How to See and Photograph Light – 6 Tips to Help you Take Better Photos

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I was teaching a class recently and someone asked me how they could have made a particular set of landscape images better. Should they have used a different aperture, shutter speed, etc.? “You couldn’t have made those photos any better because the light was terrible.” I explained. You must learn to see and photograph light to take better photos.

How to See and Photograph Light - 6 Tips to Help you Take Better Photos

Blossoms at dawn, Paris.

There are times when interesting photos can be made in bad light. But I will unequivocally say that in most cases (as there are always exceptions to the rules, right?) when you have boring light you will have boring photos.

Interesting light transforms any subject. It reveals and enhances the subject’s natural qualities. In many ways, it brings your subject to life. If you follow only one piece of advice in photography it should be this:

“Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.” George Eastman.

How to See and Photograph Light - 6 Tips to Help you Take Better Photos

Moonset on the Seine.

In this article, I am going to explore light in many forms, but it’s not a technical article. This is about the how you compose with light, how its different forms affect your subject, the emotions that light communicates, and how when you really chase light you’ll learn to create more compelling and memorable images.

In every single one of these photos, I will say that the subject is the light. The light might be subtle, or very obvious, but what compelled me to snap that shutter was what the light was doing. Here are some tips to get you more involved with capturing the mesmerizing qualities of light.

1) Notice light

“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” Henry David Thoreau

How to See and Photograph Light - 6 Tips to Help you Take Better Photos

This first step seems like a stupidly simple piece of advice right? I mean who doesn’t notice light? Most people notice the obvious aspects of light – it’s a sunny day, it’s stormy, it’s twilight. There is so much more to light, though. It’s a rich, varied and complex entity. Light is creating hundreds of different effects all around us all the time.

The first piece of advice I always give to all my students is – look for what the light is doing and look for light sources. You’re out and you see a beautiful shaft of light on a wall. Ask yourself – where is it coming from? Is it direct or is it being reflected off of something? Is it bouncing off the wall and doing something else?

As you move around light alters – as you enter a square, go under a tree, move behind a building – it’s bouncing and reflecting off so many things. Light is being filtered through leaves, through different urban and natural materials. It’s this constantly changing aspect that you need to become very familiar and intimate with. Light is always changing – as clouds drift across the sun, as the hours pass, as weather systems move.

How to See and Photograph Light - 6 Tips to Help you Take Better Photos

See the shadows on the clouds?

Become a light detective

There are, of course, many times when the light is super flat. We have many days in London where cloud cover is very dense and the light is very flat and gray. Or back in California, where I grew up, in the height of summer at midday the light is hard and almost flat in its piercing white intensity. Then you have to work harder to look for alterations in light. But like life itself, change is something we can consistently rely on.

You’ll also start to notice that when the light outside changes, it also changes the light inside. A drop in the vibrancy of the light outside will make the light inside seem warmer and stronger.

Becoming a good photographer is like becoming a light detective. What is light doing to your subject? What is it revealing about your subject?

How to See and Photograph Light - 6 Tips to Help you Take Better Photos

Los Angeles downtown at dawn.

2) Use light to create emotion in your images

“A great photograph is a full expression of what one feels about what is being photographed in the deepest sense and is thereby a true expression of what one feels about life in its entirety.” Ansel Adams

For me, light always creates an emotion, a feeling, or a sense of mood. It doesn’t have to be a strong feeling or even a positive one, but it does have to create an impact with me that goes beyond the initial pleasingness to the eye. I am constantly searching to capture a feeling in my images. Light is a very powerful way to communicate emotions.

So I want you to look at the light in the following photos and ask yourself – how do they make me feel? Light can be a powerful and dramatic element in your photos, creating a deep feeling of awe, about the grand beauty of the world.

How to See and Photograph Light - 6 Tips to Help you Take Better Photos

Dawn over the Grand Canal Venice, Italy.

Light enhances the subject

Of course, the photo above would have been interesting without the dramatic sunrise, after all, it is Venice and the subject is incredible. What the beautiful light adds, though, is a big pop of color, adding a layer of depth and enhancing the awe-inspiring feeling of these amazing buildings. The dramatic color and light matches and enhances the dramatic subject.

It doesn’t have to be big subjects, though. This simple shot of pretty flowers would be quite boring if it didn’t have this lovely dappled light on it. It’s simple but very evocative. If you are starting out, or trying to refresh your basic skills, focusing on detailed shots like this, and what light is doing to the elements in the world around you, is a fantastic way to start playing with, and capturing the magic of light.

