The Arty Blogness of Ansate Jones

The ABC’s of improving your photographic technique
ABC’s are a way overdone format for how-to articles, I know. It kind of happened by accident when I was writing up some photo tips and realized that the three most important elements of basic photography could be boiled down to:

A: Available Light

B: Background

C: Composition

If it sounds too easy, it kind of is. What I’m about to share with you are very basic principles that will end up being a lifesaver in your photography. And if it sounds too hard, don’t worry. I’ll go into more detail than you could ever want in later posts.
For now let’s start with:

A: Available Light

If we’re going to start anywhere it’s with light, the single most important thing to consider when taking a picture. Don’t believe me? Look at the etymology. Photography literally translates to ‘drawing with light’. Even with our digital camera technology, we still require lightwaves reflecting off the subject and striking the sensors to take a picture.

Right, enough sciency talk. Let’s talk about quality and amount of light. ‘Quality’ means what temperature the light is, how harsh or soft it is, even what angle it’s coming in at to hit your subject. Here’s some things to keep in mind:

Time of day

The sun, of course, is an excellent source of light but the darn thing has a tendency to move throughout the course of a day. And of course, then it disappears for 8-12 hours (unless you’re up near the poles). Because of this, the angle of light changes and thus the quality.

Have you ever taken a picture at high noon in a desert? Notice how washed out and colorless everything looks? How dark the shadows are? Full, unobscured sun is one of the hardest light sources to wrangle simply because it is so strong and so direct. It’s even worse if you’re trying to take portraits because when the light is overhead, people’s eye sockets are excellent at collecting horrible shadows that turn your subjects into deformed monsters. But hey, Halloween is coming up…

Something as simple as moving into the shade can 'save face' for the photographer during a family portrait (I'm so sorry)

As the sun rises and sets the light tends to strike objects from the side and is also softer and warmer (meaning, redder). This is the kind of light you want, and if you take pictures at sunset and sunrise you just might catch what’s called ‘the magic hour’– basically where everything looks like it’s on fire. This is like the holy grail of time for photographers.

Believe it or not, these pictures were taken within two hours of each other.


Because it’s just so dang bright, the position of the sun matters most on a clear day. But shooting in the middle of the day is possible if the weather is overcast.

Sunny California vs. Overcast Portland. And yes, my hair really was that color once upon a time!

This is because the clouds diffuse the light and make it softer, less direct (which, incidentally, is exactly what a diffuser attachment will do for your flash). Overcast days are usually also more humid and this helps the colors pop out even more.

Diffusion's not just for clouds! The trees can produce dappled light, a nice compromise between full sun and dark shade.

Something to consider if you do have to shoot on sunny days, or even if you’re just looking to make some amazing landscape photographs, is a polarizing filter. This is something that attaches to your lens and helps reduce the light contrast between sky and land. It also cuts down on reflections and brings out the color in and underneath reflective surfaces, such as water or glass. You usually use them on SLR cameras with interchangeable lenses, but they do have some options out there for point and shoot cameras now too. So now you have no excuse.

It even works on storefront windows! Neat!

Color temperature

Daylight is generally a white or blue, except as the sun nears the horizon (remember, it gets redder at sunrise and sunset). As luck would have it, camera flashes also tend to be daylight range. But studio lights, candles, and most lamps in your house are going to give off much redder light than daylight or flash. Mixing color temperatures by using different light sources could either look really artistic or really horrible. If you’ve ever tried to take flash pictures indoors you probably know what I’m talking about.

It's How I Met Your Mother all over again!

Some people prefer natural light and some like the finer control of artificial light. There are all sorts of filters you can get to make your lights and flashes redder or bluer or softer or harsher, so all that matters nowadays is how you use the light and how much of it you have.

Angle of light

This is a biggie. Remember the shadowy eyesocket problem? That’s just one example of many where the angle of light is not ideal for the subject. If you’ve ever flipped through a magazine you’ve probably noticed that most model pictures are shot with light coming in from the side. This is because side light rocks and makes objects look amazing by enhancing the natural contours. If you took that same model and shot him or her with a straight-on flash, that face would lose all natural contour shadows and basically flatten out. Not to mention the possibility of red eye. Nobody wants that in the modeling world. (Then again, Halloween…)

Flash in the face vs. flash from the side. Which looks more natural?

Unless you’re going for a really dramatic shot, just using side light and nothing else may not work for you. You might need some light on the other side to balance it out and make the face look more normal. Sometimes you have enough ambient light, as I did in this next picture thanks to the streetlights.

We were talking about models?

And sometimes you need to help it out. You can use additional lights… or you can reflect the light you have. Film and photography professionals use white boards to do this, but just about any surface can do it.

Like, say, your own subject's hand.

The best thing you can do if you want to use flash is to get an external one that sits on top of your camera. You can angle external flashes independently of the camera itself, which means you can bounce the light off of walls or the ceiling and get some nice, indirect light on your subject. If your camera comes with a flash shoe you can do this. Even better is to get a remotely triggered flash, which doesn’t even require the flash to be attached to the camera! But not all SLRs can manage this yet.

The angle of light can throw shadows, influencing your picture. From left to right: bounced overhead, bounced high on nearest wall, bounced low on nearest wall.

Most point and click cameras have a major disadvantage when it comes to light angle, and that’s the flash. It’s stuck there in straight-on mode! But do not despair, because there are options here too. You can get diffusers for point and shoots that will soften the light, and you can use bounce cards to angle the light. Check out this video for a DIY solution that’s easy and cheap!

I got this picture simply by bouncing the flash off the ceiling. I don't even want to imagine what it would have looked like straight-on.

There’s so much more I can tell you about light, but let’s move on for now to:

B: Background

One Response

  1. Pingback: » 8 Ways to Make Your Travel Photos Not Suck Hieratic

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *