The Master Light Guide for Storytelling Photographers

Light comes in all shapes and sizes. And I’m pretty sure at some point you too have been frustrated by the lack of it. Especially when shooting indoors, light can cause tricky situations. There is just so much to take into account: where is it coming from, what kind of light is it and the age old struggle, is there enough of it? There are a zillion blog posts for light for portrait or landscape photography, so this post is all about light for documentary photographers – how you can use light to help tell your story.

As a photographer you know light is the very essence of your photo – without it, you just have a black frame. We’ve decided to make it easier for you to recognize yummy light opportunities as you move through the day with your camera. Yes, that includes inside light sources that will help you shoot amazing photos without stress or frustration.

This is good stuff… you may wanna pin this for quick reference:

light for documentary, storytelling photography

Basics of Natural Light

Many photographers in the Fearless and Framed audience are quite the elite shooters, but we felt it was important to go back to basics to kickoff the post.

Direct sunlight – Sunlight can be both a blessing and a curse. The bright sunlight can create harsh shadows or squinting eyes. Yet you can use it to capture bright, vivid images that breathe life. A few tips: Make sure you have your back towards the sun and try making photos of people that don’t look directly into the light (to avoid that angry look you get when you try to shield your eyes from the light). Also, don’t be afraid to play around with it. Use the dramatic shadows to your advantage to tell the story behind the shot. This photo below works, because the subject is looking to the left. Had he been looking at me, the bill of his hat would have covered his eyes and caused partial darkness on his face. Usually, in this scenario, I like my light meter to read approximately -1 to ensure skin tone is not lost. 

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Open Light – This is one of the best lightings you can find according to many photographers when you are trying to create a portrait. Ever. You can often find this on bright days when clouds cover the sun (causing diffused light – when light is shining through something) or in this example, the sun was behind the mountain that was behind me (causing the light source to be one of light that has been bounced around from many directions).

What happens when light is distributed evenly? Even light without harsh shadows. It gives a soft, dreamy effect and worry-free shooting. On that note, I will say that I tend to like darker backgrounds when shooting in this scenario, because your subject will pop. If the scene below had only been the ocean, sky, and distant mountain behind my subject, she would not have popped out so much. The rocks created some nice layering within the photo. 

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Evening light & golden hour – As the sun begins to set (or rise), the light starts to change. During this golden hour (or magical hour) the sky will turn golden, pink, red and everything in between. This has a dramatic and almost magical effect on your photos. Because the sun is low on the horizon you will have long shadows to play with, and it’s perfect for shooting magical silhouette photos. In these examples below, the light is coming in from the side, creating a long shadow in the top image and creating a highlight only on the important parts of the photo in the second image (my daughter’s face and pointer finger as well as allowing the recycling bin to light up). 

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In another example, the golden sun was lightly coming in the window in this image below. This made for my subjects to be in the spotlight and the background to fade away.

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Speaking of… Window light – Don’t feel like the best is light outside, there is a simple way of bringing all that goodness into your indoor photos as well: shoot in front of a window. They are great natural light sources and they are great diffusers too. This means they will spread the light equally as it comes through the glass, creating a perfect light for you to play with. Best thing? You can use this during every moment of the day. Cloudy days will produce a soft light, direct sunlight gives you dramatic shadows and shapes to play with, and evening light or golden hour will make those indoor family moments seem even more magical.

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You can also shoot against the window to create a silhouette light this one of my husband and daughter coloring Easter eggs.

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How to get the most of out of this post

Below are a whole bunch of unique and interesting light sources you can look for in everyday shooting. However, I want you to get more out of this post than a list of ideas. I want you to really learn how to evaluate what the light is doing to your image. To do that, answer these questions about each image.

  • How many light sources are being used in the image?
  • Where is the light coming from? Meaning, where was I standing in reference to the light. Also,
  • Where does the light fall on the subject?
  • Where does the light fade away?
  • What color is the light?
  • How intense is the light (do you think the image needed to be purposely under or over-exposed for the image to work?)? Does it fade away quickly or is the light soft?

Interesting Light Sources for Documentary Photographers

Campfires, candles, fireworks & sparklers – These create the ultimate ambient light! The soft glow of the fireworks adds a magical feel to any photo, especially when combined with the excited faces of your children. Campfires are great for this too. Natural lights, like fire, have a different color and tend to cast a yellow/red glow. Result: a much softer and warmer light that lights up faces and adds a glow to your images.

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Flashlight: In this example, the flashlight is the light source. It immediately brings you eyes to the subject while highlighting just enough but not all of the details to create a sense of wonder in the image.

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Refrigerator Light: In this example, the refrigerator is the light source. I love the color of the fridge light, because it is close to the color of daylight as opposed to a typical lamp light.

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Lamps – Inside, lamps are everywhere and you can really use them to your advantage. The key thing is to keep in mind where it comes from. You can either use it as part of the entire light setting to capture the general mood in the room, or use it to create directional light and just focus on one specific thing. 

