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Move to Manual: Finding Great Light

Interested in learning more about how to Move to Manual? Check out A Day With Amy: Photography Workshop | ONLINE where I cover all of this and more in a series of live classes (8 hours of instruction!) teaching you everything you need to shoot in manual and start taking amazing images!

One attendee writes: “The online workshop with Amy Earle is phenomenal! I successfully moved over to manual mode the second meeting of our online workshop (this was after 5 months of my own reading and researching). I highly recommend Amy’s workshop! My images have improved so much in such a short time frame. Amy is very patient and down-to-earth. Best money I have spent in a while!!”

I’m thrilled to be partnering with my incredibly talented friend Courtney Kirkland on a new series called Move to Manual. Courtney wrote an introduction to the series and the first post about composition. This week I’m going to be discussing one of the most important topics in photography.


Per Wikepedia: The word “photograph” was coined in 1839 by Sir John Herschel and is based on the Greek (phos), meaning “light”, and (graphê), meaning “drawing, writing”, together meaning “drawing with light”.

Drawing with light. I think this is a perfect description of a photograph.

I ordered my first DSLR in the summer of 2009 after Miss B was born. I didn’t understand light or how it affected the images that I captured. I thought all I needed was a fancy camera and I would immediately have beautiful images. Turns out I was wrong. At first, all I was getting was pictures like these.

Regardless, within four months of purchasing my first camera (a Nikon D90), I started a photography business. By the end of the first year with my camera I had taken over 100,000 pictures. What an education that was! It was the best thing I could have done. Had I waited until I thought I knew enough, I never would have started. It’s a little (read: A LOT) risky to put yourself out there as a new photographer. Plenty of people will be in the wings waiting for you to fail. Everyone has an opinion on how good (or terrible) your images are. I just put blinders on and ignored the naysayers and moved forward. If your dream is to take photographs for others, I say GO FOR IT! The world is there for you to conquer!

There have been several monumental steps throughout the last 2+ years (since I started Simply b) where my skill as a photographer propelled forward. One of those was when I realized how important lighting was in capturing a great image and more importantly, how to capture that light.

Today I’m excited to share two of what I believe are the most important concepts I’ve learned about finding beautiful light when I’m taking photographs of people. If you follow these key concepts, you will instantly find yourself taking better photographs.

When I first got my camera, I thought I wanted bright sunny days. I would look outdoors; see the bright noonday sun and say, “OH! Time for pictures!! Let’s go kids!!” When I got pictures like the ones above, I didn’t understand why they weren’t turning out correctly. What I was looking for and couldn’t get was nice evenly lit skin like in the pictures below.

The first concept I want to introduce is time of day. For outdoor photography, time of day can play a vital part in taking photographs. What I didn’t understand as a novice photographer was that bright, direct sunlight in the middle of the day is the worst light for portraits. The subjects are always squinting, their skin is too bright, and the shadows on their face are very harsh under their eyes, nose, and chin.

The best time of day for outdoor photographs in open spaces (fields, parks, etc.) is just before sunset (or just after sunrise), when the sun is low on the horizon. The light at that time of day creates a beautiful dreamy glow without harsh shadows. This image was taken just as the sun was disappearing below the horizon. The back of her hair is lit from the sun, and I’m able to get beautiful light on her skin with no harshness.

The picture below was taken about twenty minutes before the picture above. Utilizing the beautiful soft light of a sunset is like adding magic to your images. Just make sure that you place your subject’s back to the light. Otherwise, they will be facing a setting sun and you’ll blind them! One thing to note about shooting a backlit image (when the light is behind your subject like these) is that it works best if you are shooting in manual. This is the easiest way to ensure you get the right amount of light in your camera to capture the scene the way you see it. The good news is that Courtney and I will be writing more about your Move to Manual in the upcoming weeks!

What if you just want to take a picture in the middle of the day? I was born in Alaska and have lived 30 of my 38 years here. We have a unique daylight situation. In the winter we have hardly any light, and in the summer we have an over abundance. We don’t have typical sunrise/sunset hours except for a few weeks in the spring and fall. I’ve had to adapt my photography stratagem for less than ideal lighting situations. During the winter when the sun is setting at a reasonable hour, it can be crazy cold and too uncomfortable to be outdoors taking pictures. In the summer, the sun hardly ever sets. I can’t exactly ask a family with toddlers to meet me at 10:30pm so that we can capture light from the sunset.

