Photography 101: Playing with Light

Today’s post is the first of a series I’m going to be writing about photography, and how to improve your photos in general, but specifically with tips to improve what I call “mom photography.”

During the course of my photography lesson posts, they will be written assuming you have an SLR camera and can change your camera settings.  If you don’t have an SLR, that’s okay too — a lot of what I’ll be going over will still apply to you.  For example, in today’s lesson, for all but three of the examples, you could use a point and shoot as well – – as long as you are able to control your flash settings and turn off the flash.

Playing with Light

“Photo” comes from the Greek word for “light.”  It should come as no surprise then, that to master photography, you need to master the use of light.  This takes lots of practice to master, but fortunately, even gaining a small grasp of light and what it does will help improve your photography by a LOT!

So, we’re going to do a little assignment on playing with light.  To do this assignment, you will need:

  • A willing subject
  • A window
  • A reflector or large piece of white poster board
  • A camera
  • An external flash helps, but if all you have is the camera flash, you can use an index card and a piece of tape.

I shoot in Manual, but we will get to that in a later lesson.  For now, I would like for you to take your camera off the “Auto” setting, and put it on “P” or Program mode.  This mode is almost exactly the same as Auto, but it has a few key differences that give you more control.  For one, it allows you to decide whether or not to pop the flash.  Secondly, in Program mode, you are allowed to set your own ISO setting.  (If you don’t know what ISO is yet, that’s okay!!)

So, set your camera to P and your ISO to 100 or 200.

Today we are going to look a little at using natural light versus the flash and how that affects your pictures. We are going to take the same shot 4 different ways and then look at the results.

Put your subject next to a window where light is coming in from the side.  (Have the overhead lights in the room OFF).

Step 1:
Make sure the flash on your camera is OFF.  Take a picture of your subject looking straight on.  It should look something like this:

There is definitely nice soft light on her face, but the side opposite my light source (window) is pretty dark.  Her eye especially doesn’t have that nice “sparkle” (known as a catchlight).  In my opinion, she needs a little more light coming from the left.

Step 2:
Next, we are going to use reflected light.  If you have a reflector, awesome.  If not, you can do what I did in the following picture, and just use a big white piece of poster board.  Put the poster board next to your subject’s side opposite the window, as close as you want it without getting it in the frame of your shot.  You should see an immediate difference in the light just when you move the reflector up next to the face.  Take another shot.  Mine looked like this:

Now, this, I love.  The natural light is soft on her face.  Both sides are well lit, but there is enough difference in the two sides that it creates a nice definition of features.

Step 3:
Now, take away the reflector and pop your flash.  If you have an external flash, turn it on and point it directly toward the subject.

Here, both sides of the face are lit nicely, and the side of the face near the window is still a little brighter because it’s still getting extra light.  So, there is still a little definition in the face.  There should also be “catchlights” in both eyes.  I think her glasses blocked us from seeing one in the second eye in the above picture.  What I don’t like in this image is the drastic shadow caused by her chin.  I also think her face is a little too bright.

Step 4:
For the last image, we are going to take our external flash and point it to the ceiling.  If you only have your on-camera flash, you are going to “rig” a way to bounce the light by placing a white index card in front of your flash at an angle with some tape like this:

Now go ahead and take your shot.  Mine looked like this (using an external flash, pointed toward the ceiling):

In this shot, there is nice definition between the sides of her face.  There are catchlights in both eyes, and the shadow caused by the flash is less defined I think.  To me, bouncing the light off the ceiling provides a much softer/nicer image than pointing the flash directly toward the subject.

Look over your images together.  Notice in each image what you like and don’t like.  Here are all 4 of my images together:

Which type of light did you find you liked best?  There is no right or wrong answer. For me, I like the results from using natural light and a reflector.  My second favorite is probably the bounced flash.

I’d really love to get your feedback.  If you try this assignment let me know and tell me what you thought.  Did your examples turn out similar to the ones above?  Which light did you like best?  Once you begin playing with light, you’ll get a better idea of what you like and what you should do the next time!


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About Laura

A Christian wife, mother, daughter, former educator, photographer, amateur chef, pretend gardener, alto 🎶, book nerd, cancer-survivor and laundry-hater.

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2 Responses to Photography 101: Playing with Light

  1. Mim September 22, 2012 at 12:10 pm #

    Thanks for this post. I will try it out and let you know. I put my camera on P because a photographer friend told me to, but I never have changed the ISO.

  2. Glyniss McDaniel September 22, 2012 at 12:18 pm #

    I like the bounced flash because of the reflection on her glasses in the reflector. I like both equally well without glasses but for many of us, glasses are a constant. I finally took mine off when trying to get a photo of me, but not because of vanity but because the glare was terrible. Of course, had I had someone else take the photo, it would have been better, LOL! I am going to try to use your tips but most of my subjects are moving so fast, they are a blur anyway!

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