Beginner photographers: Improve your composition with these lighting tips

Your camera is only as good as your composition--and lighting directly affects that composition. Here are some tips for novice photographers.


Image: Ant Pruitt

As you begin your photography journey, you'll spend a ton of time trying to discover your style. You'll research different photographers, as well as different techniques. There's one key element that stands out in all photographic compositions. Not the megapixels or the camera used. It's the lighting. I'd like to share a few notes that may help light up your next composition. Okay, that was a bad pun. Anyway, let's look at ways light can enhance your photography.

The light source

Light sources come in a varying ranges. The biggest light available, the sun, is an awesome light source--sometimes. There are many light kits available, from budget-friendly pricing to ultra-professional grade kits. Ambient light is also a source. When composing your shot, understand the light source(s) you have at hand.

I mentioned the sun being an awesome source of light. It is, but not all the time. Sometimes sunlight can be too bright and harsh on your subject. You'll hear many photographers say not to shoot outside when it's near 12PM, especially on a day when there's no cloud cover. The sun is directly above and bright. This could lead to shots being overexposed and/or highlights being blown out in your images if you're not careful with your camera settings. If you must use the sun as your light source, try to shoot more in the golden or blue hours of the day, which occur early in the morning near sunrise or late in the evening near sunset. There may still be ample light for your subject, but it's a much softer light.

Flashes, speedlites, and continuous light bulbs are other options for lighting. Each has its own advantages or disadvantages. When using these, try to go with whatever diffusing option comes with the light. In some cases, speedlites come with a diffuser you can attach to the head of the light. Softbox constant lighting comes with a diffuser cover to go over your lighting. By diffusing, you cast a softer light onto your subject. This can eliminate the harsh highlights and create a flattering look for your model or subject.

"What If I'm shooting street photography or landscape photography, Ant? Do I need diffusers?" Not likely. As a matter of fact, you're only going to get about three feet of coverage from your speedlite or built-in flash. With wide landscapes, the best light source is the sun. With street photography, you're best bet is to depend on ambient lighting from signage or the sunlight. Your experiences may vary, but that's my mode of operation when I'm shooting street photography in large cities.

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Light positioning

When considering your light source, you should also consider its positioning. To the left, to the right, up high, down low? If you're using a single lighting source, take note of how the light placement affects your subject. Think back to your childhood when adults tried to tell scary stories in the dark with a flashlight shining on their face. They usually held the flashlight just below their face. Doing so meant the light would shine up against their facial features, creating dark, menacing shadows on their face.


Image: Ant Pruitt

Lighting hack

If you can't take advantage of a few softbox lights or a speedlite, try to maximize your ambient lighting. One of my favorite shots is having someone in a sunlit room next to a large window. The sun coming in through the window offers some beautiful lighting because the window diffuses the sunlight to give the model a soft glow. In most cases, you can further take advantage of this zero-cost lighting with a reflector near your model. Sure, you can buy a photography reflector from Amazon--but you can also use a simple sheet of foam core for roughly $2 per sheet that will do just as good a job.

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Now, grab your camera and start taking some shots. Take note of your light source and light positioning. If you have an external light source you can use, move the light around or adjust its brightness. See what happens with each change you make. Use this as an opportunity to learn and create your next masterpiece. When you're done, share your favorite shots with me on Twitter or Instagram. Let's see what you create!

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Other tips?

What lighting tricks have you discovered in your photography endeavors? Share your experiences and advice with fellow TechRepublic members.