Another thing to keep in mind is the type of lamp. Most lamps will cast a yellow glow, where others will create a blue hue. Most of this can be corrected by changing the white balance, either in camera or after, but it’s good to experiment with different lamps to find out what works best for you.

This example is the florescent lamp on Nick’s toolbox. It was in front of him, but to the side of me, causing a highlight on the front of his face.

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This example was a tricky photo, because you have the overhead lamp (multiple lights, but all clustered together as one primary light source). This works, because my subject is not directly below the light – she is off to the side. The challenge posed from the second light source – the natural light filtering in from the window about 45 degrees off the back of my client. This caused some color challenges. However, I wanted to share this example, because you can see how the overhead light can nightly illuminate the scene below.

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Electronic devices – We live in a digital world, and all those digital devices are actually great light sources. Especially at night when we’re drawn into the stories they share with us. Since this has become such an intricate part of our lives, it’s a joy to capture this and use it as the light source itself. With these you get a chance to capture those you love while they are doing something that mesmerizes them. It’s a special kind of light too, that casts a blue hue, but it will light up the ones using the devices like a beacon in the night.

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Christmas Tree Lights – Out of focus tree lights (aka lots of bokeh) is one of my favorite ways to shoot Christmas lights. There are blog after blog posts out there about how to get that glowy, Christmas tree look, but I want you to remember that a) you can photograph trees during the day and b) experiment with out of focus imagery to create images that evoke a feeling. In the example below, the two boys were dancing and running around the room in circles. I didn’t want to focus on one thing, I wanted to focus on the feeling of a fuzzy memory of childhood where life was about nothing other than play and being in the moment. At least, thats what I was thinking about here 😉

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The Kitchen Light + Patio Light – It was dark out. My client was in the kitchen getting pizza out of the oven. The dogs were carefully watching her every move and I wanted to preserve that moment I think most dog owners can relate to. So the light in the kitchen tells the story of what the pups were doing. The side light from the patio light give the photo dimension by drawing your eyes first to the dogs, then to the kitchen.

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Angles of Light

Side lit – Light from the side is a perfect way to capture details of your day. Windows, lamps or even car lights are perfect for this. With the light coming from the side, dramatic shadows will form and highlight the most important elements at the same time. In the third example, the light source is in the frame, allowing for some sweet sun rays to peek through.

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Side Light

 

Front lit – This means that the light comes from behind you, and lights up the people in front of the camera. It’s the perfect way to capture them without strong shadows in their faces, and really light them up. Depending on the light, it will create soft images that really stand out. In this example, the light was diffused with the trees above, but we are right next to (behind me) a road, which was full of sun since it was open to the sky.

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Back Lit – This is one of my favorite light angles, because you can draw out a single detail in your photo, such as my husband’s sexy 5 o’lock shadow & wine glass. you can get this contrasty, rim light look or you can have a sweet haze using back light.

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From above – A great way to use this is when the sun is high in the sky during mid-day (or you can just use a lamp). It will help you capture summery images, or it gives you new shadows to play with. This also works great if you’re capturing images from above or on the floor, it will catch an even light without shadows. In this image here, we were in a wooded area, up in the mountains on Oahu.  

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Use shadows – Although the general message in photography is to ‘look for the light’, I think it’s equally important to look for the shadows and to play with them. We can get so focused on finding an even light source, that it’s easy to lose sight of the texture that shadows add to a photo. In this photo the shadow of the tree creates a frame around the sunny patch on the field. Instead of distraction from my daughter, it actually highlights her, creating a perfectly balanced and framed image. This may not have worked if the tree-line in the distance was missing. 

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Bonus tips to make the most of every light situation

Direction – When you look for the light, be aware of where it comes from and use this to your advantage. Most tricky light situations aren’t always a lack of light, but a directional problem. So experiment with different light sources and their direction so you’ll always know how to make the most of every situation.

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Four Dots Photography

 

What’s the color of the light – Different light sources will have different colors and those will have an influence on white balance in your images. If you’re just starting out with photography, try the automatic setting and your camera will pick the best option for you. Or if you’re shooting in RAW, you can easily adjust it afterwards if it’s not quite right. Experimenting is key here to familiarize yourself with the different colored light sources.

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Need an in-your-face reminder to pay attention to the light so you can master seeing light? Click the image below to download our Natural Light Basics cheatsheet, print it, & put it somewhere you’ll see regularly!

Author: MarieMasse
I help client documentary photographers fine-tune their workflow + marketing game, so their work is filled with sessions that represent their voice + client values while earning a living. I shoot undirected, off-beat stories that aren’t preserved often enough (like the story of couples before starting a fam or becoming empty-nesters – a dream project of mine), so my clients’ old box of photos is a meaningful, visual diary of their life + legacy to leave behind.

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  • The shot with the wineglass, and the little girl with the boardgame, and the fridge shot all made me re-think how I’m lighting, and reminded me that throwing the background into shadow is a really neat way to tell the story. Thanks for that!