Lights and Photography: simple tricks for better pictures + sunset | The Family Without Borders

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photography tips


Photography tips: Think About Light

Photography light tutorial

Just imagine a beautiful sunset on the beach and your sweetheart wants to have a romantic, good looking facebook profile picture. Attention – think first! Because light wise this is a tricky situation. What to do?

If you want to have nicer pictures? Start thinking about the light before you push the camera button. Good light conditions is one of the most important aspect for a better photography. I will tell you some simple tricks that will work with every phone or camera.

Is there light on the right place?

So let’s come back to wonderful sunset and your sweetheart. What is the problem? Probably you will end up with one of the following three disappointing pictures (depending on your automatic camera settings):

Sunset pictures
Hannas sunset picture against the light.

Case #1: In most of the cases you will see quite an unspectacular, bright white-greyish sky and your sweetheart will look like a piece of burned, black toast. Nobody will recognise her without being tagged by you on facebook – and she might even untag herself. Arrrrg!

Case #2: At least your girl is recognisable, but she looks pale and your romantic sunset background is just a bright-white grey. How to explain the friends there was a sunset?

Case #3: Your camera was clever (or helpless) enough and used the flash. You will see the sunset, but your darling and the candle light dinner appears in an ugly white flash light. Brrrrrr.

Hey, don’t cry! Keep calm and read on. There is a chance for nice sunset images but first let’s understand what went wrong.

Before you take the picture you have to ask yourself the following question:

Is there light on the object I want to show?

In the case of the sunset you will have to answer this question clearly with NO. Why? Because if the sunset is behind your photographical object (your sweetheart) there can be only shadow on her face. That’s why she looks black.

Using a flash is actually the only way for an automatic camera to solve the problem and shoot back with light to see the face which suddenly will appear unnaturally bright and artificial.

How to make a nice sunset pictures?

Well, there are some solutions:

  1. Don’t take a picture against the sun, when you still want to see the persons face. Look for a position that her face is still in the sunlight. It will be a beautiful picture, because she will have a wonderful sunset light on her face.
  2. Maybe give up the face idea and focus on her wonderful profile or shapes which even might look amazing even though it’s only black. It might be a very special picture if you just planned it. But attention: you will have to use some sunset-program on you camera or regulate the light 2 steps down.
  3. Well – maybe find some other light (maybe a lamp) – use your flash, but try to regulate the flash down down.

“But holidays is not only sunset”, you might answer. And you are right! But the sunset situation is very extreme but typical setup which makes you understand the problem.

A picture of a person standing in front of a window with a beautiful landscape outside is exactly the same thing: Much more light in the background (outside) than in the the person in the much darker room. Result: The person will be black and the landscape not even beeing seen, because it’s too bright. Why? Because the camera is trying to find a balance between the two extreme light situations (inside vs. outside). But the light difference is so big that it just won’t work. You need put the person in a way that there is light on the face or body.

Is there a good light on my object?

In every photographical situation you will just have think and check: “Is there light on what i want to show?” Let’s have look at this square in Cracow. Beautiful isn’t it? But where to put yourself to have a nice selfie?

Light in travel photography
Find the right place for you selfie

You won’t belive how many people made their selfie on the right side of the square – in the shadow – not thinkig about the light. You have to put yourself into the sun where the light will catch your face you will to be seen! The more bright the background, the more important you stand in the light. Otherwise your camera will not handle the big difference in light between your face and the brighter background.

This are 2 pictures of our kids on a street in Cracow eating their ice cream. The picture #1 is take against the light. On the picture #2 I just moved behind them and made the same picture. Big difference. Isn’t it?

Photo against and with the light, Photo tutorial, tips
Photo against and with the light. Which would you choose?

Even in this “simple” situations – a picture of a flower, your kids, your tasty lunch in a cosy little Italian restaurant – you better have a look a the light situation first and ask yourself – is the light in the object. If not – move it a bit, move yourself.

Switch of your flash! Keep your camera calm.

Most of the cameras will to use the flash automatically, when there is not much light. But I think the flash is actually destroying your image. My camera does not even have a flash and I usually do not even have a flash with me.

If your camera has a built-in flash, just switch it of. In case you have a more professional camera with some program options use the P modus (Program) and not the Automatic (mostly a little green icon or A). If you have a phone switch the flash of.

