Shoot for the Light - Improve Your Composition

Shoot for the Light – Improve Your Composition


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Here is one of my most valuable tips. The one I will offer to someone who comes to me, complaining that after 20 years of taking photos they can’t get out of their usual compositions, and want to get into a new level of creativity.

It may sound like something you have heard before. Yes, photography is all about light, and if there is a good light then there is a good photo.

But no, I am talking about something more specific.

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Please note that I have always focused my photography, and my articles on travel photography, on people. So when reading this article, please think people photography (which also includes street photography).

In travel photography, most people tend to look for a good subject to photograph. Of course that means that this subject should be “sitting” in an appropriate light, with a good catchy background, something not too distracting. The problem with this approach, is that you might end up taking the same kind of compositions again and again. Framing your subject on the side, rule of thirds, looking into the photo, etc. As much as these are nice photos, you may feel the need to develop your creativity and come up with something different.

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What I am telling you, is to completely not focus your attention on your subject. After all, your subject does not matter (unless you happen to meet the new “Afghan girl” of Steve McCurry, or the girl with green eyes of David Lazaar). No, believe me, as someone living in Vietnam: one old lady with a pointy hat looks the same as another old lady with a pointy hat.

Instead of that, try and focus your entire attention on the light around you. Not the beautiful sunset light in the whole sky, but the little spots of golden light right there, on the floor next to you. Yes, can you see them? Well, there is your next photo my friend.

Yes, I hear you already, “What do you mean shooting light?! And what is my subject, what am I telling a story about?”. Well – now your job is to patiently wait for the right subject to walk into that light. But remember? Shoot the light.

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In the same way as we say “fill your frame” in photography. Keep things simple, only include elements which are relevant to the story you are telling. You can fill your frame with that sumptuous golden light you found on the floor. And that is what is going to lead you to a completely new level in composition and creativity. Because you are only shooting that piece of light, you are going to crop your subjects in way you would never have dared before. You are going to break all the rules you have carefully been following until now, and create something new.

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It will surely be beautiful, as your light will be stunning. You may miss a lot of photos, as you have to get used to getting that close to things and people in a light that can be quite full of contrasts and colors. But with time and a bit of practice, things will start to take shape. You will get used to such new ways of composing your image, and your results will become sharper over time. Until you are getting comfortable with this new idea, and start re-creating your templates that will allow you to be fast and efficient and not miss your images.

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“Heresy!!!” I can already hear. Sorry? Which book are you talking about? Look at the results you are going to achieve with this technique, and tell me if does not make you think in a complete new way, bringing completely new styles of images. If you don’t like it, well go and try something different. But surely you would have learned something out of it.

Last year, while running a photo workshop in Myanmar, I managed to capture this image using this exact technique. I could see the light on the floor, and the beautiful blue color next to it. I also knew that this monastery was quite busy, and if I waited long enough someone would walk into my frame.

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One of my students and I laid down on the floor. I switched from Aperture mode to Manual (making sure I would have the right exposure, as the situation had very strong contrasts). I did compose the photo, exactly the way I wanted to have it, and I waited. Surely, after half a minute, some novices went down the stairs. They did spot us, and feeling a little shy to be photographed, they ran through the corridor, laughing out loud.

Click – Click – Click

I did not expect them to run in the first place so my shutter speed was right enough to freeze my hand shakes, or someone walking. But it gave some blur to the novice’s robe, and I liked the shot even more like that. After all, most new things that were created on our planet are the result of accidents!

Go ahead, give it a try!

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Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Etienne Bossot Etienne Bossot is a French photographer who’s been based in Hoi An, Vietnam for the past 7 years. In addition to shooting commercial, destination weddings and travel assignments for local publications and international corporations, Etienne runs a variety of photography tours and workshops throughout Southeast Asia.

  • Hello Allan, please feel free to go and visit my website, there a lot of photo tutorials on it 🙂

  • Sandy

    Fair enough, but personally I much prefer photography. Maybe I am not much cop at video, but it’s not just that. I like stills as you can look at them for as long as you like and absorb what they have in them, whereas video forces the pace.

  • S A Narayan

    Etienne, you are so right, shooting for light can be fascinating. Here are two of mine, .narayan

  • Michael O

    That is a compliment right? :-))

  • JustExploring

    Thanks a lot Etienne, I am still a beginner with a bridge cam, but I am sure these tips will take me a long way….Wonderful pics btw 🙂
    This was shot some time ago, but I really like it

  • Andrea

    I do have a question. If your subject is backlit and you are shooting using the light, would you need to use a flash as well so you can see your subject more clearly, or is it in the settings? Thank you.

  • bill

    The Light is the Subject!

  • joseph bourque

    great article!

  • Genevieve Laurin

    What a great article! I often endeavor to capture the light in my photos, but with much less success than you. I wonder how you manage to get such clear light rays? Is it just because the air is dusty? Anyways, I am also interested in photographing shadows, as you’ll see in this modest picture I took in Greece. Thanks!

  • Andrea, light is not about camera settings. If your subject is too dark, it means your subject is not the light… right? So in the case of a back lit subject, several options: use a flash or reflector (if you can soften it and off camera is best), overexpose, or just move your feet and get a different angle. I am talking about it on my website, feel free to check it out.

  • Adedotun Ajibade

    That’s what we’re talking about!

  • Anubis

    How many times do you need telling that this is Digital PHOTOGRAPHY school. Not videography. You are an idiot if you think the whole site will change just because YOU want it.


  • Michael (aks Anubis) you have been warned before about your language and comments on the site. This has already been commented on and handled by myself. There is no need for any further comments on this.

    Name calling (regardless of the original comment made) is 100% NOT acceptable here on dPS. “idiot” included in that – do not do it again please. Your comments are being closely watched.

  • M.h. O’Dell

    This is really a nice article. I will start playing with this idea immediately. It’s another way of expanding my creative side. Thanks

  • Temi

    Thank you for this article. Having taken photos for couple years now I feel comfortable with my camera and am getting bored of repetitive compositions. I was just starting to see the light and realizing how greatly it can affect the depth and composition of my photos. Your article helped me a lot. Cheers!

  • Thanks a lot Temi. I find that this particular technique is often the step that helps people go from their usual well composed images to more original work. I am glad it helped you 🙂

  • Nebojsa Markovic
  • Nebojsa Markovic
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