Enlighten your photos as a professional

Face of photos at sunset.
Ah, the golden sunset …Jamie Street via Unsplash

Photography is light. If you have a beautiful golden sunset glow, almost every photo you take will look better than the same scene shot at noon.

But most of the time, the difference between good, flattering light and finding your faces covered with dense, unavoidable shadows is not that clear. But with a little practice, you will surely know how to determine good light, where to find it and how to make the most of it.

Learn to say hard light from soft light

There are two types of light sources in the photo: hard and soft. A hard light source is generally small, direct, and casts shadows with hard acne – think of a naked lamp hanging in the center of a room or lens. On the other hand, a soft light source is large and often reflected, so the shadows are bronze and soft – something like a large window or one of the giant lights used for Hollywood films.

For most things, soft light sources will give you better photos. The hard shadows you get from hard light just don't look good and things get worse because of the way cameras work: Due to the limited dynamic range compared to the human eye, they simply cannot capture data from both deep shadows and the bright spots of a scene. This way, the already hard shadows look even tougher. Unless you plan on making dramatic results, hard light just tends to draw attention to the wrong areas – think of these selfies you have taken at lunchtime where your face looks like a mixture of dark shadows and light spots, with every wrinkle, scar. and line are clearly delimited. It's not just a great look.

On the other hand, similar selfies shot at sunset look impressive. This pimple, which was evident a few hours earlier, is nowhere to be seen and since it does not attract light and strikes a noticeable shade, it simply blends in with the rest of your skin – soft light soothes everything.

Person posing for a photo in two different lights.
These two photos were momentarily separated. One with direct sunlight (hard) and the other with nice indirect light (soft). I look amazing in both, but one is definitely better than the other.Harry Guinness

Understanding this distinction between hard and soft light sources will enhance your photography – once you know what to look for, you'll be able to consistently and reliably take great, flattering photos.

Get soft light indoors with windows

Artificial light sources, such as light bulbs, street lamps and TV screens, are generally quite hard light sources. They are small compared to most subjects and the light they emit is direct. Think of the shadows under your eyebrows and nose when standing under a light illumination – although it is perfect for illuminating a room, it is great for taking photos.

But the good news is one of the best sources of soft light is easy to find indoors: just look out the window.

Large windows are fantastic soft light sources. If there is no sun, there will be no direct light – everything comes reflected in the sky and your surroundings. Also, the larger the window, the softer (and better) the light. This is why standing in front of a sliding glass door is the best place to take a photo indoors. No matter what you turn – this is a selfie, a small table of your model dinosaur collection or a family holiday portrait. There we will see their best.

Look for shade outdoors

Person posing for a portrait
In photography, as in the rest of your life, trees are your friends.Harry Guinness

Finding good lighting outdoors can be a little more difficult. While the sun is a giant fire at almost a million miles, it is so far away that it really works like a very small, direct, harsh light source here on Earth. That is why taking good photos at lunch is a serious challenge for photographers.

To get the best results, you need to find shade. Hiding from direct sunlight will get more reflected light – and thus, softer light. Some of the best spots are under large trees, under narrow streets, or next to tall buildings.

On cloudy or cloudy days, things are easier but if the sun shines on the clouds at all, you can still end up with some harsh light. You don't have to work so hard to find shade, but you will get even better results if you do.

Use the golden hours

Children fishing on the sea shore
Everything looks good at sunset.Harry Guinness

When the sun is closer to the horizon, the light is softer. Most of it is scattered through the atmosphere, reducing the total intensity of direct light and thereby increasing the amount of reflected light. (That's why the shadows are less harsh in the early morning and late at night.) Because most of the scattering occurs in the blue spectrum, the sun also gets that beautiful orange-red glow. This also brings the same colors over all, which can tie your photos together much longer. Photographers call this time, around sunrise and sunset, the golden hour – and it's definitely one of the best times to take photos.

The tips above are perfect for taking portraits or photos of a small subject, but when it comes to any outdoor scene, finding a window won't do you any good, it's a little difficult to put the Eiffel Tower on one. If you want to get great scenery, the best time to do this is either early in the morning or late at night. The soft sunlight will not cast harsh shadows, and the golden bulb adds great color to everything. And, of course, it's still a great time to take portraits and any other photography.

The length of the golden hour depends largely on where you are in the world and on what time it is, but taking into account these factors also varies. Just keep in mind that the light changes by the minute, so the picture you take now and the one you take 10 minutes from now may look different, even if you didn't intend to.

If in doubt, bring your own

Photographer assistant helping photographer control light over swimsuit model on location on tropical beach
Managing light is no easy task. Especially if you are dealing with a light source that can give you melanoma.fashionstock via deposit photos

The final choice to ensure good light is to bring your own. That is why professional photographers work with flashes and other controlled light sources. Unfortunately, the flashes are hard to get right. Without modifiers such as the big canvas "soft boxes", "umbrellas" or "reflective" beauty perfumes, "flashing is just small, direct sources of hard light. And if you think about the small flashes integrated into point-and-shoot cameras smartphones, you may already know that they give a really bad light.

If you are just starting out and do not want to invest a few hundred dollars in a good flash, the best option is to use a large reflector. They are usually circular reflective fabric plates that reflect light in the direction they are facing. If you have a harsh light source, you can use them to reflect some light on your subject to complement some of the harshest shadows. My favorite reflectors are 5 in 1 that have silver, gold, white and black surfaces, as well as a translucent one that can be used to exclude a hard light source and turn it into soft. Even large ones, like the 43-inch ones attached above, collapse down small enough to carry.

Learn to see the light

You don't have to take your camera out to look at the light. The next time you are at lunchtime, look at the shadows on people's faces and the ground around you. Compare them with the shadows under a shady tree. Or what you see on a cloudy day. If you start paying attention to the light around you even when you are not taking pictures, you will learn to see the different types of light. And when needed, you'll be able to use them.