But there is one risk: If there is not enough light, the shutter of the camera has to be open much longer. So you need keep you camera calm and stable, otherwise the photo will not be sharp. You can stabilise you camera with the following little tricks:

  1. Put your camera or you hand/yourself on something stable like a wall, a table or a pole of a traffic sign.
  2. Push your elbows against your body when holding the camera. So your body will give your hands stability.
  3. Just put the camera on the ground, on your backpack or whatever you have around.
  4. If you do a night picture use the self timer.

Pictures with an open shutter longer than 1/60sec are often blurred. With this tricks I can still makes photos with 1/15 of a second shutter speed.

So I don’t need a new camera?

Light is worth gold in photography. Will say – you need a better photo equipment to handle situations with little light (pictures in the evening, at home etc.) and you need to invest a bit more money.

My camera – a good old Canon 5D – it’s already 9 years old now and you can buy it on Amazon for 450 Euros. You don’t need a brand new photo camera.

If you really want to invest some money – rather buy a good lens than an expensive camera. A good lens has a lot of light (=low aperture like 2.8, 1.8, 1.4). A good lens is something you can use for many, many years and it’s worth it.

I am mostly using a Canon 24-70mm f/2.8. Similar lenses for other cameras are: a 24-70 mm F2,8 for a Nikon camera, a Sony F2,8 16-50mm or a a 12-35mm F2,8 for a Panasonic Lumix. But belief me – the photo equipment is not so important.

What to do next?

Think of the light, before you go out and take the next picture.

If something doesn’t work out our you still have questions, just leave a comment and we will answer you or write another post about it.

We will write soon some more posts about How to Make Nicer Pictures and cover topics like: portraits, the format, interesting photographical objects, the composition. If you want to stay up to date subscribe to our newsletter.

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  • Łukasz
    Posted April 9, 2015 at 19:03 | Permalink

    Advice to think is always good! Photography is drawing with a light after all.
    Of course some good pictures do happen by accident, (especially to the experienced ones).
    Good article, looks like Tom is going to set up a new series on the blog ;-)
    (Btw, there are some minor typos in the text.)

  • Saskia
    Posted April 10, 2015 at 02:44 | Permalink

    Great post Tom! Only thing I’m not content with is the ‘good place bad place’ pic. You can actually make pretty good portraits in the shade, this is when the person and surroundings have the same brightness, or rather darkness, because the camera adjusts to it. Some of the best pictures are possible when it’s all clouded over, aren’t they? Because you don’t have these high contrasts in your face. When you look at Hannah in photo no. 2, you can see the shadows of her nose and Mundwinkel (? ;)) as black spots. So either you gotta directly face the lightsource like Mila, or you can just stand in the ‘bad place’ :)

    • Posted April 11, 2015 at 10:54 | Permalink

      @Saskia: Thanks for your comment! Yes, you are totally right. If there’s not a big light difference between the face and the background or it’s even dark outside standing in the shadow is okay (if your camera can handle it without flash).

      It’s just a problem, if you have a bright background. That’s what I ment with “The more bright the background is the more important you stand in the light.”

      I was thinking about writing a paragraph about “Which time of the day is the best to takes pictures“.

      The problem with the Mila+Hanna picture is, that is was taken around midday. At this time you usually have a very hard light causing strong shadows (e.g. in the face).

      The best time for taking pictures is in the early morning or around and after sunset. It’s a very soft and pleasant light and the shadows are not so hard.

  • Agata
    Posted April 10, 2015 at 06:02 | Permalink

    great topic! I bought few months ago sony a5000 – hybrid with interchangable lenses – and i learn how to take a good photos with it. your tips will be very helpful :)
    maybe you could write something about lenses – which are good for what kind of photos, which in your opinion are the most practitcal during travels?

    • Posted April 11, 2015 at 11:20 | Permalink

      @Agata: Thank you! You own a really nice camera. I’m dreaming about checking out the Sony Alpha 5000Tamron 17-50mm 2,8
      or the Sony 16-50mm F2,8. It’s both zoom lenses with a lot of light (f2.8). Just still check the really fit you your model with the APS-C-Sensor (and not the A7 full frame one).

  • Mavi Yolculuk
    Posted April 25, 2015 at 16:19 | Permalink

    Great thanks …


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