Lighting basics for better photos
Learn how to take better photos with your digital camera by understanding lighting
Support & Drivers
Lighting is one of the most important elements of any picture, and understanding the color, direction, quantity, and quality of the light you use is one of the surest ways to improve your photos. We'll show you how to use lighting to your advantage—and give you some helpful rules for when and when not to use your camera's flash.
The importance of natural light
It's simple: Natural light produces beautiful, natural-looking photographs.
Photos taken using natural light (as opposed to artificial lights or flash) are more realistic and pleasing to the eye:
- Subtle textures are preserved.
- You'll get soft, diffused light and natural-looking shadows.
- Your photo subjects can open their eyes and will be "squint-free."
- Pay attention to the direction of the light. Pose your subject to allow diffused daylight to fall on the front or side of their face and not behind (which can cause facial features to be in shadow).
The best time of day to take photos
The light is truly magical in the early morning and evening.
The "magic hours" for photographers are in the early evening or early morning.
- This is when natural light is soft and abundant.
- You escape both the harshness of the midday sunshine and the difficulties of shooting at night.
- Taking photos during these times can make a huge difference in the quality of your pictures, particularly when you are photographing people.
Disable your flash indoors
Using flash for indoor photos can make your subjects appear pale and one-dimensional.
Your camera's flash is a powerful tool—sometimes too powerful. And it's often overused.
- As a rule, don't use your flash indoors. It mutes color and casts stark, deep shadows (especially unflattering for portraits). Any subject you photograph with your flash from a close distance will look pale and one-dimensional.
- Using flash indoors leads to red-eye, which is caused when the flash hits the back of the eye and reflects back into the camera lens.
- Sometimes red-eye is unavoidable. Find out how to remove red-eye from your photos after they've been taken.
Disable your flash in low light
Using your camera flash in low light makes it difficult to capture the detail of dark scenes.
- Low-light conditions require you to disable your flash. This is the only way you can catch all the rich color and detail of a nighttime scene. (Note that you will need a tripod to keep your camera steady for this kind of shot.)
- Of course, there are exceptions to most every rule. Although grey skies lend themselves to great midday photos, go ahead and try using your camera's flash on cloudy days. It may brighten up people's faces and make them stand out. But be sure to also take a picture without the flash, because the soft light of overcast days sometimes gives quite pleasing results by itself.
More tips for photographing in low light
When taking photos indoors, use indirect ambient light (from a lamp, for example) rather than your camera flash.
Here are some basic techniques for capturing breathtaking photos when you don't have much light to work with:
- Use a tripod
Long exposures require you to hold your camera perfectly still to avoid blurring. A tripod really helps. If you can’t get your hands on one, you can try bracing yourself against a stationary object like a tree or a wall.
- Bring in the light
Provide as much natural light as possible by opening curtains and blinds.
- Take advantage of indirect light
Use ambient lighting from lamps, overhead lights, or candles. The extra light will also help reduce red-eye.
Use your flash to balance bright light
In bright sunlight, using your flash can help to even-out the light in front of your subject with the light behind.
It sounds counterintuitive, but when taking pictures on sunny days, turn your flash on. It can help bring details out of the shadows.
- If the sun is overhead, using the camera's flash can lighten harsh face shadows.
- If the sun is only hitting one side of your subject's face, using flash can reduce the shadow effect.
- If your subject is slightly shadowed but backlit by bright sunlight, using your flash equals out the light in front of your subject with the light behind for a balanced shot.
Because your camera decides whether or not to use the flash based on the total amount of light available, on a sunny day your camera would not fire the flash if it were on automatic. That’s when you have to do the thinking for your camera and force your flash to fire.
More tips for photographing in bright light
For better photos in harsh midday light, find a place that is shaded from the sun.
Just like a flash can mute colors in dark conditions, the midday sun can have the same effect for photos outdoors, casting deep shadows and reducing detail. Here are some ways to take better photos in harsh sunlight:
- Seek shade
Under or around trees, shrubs or buildings are the easiest places to find respite from the midday sun.
- Avoid bright window light
Placing your subject in front of a bright window will leave them underexposed against the sunlight shining in.
- Know your camera's flash range
For most cameras, the maximum flash range is five to ten feet. Pictures taken beyond that range will be too dark.
- Scout your next photo shoot
If all else fails, use the sunny afternoon as a time to scout locations for your next "golden hour" shots.
Using manual camera controls and automatic modes
Your digital camera's automatic shooting modes are preset for certain photo settings and situations—like Night, Museum, Beach, and even Fireworks.
If you really want to learn how to improve photos in any lighting situation, it pays to crack open your camera manual and discover how to manually control your camera’s aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and white balance.
Watch this demo to learn more about using your camera’s manual controls.
You can also explore your camera's automatic shooting modes. Many of them—like Night Portrait, Beach, Fireworks, etc—will automatically optimize settings for your particular situation, adjusting shutter speed, ISO, and more.
Fix lighting through photo editing
It’s simple to adjust photo brightness using the controls in your printer.