your phone you can use these lighting tools to improve your photographs.

Photography and light go hand in hand. Simply put; if there is no light, there is no photograph.

Sunrise - Exploring the Fundamentals of Light to Improve Your Photos

Light is so important to great photography I’m going to ask you to put your camera down for a moment and observe. Really look at the light. The color of it, the way it’s falling on people and things. What shadows are being created?

Try looking at these different times of the day:

1. Early morning before the sun rises and while it rises

The color of light - Exploring the Fundamentals of Light to Improve Your Photos

You’ll see the light change from a cool blue to red, orange, and yellow light in the early morning. It will shift from a soft shadowless light to one that gives shape and texture to everything it touches. If the weather is right, you’ll witness the same in reverse, going from warm to cool at the other end of the day (sunset)!

Shape texture - Exploring the Fundamentals of Light to Improve Your Photos

Budding photographers tend to photograph the actual sunrise or sunset. It is beautiful to be sure. Instead, try looking at what the sun is doing to the trees or the plants or a person’s face and clothing. When the sun is low in the sky it creates gorgeous shapes and textures. On a beach, look at the texture of the sand or the shape of rocks and shells scattered here and there.

2. High noon

Raccoon eyes - Exploring the Fundamentals of Light to Improve Your Photos

High noon is a time better left to gunslingers! This can be the worst time for photography. It is the same light you see in office spaces with overhead lighting. It will give your portraits unflattering raccoon eyes like the image above.

What are you to do then? There are two easy solutions. Turn on your flash is one possibility. The second is head into the shade outside and use window light indoors.

3. Window light

Window light is beautiful directional light. What’s directional? This means the light is coming from one direction, one source.

What we too often see is a person standing with their back to a bank of windows with their faces dark or the outdoors completely white. Instead, place your subject perpendicular to the window using the light to illuminate one side of their face. You can use window light with equally effective results whether photographing a person or an object.

Window light - Exploring the Fundamentals of Light to Improve Your Photos

You’ll want to try using this kind of light when the sun is not shining directly through the window. Pick a cloudy day, use a north-facing window, or shoot after the sun has moved overhead away from the window.

4. Stormy weather

The light changes as you move into and out of a storm. Watch how the color of flowers, leaves, and even cars comes to life during these times of shifting weather. You can add saturation in Photoshop to images today, but you will find it far more realistic if you can capture the saturated color you enjoy at the end of a rainfall.

After the storm - Exploring the Fundamentals of Light to Improve Your Photos

And don’t be shy about heading out into a snowfall or rainstorm with your camera in tow. You will discover a whole new world most folks hideaway from. You will bear witness to people and scenes not normally seen. I guarantee people will exclaim, “Wow, how did you get that shot?!”

5. The Seasons

Your observations of light will inform you of many things. I imagine you will start to see things I don’t see as well. That’s my hope. One other thing you might observe is that light changes over the course of the year too.

Fall color - Exploring the Fundamentals of Light to Improve Your Photos

For example, the sun’s position in the sky changes. During the summer here in southern Ontario the sun rises directly out my back door facing east. Come November, that same ball of fire is rising about 45 degrees further south or to my right. So, it is now lighting things from a very different angle than it was in June, creating different shapes and textures on objects in the same space. How cool is that!

Another piece of the lighting puzzle I’ve discovered is the light becomes clearer and sharper almost overnight moving from August to September. The muggy air of August creates a softer light because it is filled with particulate scattering the light around. As the air cools in September the air is fresher and cleaner giving us a sharper light. This is in southern Ontario, but I guarantee the same effects will occur at some time in your neck of the woods.

Brave the weather

People in these parts complain when it hits -20 Celsius. That’s the time to grab your camera and head out into the world. We get a lot of gray weather during our winters. Ninety percent of the time when it’s very cold we get crisp, clean, beautiful light with these gorgeous blue skies.

Cold morning - Exploring the Fundamentals of Light to Improve Your Photos

I recognize I’m talking about my home, but I ask you to start observing what effect the seasons and the weather have on the light in your area. Which times excite you visually? When does the color jump out at you? Perhaps you like the softer light?


I encourage you to observe and then explore different light to discover your preferences. If you’re excited, you will start creating stronger images you want to share.

Let’s finish with a challenge to share. It’s hard to put your photographs out there. The thing is, with whatever medium you choose to express yourself, you bring a unique vision to the world.

