Let's Talk About Light - 3 Types of Lighting Conditions and how to Use Them

Let’s Talk About Light – 3 Types of Lighting Conditions and how to Use Them


What‘s all this talk about light?

About light photography 04

When I started my photography journey I remember every article (or so it felt like), blog or book I read talking about light. “Find the light!”, “SEE the light!”, “It’s all about the LIGHT!”, “Follow THE LIGHT!”… AHHHH WHAT’S ALL THIS TALK ABOUT LIGHT!!!

Sound familiar?

I soon became obsessed about light. I would stare at people as they were talking to me; daydreaming, watching how the light was falling on their faces. When I was out walking I would always be looking at the direction of light and the way it behaved at certain parts of the day. It seemed however, that the harder I looked for The Light, the less I was able to see it. I honestly thought I would never be able to see the light!

Then something happened. I can’t tell you exactly when, but after months of obsessing about light, I finally saw ‘it’; its beautiful, soft, illuminating quality and its ability to change the mood and style of a scene.

Light plays a huge part in my photography style and the soft, romantic images I create. There are so many different types that I could easily write a whole book about light alone. For now however, I’m going to focus on three types of lighting conditions and how I use them to their advantage.

Open shade

Open shade is that spot between the sun and shade. The shade can be created by a building, a tree, a wall, etc. When using open shade it’s important to ensure that you still have available light reflecting into the shaded area. Choosing areas that have white, or light pastel, walls or floors will also help create additional soft, illuminating light by reflecting light off their surfaces. The reflected light will bounce all over your model giving them a lovely soft, gentle and even glow.

About light photography 01

The above image was taken in open shade. Can you see the line in the bottom left of the frame that divides the light and shade area? I’ve placed my model just with in it, so that the light is still reflecting onto her. The limestone wall also acts as a reflective surface and bounces light back onto my model.

Another thing to consider when using open shade is the direction your model is facing. If facing in the wrong direction, open shade can leave your image looking dull and flat. Make sure to look at where the light is coming from and have your model facing it. Use reflective surfaces, or a reflector, to direct the light back towards your subject. By doing this, the light is still illuminating their face and you’re still getting those beautiful catch lights in their eyes. Open shade offers the flexibility to shoot any time of day. It’s a great tool to use when shooting in midday light, when the sun is high in the sky and is creating harsh shadows on your model.

About light photography 02

Overcast days

Overcast days are my favourite sort of days to shoot. It’s like shooting in open shade, but instead the open shade is everywhere! While it’s still important to look for where the light is coming from, overcast days don’t limit you to shaded areas. The clouds act as a giant diffuser or soft box, giving you gentle, even light.

When shooting on an overcast day, I always look at where the sun is. Even if I can’t see it behind the clouds, I make sure I know where it would be if the clouds weren’t there. There are plenty of mobile phone apps available that will tell you where the sun is situated at that specific moment in time. They will also usually tell you where the sun sets and rises, which is a great tool to help you plan your shoot in advance.

The image below was taken on a wet, grey, overcast day. I still wanted to make sure that my models face was illuminated by light. For this frame I made sure that the sun was behind me. Although I couldn’t see it through the clouds, I could still see its brightness lighting up the area in the sky. Although my model was facing directly towards the sun, he wasn’t squinting and there were no harsh shadows being cast. The clouds where acting as my soft box giving me beautiful even light.

About light photography 03 About light photography 07

When starting out, many photographers are put off shooting on cloudy, overcast days. On the surface, the light appears dull; but look a bit deeper and you’ll see its wonderful illuminating quality. Some of my favourite images have been captured on days like this.

About light photography 05 About light photography 06


About light photography 08Backlighting, if done properly, can create some beautiful atmospheric and dramatic images. It takes a lot of practice to nail a backlit shot, but I think it’s worth the effort.

There’s different ways of positioning the sun in your frame. You can have it directly behind your model, just outside the image or in the shot completely. Each one will create a different effect and will influence how much sun flare and haze is captured in your image.

When backlighting, your metering plays a huge part in how successful the image will be. Shooting in manual mode will help ensure that perfect shot. When shooting towards the sun, I always meter for the models face, usually just under the eye closest to me. I know that this might blow out some of the highlights in the background or areas around my model, but I like the added glow that this creates.

