Understanding Light: 5 Photography Tips

Marianne Stenger
12th June 2019

You’ve probably heard that light is the most important aspect of photography, and it’s true; without light, there could be no photograph. Understanding and learning to control the light is also one of the most difficult aspects of photography to master, but the good news is that once you’ve got it down, you’re guaranteed better photographs.

Photographer Tim Halberg works with couples to create unique engagement and wedding photos, and is an expert at manipulating light to craft the right mood and atmosphere. Here, he shares a few pointers on “good vs. bad” light, how the direction and distance of the light can affect your photos and more. 

1. There is no such thing as “bad” light

You probably have a preferred time of day or type of weather to shoot in, and perhaps you even try to avoid shooting in what you consider to be less than ideal conditions. But while there’s nothing wrong with having a preference, it’s important to realise that there’s no such thing as “good” or “bad” light.

“I think “good” vs. “bad” light gets too much play,” says Halberg. “As a professional photographer, it’s all about capitalising on the light at any given moment, and modifying or accenting that light to make the best photo you can. With that said, I do try look for the light that reflects the mood or look of the photo I’m working on in the moment. I always start with the available light and build from there if and when needed, whether by simply adding a reflector or bringing in an off camera light.”

He points out that while most people tend to think of soft light as being better, in the end that can be a lazy way to tackle lighting, because hard light can often create mood and add contrast to a photo. 

So the bottom line is that sometimes soft light will work and sometimes hard light will work. It’s all about considering the type of photo you’re trying to create and how different types of light will affect it.

2. Diffusing light can make it softer

If you’re dealing with harsh light, diffusing it can scatter it and help make it softer. “Diffusing light is something most of us seek to do on a regular basis. It allows us to control the situation and add contrast back in as we’d like,” says Halberg.

He explains that while some people will move into the shadows to find softer light, this isn’t always ideal or even possible. His own go-to diffusion is a 4x6’ panel on a metal frame with a white diffusion material that he has his assistant hold between the subject and light source.

“Typically I’ll start diffusing light if there’s a tabletop at a wedding I’m trying to photograph that is in direct sunlight,” he says. “That light tends to be harsh with deep shadows and doesn’t compliment the scene very well. In this situation I’ll have my assistant hold a diffusion panel just out of the frame to soften the light. I sometimes will do the same thing when shooting under a tree in a shaded area with speckled light.”

3. Different light sources give off different colours

Although you may not always be able to see it with your eyes, different types of light give off different colours or temperatures. For instance, a photo taken in the shade at midday might have a bluish hue to it, whereas a photo taken indoors with artificial light might look quite yellow.

While the colour temperature can easily be adjusted by changing the white balance settings on your camera, using a filter or editing the photo later on, it’s important to be aware of how this will affect the mood and atmosphere of your photographs.

Halberg notes that he shoots in RAW and generally doesn’t worry about the colour balance while shooting weddings as he knows his post production team will adjust the RAW photos later on. However, he says when using flash it can sometimes help to add a CTO (colour temperature orange) gel.

“It’s really easy to do,” he says. “For most photographers I would recommend simply looking at the back of your camera and taking note of your flash producing blue light vs. yellow light in a scene.”

4. The distance of the light matters

Another thing that will affect your photographs is the distance of the light source to your subject. “The distance a light is positioned to your subject is something that can affect two pieces of a photo and the quality of light directly,” Halberg explains.

“The fall off of light, from light to shadow, is something that should be considered when working with any light source. The closer the subject is to the light source, the quicker the transition from light to shadow will be.”

So if you want more contrast, you’d move your subject closer to the light, whereas if you want less contrast you’d move your subject further away. Another thing to consider is the affect on how soft or hard the light source looks. Halberg points out that the closer a light is to the subject, the softer it will appear, and the farther away it is, the harder the light will appear.

“All of this can be used to compliment a photo adding mood, softening skin, moulding a face and so on,” he says. “Study photos in fashion magazines and look at the light. You can then practice and try and emulate the light you see there.”

5. The direction of the light matters too

The direction of the light can also have a big impact on your photos. For instance, lighting from behind will create a silhouette or halo effect, whereas side lighting might cast interesting shadows.

“My biggest advice for new photographers is to play with light,” Halberg says. “Get a friend to follow you around and go out of your way to find different light - window light, backlight from a light bulb, and backlight from the sun. Walk deep in the shadow of a tree; walk out to the edge of a shadow of a tree. All of these situations will produce different light and there’s no “correct” way to use any of that light. So don’t follow a rule for a situation, but see what works best for you and your style of shooting.”

Finally, Halberg emphasises that it’s important to take plenty of photos when you’re first starting out in order to gain experience.

“There’s a movement that says photographers should be taking less photos, but this defeats practice. Those who become experts in their field do so through the rule of 10,000. This could be 10,000 hours or 10,000 photos, but the heart of it is to put in more work. More work means more photos and more experience.”

Want to know more? Don't miss these compositional techniques to improve your photographs and our essential lowlight photography tips. If you already have a collection of photographs you'd like to do something with, have a look at some of our how-to guides and start putting together your own customised photo book or professional portfolio. 


See more of Tim's work by visiting his website Timhalberg.com.