Life is too Short to be Taking Photos of Great Subjects in Bad Light

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Sometimes the lessons are so basic, they are overlooked. This is one I feel needs to be repeated for new photographers as well as a gentle reminder for those of us with decades of shooting experience.

Peter-West-Carey-_MG_5589

Photography is the process of recording light. It is the same with your eyes, every waking moment of every day you use them. You see subjects around you and mentally are so busy classifying and figuring them out (“What a beautiful red Ferrari! Is it slowing down for a right hand turn?”) that when it comes time to lift a camera to your eye, you forget to stop and think about what is really going on.

You make pictures of light first

Of what are you really taking photos? You are taking photos first and foremost of light. Most of the time it is light reflected off of a subject but sometimes it is of the light source itself (e.g. sunsets, light painting, fireworks, etc.). In the case of the former, you need to remember the subject itself might be interesting, but if the light is ‘bad’ then the subject doesn’t stand a chance.

Let me illustrate by example. These images are of the Olympic Mountain Range in Washington State, where I live part of the time. They are beautiful this time of year, when it’s not raining so much we can’t see them, and when they still have a full coating of snow for contrast. I took the pictures at different times of day of the exact same subject, but the results are different each time.

Sunrise 6:12AM

Sunrise 6:12 a.m.

After Sunrise 7:04AM

After Sunrise 7:04 a.m.

Nearing Mid Day 10:28AM

Nearing Mid Day 10:28 a.m.

An Hour Before Sunset 6:10PM

An Hour Before Sunset 6:10 p.m.

The Morning Before At Sunrise 5:59AM

The Morning Before At Sunrise 5:59 a.m.

Light changes throughout the day

The images were all processed exactly the same and while the color balance naturally changed, what is most dramatic is the change in light and effect it has on the impact of the image.

A great photographer always thinks about light, even when she or he doesn’t have a camera up to their eye. It is light that makes the photo. The great thing about it is there is no ‘perfect’ that need be obtained in this regard. There is simply different light which will impart a different feel to the subject and whether or not you like that light.

What if the light is bad?

Sometimes it is the tone of the light, or the angle, or the intensity, or the temperature. The best practice for taking the best picture possible of a given subject, in my mind, goes something like this, “Wow, that’s a beautiful subject! Does the light work right now?”

This process has stopped me from taking more bad pictures than I can count. This is because I have reviewed thousands of my own crappy images with bad light, but great subjects, that this process has been cemented into my mind.

The next time you are enamored by a fabulous subject, ask yourself, “Is this the best light for this subject?” If not, your photos will be lackluster. If the light is not right, find a time or place where it will be better. If the situation won’t allow for great light, set your camera down and just admire the subject that caught your attention in the first place.

Life is too short to be taking photos of great subjects in bad light.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Peter West Carey leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Morocco, Seattle, Los Angeles and more. He is also the creator of 31 Days to Better Photography & 31 Days of Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

  • walwit

    Your point is simple but valuable however I did not find any of you samples to have good light, did I skip something while reading?

  • This topic is very complex as it applies differently depending on the subject that you are photographing; sometimes you have no chance to go back and revisit a place, or a scene could happen by chance just in front of you, and you want to freeze it to remember it.
    The underlying question here is, why do you photograph? All the opinions expressed in this article seem to point to just one answer: to create “good”, quality pictures, but there are many other purposes of photography, such as retaining memories, travel diaries… for which the quality of the still might not be the most important thing.

  • csnyder82

    “If the situation won’t allow for great light, set your camera down and just admire the subject that caught your attention in the first place.

    Life is too short to be taking photos of great subjects in bad light.”

    So just because you can’t find good light you shouldn’t take a shot? I think that’s rather poor advice. This isn’t the 20th century when every shot cost you money. Take the image. If nothing else you have a memory to take home. Life is too short to not be taking photos because of bad light. Sure, it may not be a wall hanger or anything worth posting on your website, but still a memory for yourself.

  • I agree and disagree. When I teach my workshops and do my tours I get this question all the time “what if there’s an interesting subject but the light is bad?” and my answer is – I do not take the photo. It’s reality.