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Camera’s aren’t always too keen to shoot directly towards the sun. This is where having a lens hood comes in useful. However, sometimes even this isn’t enough and you’ll hear the whirring of your lens struggling to focus on your chosen spot. When this happens, try creating a small spot of shade for the camera by holding your left hand above the lens to bloke out the light. This usually does the trick but if not, the other option is to focus manually.

Some food for thought…

One of the best pieces of advice I ever got when starting out was to always look for the light first and the background second. It’s easy to be drawn into standing you models in front of something that looks pretty or interesting, but if the lighting in that location is poor, you’ll end up with a dull lifeless image, or a model that’s squinting and has harsh shadows on her face.

I’d love to know how you get on finding the light! Please share your comments and images below.

For more articles on lighting try these:

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Daniela Beddall from Ferri Photography is a Northamptonshire photographer who specializes in working with natural light. She shoots weddings and portraits and loves all things vintage!

  • Nice article – photography is all about the light! Backlighting is my favourite type of natural light for portraits – I sometimes like to add some off camera lighting or a reflector to help give a bit more punch to the image.

  • Stephen Hoppe

    As an architectural lighting designer I have been fascinated with light since an early age, I love photography because it is the medium in which to capture such a fascinating phenomenon!

    This is an excellent introduction to natural lighting for portraiture, but as a (mostly) landscape photographer I would mention the importance of patience to wait for good lighting. Sunlight changes slowly, but even 10 minutes might alter the appearance enough to get a better shot. Also, when using natural reflectors like the ground or a wall, remember that the color of the object will be reflected and it may be an advantage to position models near colors that will complement the scene.

  • Max

    Forecast days are my favorite days for shooting too.
    I think at some point you have to trust what you see and not always calculate the perfect spot. Soon enough it’ll become second nature and we begin to think like a camera.

  • Jared Lawson

    Overcast are definitely the best shooting conditions, nature’s light diffuser. I often help photographers with lighting recommendations and my own tip is to go out and get yourself a good reflector and light diffuser – they will make a world of difference lighting portraits without breaking the bank. California Portrait Photographer

  • Paul McKelvey

    Overcast days emphasize color. Stronger light emphasizes shape.

  • Sirron

    Oh my gawd! -02.jpg is amazing!

  • Ferri photography

    Thanks Sirron 🙂

  • Ferri photography

    That’s a great way to explain it Paul.

  • Ferri photography

    I couldn’t agree more Max. Once you see it you keep seeing it 🙂

  • walwit

    What a suprise to me this article, I was about to throw away my Canon EF 28-135mm because is so soft and now this is the kind of look you are getting here.

  • Russ

    great article! many thanks

  • Good article Daniela. This was very insightful. I am also a fan of cloudy days. All of the photos in this article are quality but I especially find your backlighting photos unique.

  • Jack C Denman

    I wish the author had discussed two more kinds of light I have used in wedding photography,

    Syncro-Sunlight – The use of electronic flash to eliminate deep shadows in bright sunlight. I almost always used this with the bride and groom getting into the car with a Hasslebald using a 150mm lens and 1/250 second shutter and 100/200 watt seconds of flash.

    North Light- I copied what the classical artists used for their portraits. A north window sometimes with the curtains pulled almost closed to get that narrow column of light for profile portraits.

  • Hi Jack, I don’t think that is typical of what most people own or have available to use (100-200 WS) that’s a lot of flash power. Not many own a Hassie either. I do, film one, but it’s on the closet and I shoot Canon now.

    I would say that north light is also great, perhaps it’s similar to open shade that the author did mention and maybe that’s why she didn’t talk about it specifically. Also that will depend on whether you live in the northern hemisphere or southern. Down under for example you’d want southern light.

  • Guest

    Article aside, I love the sample images used for this entry. While the article is good, the imagery is better! Thanks for contributing Daniela. Nice work.

  • Nice contribution Daniela! I think that this article has a lot of good points to note. But, what I am noting is the stunning sample imagery. Great work.

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