How to See and Photograph Light - 6 Tips to Help you Take Better Photos

Tulips in bloom Istanbul Gulhane park

I have mentioned interesting and beautiful light. So what is interesting light? Well, to me it’s any light that communicates an emotion, a feeling, or a mood. It’s light that makes you feel something. Even if that’s melancholy.

How to See and Photograph Light

Lone tree on a foggy morning on Hampstead Heath London, at dawn.

I shot the photo above on a cloudy autumnal morning. The light was very diffuse, very subtle, but it was still pretty and interesting to me. It matched the location I was in – the wild heathers and grass along with the stark leafless tree standing alone.

Can you see how the light emphasizes the natural qualities of the tree? How the amazing wild branches, stripped bare, almost like someone’s mind going crazy, are enhanced by the soft light?

In the photo below, to me, the light is offering an amazing feelingof foreboding.

How to See and Photograph Light - 6 Tips to Help you Take Better Photos

Dark days ahead, London.

3) What is the color of light?

“Light, that first phenomenon of the world, reveals to us the spirit and living soul of this world through color.” Johannes Itten

Color from light is produced when white light is split by a prism into the colors of the rainbow. You also get artificial effects created by the myriad of things that light reflects onto and bounces off.

For me, color is the second most powerful force in my photography, and getting a sense of the color of light is a great way to start using light and color in your compositions.

Compare the color of the light in the following three images.

How to See and Photograph Light - 6 Tips to Help you Take Better Photos

Dawn over Death Valley, California

How to See and Photograph Light - 6 Tips to Help you Take Better Photos

Sunrise over the Bosphorus, Istanbul Turkey at dawn.

How to See and Photograph Light - 6 Tips to Help you Take Better Photos

Near Hackney Wick station London at dawn.

Light is always full of color – even if it’s piercing white. And it’s doing something to the color of your subject.

4) Light can make even dull and boring subjects interesting

“In the right light, at the right time, everything is extraordinary.” – Aaron Rose

Interesting light doesn’t have to just be natural, or even beautiful. Light of all kinds creates mood and feeling within a photo. Your aim is to ensure that the light helps to create a story of some kind for your image, that it tells you something about what it’s like to stand right there, where you were.

How to See and Photograph Light

Hotel room, Madrid, Spain.

Above is a great example of harsh light that usually I wouldn’t go near – but it works in this photo because it works well for the subject. I rarely take photos using such unflattering hard lighting. But in a grim hotel room in Madrid, it enhances the feeling of loneliness that the twin (disconnected) beds give off, with the bleak looking paint color. That burst of light wraps up the photo into a nice melancholy package. See, even horrible light can be interesting (in the right circumstances)!

Then you also have the issue of beautiful, gorgeous light making rather dull subjects suddenly quite interesting.

How to See and Photograph Light - 6 Tips to Help you Take Better Photos

Gas pumps for boats in Venice, at dawn.

Without the rich blue light, this would not be an interesting photo. Plus what gives it another layer of interest are the pops of artificial light.

This following photo has a fascinating subject. But imagine this scene on a gray, drab Parisian morning, when all you want to do is dive into a cafe and eat several pains au chocolat?

How to See and Photograph Light - 6 Tips to Help you Take Better Photos

A dawn Idyll on the Seine, Paris.

The light is bringing everything to life – the gray stone buildings, the grayish-green water, the black and browns of the boats. This would be a totally boring photo without that magical light and sky.

5) Use light to tell a story

“There is only you and your camera. The limitations in your photography are in yourself, for what we see is what we are.” – Ernst Haas

I think photographs are at their strongest when they enhance the inherent qualities of the subject you are photographing when they add another layer of story to the photo.

What story do you want to tell?

I photograph a lot of cities at dawn; it’s my main subject at the moment. Dawn, though, becomes very repetitive to photograph. It’s often so pretty, but just how many epic sunrises can you photograph? So one of my favorite things to do is to juxtapose that beautiful, ethereal light of dawn with the broken, used or decaying elements of our cities.

How to See and Photograph Light - 6 Tips to Help you Take Better Photos

Ancient vista, Istanbul at dawn.

I think it says so much. The hopeful light of dawn, with the heavy feeling you get from the urban scene, and feeling of human impact.