What is truly fantastic about photography is that seven or 70 of us can photograph the same scene, and we will typically all come up with a different perspective. When we share, we learn. My recommendation? Be yourself and share. Start by posting an image in the comments below and tell us about the light you used to create it.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

David McCammon has been a professional photographer for 30 years. As owner of David McCammon Photography and author of “Image Power: Balancing Passion and Profit in Business.” David’s photography has taken him in airplanes down mine shafts. He has photographed for major corporations covered weddings, family portraits, editorial, product, and food photography. Currently, his commercial photography is primarily focused on corporate and product photography. David offers various courses online and in person.

  • BlackEternity

    Thanks for the article.
    I’m fairly new to photography and I always think of stuff to shoot.
    My issue is this:
    The local weather here is overcast skies with no clear sky at any time of day.
    Currently we have approx. one or two days of clear sky a week and often this is the case when I’m stuck at work from 9 – 6.
    Do you have suggestions on what to photograph in completely overcast skies? I try to take pictures of animals nearby (horses, birds etc.) but everything is bland or the sky is completely blown out due to it’s brightness.
    I’m going to buy an ND Filter soon but right now I’m stuck with my lens only.
    Any suggestions on what to do with this kind of weather?

    Great article and I have so many inspirations when the weather clears up…

  • David McCammon

    Overcast skies create different opportunities. Look for colour, shapes and patterns.
    If the sky is too dull, lacking in detail then try not using it in the photograph or very little of it.
    Animals? Try getting a little higher up to eliminate the sky or get in closer. Try a different angle so there’s something of greater interest behind your subject – a weathered barn behind a horse? branches of trees around a bird?
    You may have to explore different subjects when the weather isn’t as favourable.
    Explore, experiment, don’t worry about every photo being the best. Learn what went wrong and try to make it better next time. Try under and over exposing to see what happens to the images under these conditions.
    Have fun @BlackEternity

  • topdrifter

    Thank you for this article, I want to learn as much as I can about image making and lighting has always been an elusive subject for me.

  • David McCammon

    Delighted you enjoyed the article topdrifter! Light is everything. I love to watch the light everyday to see what it does. Then get the camera out…

  • BlackEternity

    Thanks for the countless tips and informations. I appreciate that massively.
    I try to always be on the lookout for new things to photograph when the weather is bad. Properly fitting into the topic regarding light, I had a sunny day lately and this was right outside my door before I got home. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/ef34341936b4ae8fbe1a384c6505f4942f7c7787d4e82664d250724d199ebb3e.jpg

    Light, especially the setting sun can make such a mundane objekt look pretty.
    Thanks for that article so I have more open eyes for different lighting situations.

  • pete guaron

    In another group, it was suggested that we don’t take decent photos or interesting shots close to home – we need to range further afield, if we are to be successful. My reaction was to treat that as a challenge, and see just exactly what I COULD achieve, right outside my front door.

    My initial thought was borrowed from Claude Monet’s series on haystacks, showing different resuts under different lighting. As the project developed, I found myself stunned by the extraordinary variety of results of exactly the same scene, merely because of what – to the human eye (which compensates a lot, for perceived oddities in lighting – unlike cameras which are totally devoid of any such intuitive switching) – seemed comparatively minor changes in lighting or atmospheric conditions.

    Note that – it wasn’t just the light that shifted – atmospheric conditions came into play, because they also affect the image. I suppose one could equally argue they’re just a component of changes in lighting and I guess that’s true in a sense. But the important thing to note is to be aware of these changes also, as THEY create the differences in lighting that I was seeing – not the position or movement of the sun or clouds. Example – after a shower of rain, the air is cleansed of dust and therefore haziness is eliminated, for a while, when the sun comes out after the rain ceases. The difference is quite startling – and NOT due to the lighting.

    I see topdrifter wants to learn as much as possible about lighting (as well as image making). We should ALL do so. It is fundamental to how to take a photograph. Because it IS light (and shade) – and the colours the light reveals, if you’re shooting in colour – that we are photographing.

  • SueWsie Wils

    I was told that shape and colour can stand out beautifully in overcast light. Worth a try as I found sometimes they did better.

  • SueWsie Wils


    Knee deep in snow – loved getting out for this shot. I’d walked there often and knew there would be a beautiful shot. Used my tripod to test the bank to make sure I didn’t fall in!

  • Loren

    Light coming from different angles after a snowfall offer some amazing opportunities https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/83ebe4d460210148abf8f1de6ac3e63009b4722632dfefd9fd9ed54dc34a924a.jpg

  • David McCammon

    Lovely back-lighting! Dreaming of summer with tire swing?
    One suggestion, if I may, crop out a good portion of the foreground.

  • David McCammon


  • David McCammon

    In a writing course I took many moons ago, the prof suggested we write about what we know. Makes sense some of the time for sure. I’d suggest it’s whatever the individual is inspired to pursue.

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