What I had to figure out was how to take pictures in the middle of the day without getting harsh shadows, squinting subjects, and bright sun spots in the images. It took me months to figure out, but the key is using shade.

Here’s an example of some pictures I took just a couple weeks ago that prove my point. We were at a park in California in the middle of the day and the sun was out in force. In the image on the left, Miss B was standing in the middle of a field in direct sun. You can see the harsh shadows and areas of her skin are so bright, they have been completely washed out. In the image on the right, we’ve moved to an area of the park that was shaded by trees. You can see areas behind her where the sun was streaming through, but she was standing in shade. Her face now has nice even light over it. No unsightly shadows or bright spots.

When I’m out on a session during the day, I keep my subjects in areas that are shaded. This technique really helped me when we were at Disneyland a couple weeks ago. I saw others around me taking pictures of their children standing in direct sunlight. Their eyes were squinting and their faces covered with harsh shadows. I really wanted to suggest they move just a couple feet this way or that to where the child would be standing in shade so they would be able to capture a much more pleasing image. As well, there child would have been much more comfortable not having to look into the bright sun.

Here are a few images I captured at Disneyland utilizing the idea of shade rather than direct sunlight during the middle of the day. In the reflection in Sam’s glasses, you can see the line between sun and shade several feet behind me.

Here we found a little park to the side of the castle out of the glare of direct sunlight where I was able to capture this image of Miss B in her Cinderella dress from Playful Princesses.

One thing to avoid is dappled lighting, especially on the skin. Dappled lighting comes when you have areas of direct sunlight combined with areas of shade, typically caused by the branches and leaves of a tree.

To practice finding great light, here are my suggestions:

1. Start looking at the light around you differently. Seek out different types of light and watch how they affect the appearance of skin. This is so important for portrait photography! You definitely want the skin to look soft and beautiful. Notice how direct bright sunlight causes harsh shadows and bright spots while using shade creates even lighting.

2. Capture an image using the soft glow of the setting (or rising) sun. (This will work particularly well if you are not living in the frozen north!)

3. Try shooting during the day when the sun is high overhead, first take an image with your subject standing in direct sunlight and then find a spot of shade out of the direct sunlight where you can place your subject to get nice even light on their skin.

4. If there is a particular area you like to take pictures, visit it during different times of day to see when you would be able to capture the best light for a portrait. (When it is out of direct sunlight.)

Make sure you check out the Move to Manual Flickr Group where you can post images using the skills you’ve learned here, ask questions, and get feedback on your pictures. I can’t wait to see what you come up with!

Check back next Monday when Courtney introduces Aperture and how it affects your images!

Happy Shooting!

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February 13, 2012 - 9:02 am

Andrea G. - Thanks Amy, your descriptions and examples really help me to understand how to look for the best light :) We’re a little frozen here right now too. ;)

February 13, 2012 - 9:37 am

Finding Great Light - […] Head over to Simply B to learn more about lighting >>> /* About CourtneyMy name is Courtney. I’m a Military Wife & Mom turned entrepreneur and business owner. I’m a self-declared Photoshop addict, Starbucks junkie, tech geek, MAC & Canon user & book lover who is currently writing her first novel. I'm a bit of an over-achiever but love what I do in every way. Looking to connect somewhere other than right here? Find me on Twitter @CourtneyKirklnd or on Pinterest! I look forward to meeting you! […]

February 13, 2012 - 12:08 pm

Amy Earle | Simply b Photos - I’m glad it helped Andrea! Where do you live? I am so looking forward to spring!!

February 16, 2012 - 6:12 pm

Rachel - Thanks for all this great input, Amy! I do not envy you, living in Alaska and all the light issues you’ve had to overcome — but I can see that would definitely make you quite the expert! Very useful stuff.

I do have to say, that stripy outfit Miss B is wearing is absolutely the cutest thing ever!

But I have a question for you, how do you adjust for bad lighting indoors? I often feel like I have a lot of noise in my indoor pictures. Sometimes, you can’t just move your subject or you interrupt what’s going on (ie. the TV face he makes when watching a movie, or the book she is enthralled with on the couch)? Any suggestions for indoor lighting?

February 17, 2012 - 10:13 am

Anna Garza - Thanks so much for this information. It all makes sense and I really need to practice this because I sooooo dislike the pictures I’ve taken lately out in the middle of the day. I now have some information to use!!

February 20, 2012 - 12:19 am

Understanding Aperture & Depth of Field - […] Manual Series, so far we’ve talked about composition and perspective in your photographs and how to find great light. Make sure you check these two posts […]

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