I also love to photograph dawn when the street lights are still on. That mix of the best light nature produces, with that hard functional light we humans create for our cities, is a very interesting thing to play with. The light is telling you more about what it’s like to be exactly where you are – it’s helping to tell the story of your subject.

How to See and Photograph Light - 6 Tips to Help you Take Better Photos

Last light on gravestones, Stroud, England.

In the photo above I was in this graveyard on a winter’s afternoon. I noticed that the sun was starting to set and realized that if I waited, the sun would fall perfectly between the trees, lighting up the gravestones. This stream of light through the trees only lasted a minute or two, but it shows that when you really pay attention to light you can start to anticipate what it’s going to do, and how it will affect your photos. Without that stream of beautiful light the scene would have been really boring.

6) Chasing light is an adventure

“Photography is a love affair with life.” – Burk Uzzle

Photography is such an amazing creative pursuit. I love how it connects me so much more to the world around me. Learning to pay attention to light and how to capture it is one of the best ways to elevate your photography. Becoming intimate and familiar with light will help you become really present with the beauty and wildness of this amazing world.

How to See and Photograph Light - 6 Tips to Help you Take Better Photos

I would encourage you to photograph light – just for the sake of it. It’s a wonderful, thrilling adventure to always be chasing the light.

I’d love to know if you how you go about capturing light and use it in your photos. Please comment below, I love hearing your ideas.

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Anthony Epes is a photographer whose work has been featured internationally; including on BBC, French Photo Magazine, Atlas Obscura and CNN. He is also a teacher - writing in-depth free articles on his website. Receive his free ebook on the two essential skills that will instantly improve your photos, and sign up to his weekly newsletter providing inspiration, ideas and pro-photo techniques.

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  • Sharon Malley

    I recently took an online photography course just for fun and for one of the assignments I took a photo standing under a tree. This was in November and the leaves were turning yellow, it was a grey day with no sunshine at all but I used a slow shutter speed and the result was slightly blurred leaves which looked as if bright sunshine was glowing through them. When I look at it now it feels like I was lying under a tree in summer looking up at leaves blowing in a breeze and I’m so proud of it!

  • SIMON FOLKARD

    Superb and very inspiring article,many thanks.

  • This is really a common question ask by beginner that how they can make a particular set of landscape images better. You mentioned rightly that how to use light to capture a good one. This make a particular set of landscape images better.

  • RAWR XD

    RAWR XD

  • shreg

    STFU

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  • saladgreens

    Anthony, how was the first image, for example, exposed? Any filters used? For me, that would be the most difficult part to nail.

  • I’m qurious, what was the assignment?

  • I just exposed for the flowers. Straight out of camera was a little muddy so I boosted the luminance and saturation in Lightroom.

  • Sharon Malley

    It was about composition – we had to post three of our favourite photos we’d taken during the course but they should have a theme to show our personal style. Mine were all about light in nature – the one I’ve mentioned, another with bare branches looking like veins and the third was a long-exposure of a moving stream to give that odd shine on the water.

  • Kate Janoskova

    I know that tree you shot at Hampstead Heath. We are friends ๐Ÿ™‚

    Lovely article. I remember how it slowly dawned on me (pun intended) how light is what makes the photograph as much as the subject.

    The image included might have been shot on the same morning ๐Ÿ™‚
    5d12a8ad3eba2904a1f2440b24ed8f5929b394adf15697ab42561292a3e67c8c.jpg

  • Thank you Simon!

  • The best thing you can do to get better landscapes is notice the light and its quality on the landscape and choose your position wisely.
    Thank you for commenting!

  • Ravindra Kathale

    This is such a wonderful and succinctly and appropriately illustrated article. I must say this could be one of your best. Thank you so much for taking the trouble to write it. My experience is that we usually do not notice light unless it is extraordinary. Mostly we take it for granted, my be because of over-familiarity. But it is also true that – at least for me – when I have a camera in hand, I am more sensitive to light. After reading your article (twice) I went back to some of my light dominated images an asked myself these questions. I also tried to recall the emotions I felt when I had the urge to capture them and express those emotions. The exercise was very educative. I have recently started a photography blog (totally non-commercial, just for fun and with the motto ‘for your viewing pleasure’) – I am a novice learner hobbyist – where my attempts to capture other than ordinary light can be found. If you will be kind enough to visit http://www.ravindrakathale.in, view and enjoy the images and comment on them, I shall be grateful.
    Thanks and regards.

  • RK77

    Very interesting article on the use of light. Thanks for sharing your insights.

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