    If the light is harsh and shadowy, full of contrast – it’s likely not even good enough for me as a memory. I have my brain for that. So I agree with the author in that regard.

    I agree with your comment in that not every shot has to be art, sometimes it’s a record of where you were and what you saw.

  • Can’t argue with that. Perhaps a fun reversal of your pre-shoot thought would be “Wow, that’s beautiful lighting! But is there a good subject there yet?”

  • Jade Navarre Valdivieso

    I’d say it’d be good for beginners to take those bad photos, in RAW, and edit them later. I’ve learned so much more about sharpness, exposure and lighting from editing bad pictures than I did from taking perfect pictures! But maybe that’s just me!

  • Rodrigo

    Just because its cheap to take a digital picture doesn’t mean you should just take a houndred of them, I rather have a 12 set of amazing pictures than 1200 to store, judge, catalogue and erase. I agree with the author, if the light is not good, don’t take it unless you are just recording it for practical purpuse. As soon as I went back to shooting 120mm film where you just get 12 shots per roll my taste and quality of work rised substancially. Now even shooting digital I might have it framed focused and exposure set, but before shooting I ask myself, Is it a picture worth taking? many times I take the camera down.

  • Tracy P.

    I agree. If photography is your work, then by all means, do what it takes to get to the right place at the right time. If you are vacationing with other people, it’s a little presumptuous to think that you can control the itinerary to make sure you have ideal conditions for photographing the beauty you encounter. But that doesn’t mean you are going to see a spectacular scene in poor light and decide not to photograph it at all–at least I know I can’t say no to that midday photo if it’s my only choice. Maybe, though, it’s time to capture another subject with that scene as the backdrop.

  • a guest

    If the original photo has dull/poor lighting, no amount of ‘fixing’ is going to make it better, regardless of it’s in RAW format or not.

  • Michael Owens

    You are wrong. Have you ever edited a RAW fiile? D oyou even know what RAW is?

  • Well yes and no. While you can pull a lot out of a RAW file detail wise I think what he and the author are getting at is that you can’t fix bad lighting in post-production. You can’t take flat light and make it interesting. You can’t take contrasty side light and make it less contrasty. You can’t take frontal light as in from an on camera flash and make it have dimension. So some of it has to be in camera.

  • Michael Owens

    For the most part, RAW editing CAN pull back a viewable image if need be. That’s all I am saying. It’s not impossible!

  • The first thing for doing great captures at great subjects is getting there and it’s enough effort often, enough for taking advantage of being there and shooting whatever light conditions are.

    Well, then and and if having no alternatives… post-processing can rescue and make wonders from bad light or bad exposed captures, just get a good image process software (GIMP is great and for free), add NIK Viveza, Topaz Clarity or similar filters… and voilà!!!

    Incredible things can be done!
    It’s difficult to believe when comparing this image with the original SOOC capture.

  • Ali

    Really bad advice on avoiding grt subjects due to bad light … Really bad

  • Steven Watts

    I found this article to be a waste of time.

  • See my comment below. Photography IS light. Bad light = most often bad photo.

  • Mike

    Take the photo, there’s nothing lost. With memory cards getting impressively large in capacity, there’s no harm. I just can’t see a convincing argument not to take a shot in bad light and decide to delete it at a later time, as an amatur photographer I’m not selling my work, sometimes my family says “wow” to even the most mundane of shots. So what is a bad photo by this definition?

  • Sophie

    It would have been a much more helpful article if you could give us a couple pointers on how to deal with bad light. As many people noted, you can’t always come back for the right light. There must be things I could do to mitigate the harsh mid-day sun.

  • Because it’s about being more selective and not shooting everything just because it’s there. Try shooting film for a week – you’ll get a look choosier and I will almost guarantee you will get better images. Just try it.

  • Keith Starkey

    Thanks very much.

  • deb

    Why are you even on this site then? Isn’t it about learning to take better photos? Following the light is the one biggest thing that will improve most photographers’ photos.

    Take the midday photos for memories if you like, but consider those as snapshots and memories. If you want to take great photographs, follow the advice here.

  • Choo Chiaw Ting

    Why Nikon / Canon can’t save the photos in DNG format like what Leica does..? It makes the color / tone rendering much better i think.. 😉

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