Look Into the Light: Handy Outdoor Lighting Techniques

To create a successful image, there are three key elements photographers need to be aware of: light, composition and subject. The subject of the photo is related to its purpose–for a real estate agent, it’s a piece of property; for parents, their children; for a naturalist, a solitary mushroom can be a captivating subject. The placement of the subject is also critical to the composition. But of these elements, light is of utmost importance.

Without light, an image can’t be etched onto film. The term photography implies light’s significance–photo, meaning light; and graphy, meaning to write. Thus, light is essential to create a photograph. Over the years, a key lesson has been driven into my head. Each time I think I can make an exception, this point is now ingrained–if the light is poor, the pictures will be poor. A good subject within a good composition illuminated by flat, gray, boring light, will net a flat, gray, boring shot. On the other hand, when an ordinary subject is within a decent composition and the light is both radiant and dramatic, the resulting image remains in my active files.

Light falls into many categories. The most obvious are front, side and backlight. Each possesses an advantage depending on the purpose of the photo. Other types of light include twilight, dawn, moonlight and soft, reflected light. The light of sunrise and sunset is majestic and takes on its own quality on a daily basis.

Front Light

This is “beginner’s light,” where the light comes over the photographer’s shoulder and falls evenly on the scene. Shadows are minimized due to its flat quality. Frontal light is very easy to work with but produces mundane results. Depth can’t be depicted, textures are flattened, and details are washed out.

In nature photography, front light has its advantages and disadvantages, but to a landscape photographer, front light is the enemy. The scene has no dimensionality, an important quality in the success of a dramatic scenic shot.

On the other hand, many wildlife shooters prefer front lighting. Although it may not produce the most awe-inspiring illumination, it can reveal the animal to its fullest extent. A favorite subject of mine is the hummingbird (one of the most common species is the broadrail). The male, with its iridescent ruby throat, has to be photographed with front light to show off the radiance of its feathers.

Front light can be an ally in many other circumstances. Every facet of the subject is illuminated, thereby revealing the greatest amount of information in your image. Real estate photographers can show every detail of a home to a potential buyer; in forensics, a crime scene can be analyzed to its fullest.

Frontal light has its place–it’s effective to portray information. It’s also a great source for beginning photographers. Getting proper exposures is easy, as there are few shadows or highlights to throw off the meter. Use this light, but don’t rely on it.


You can get dramatic results when backlight is the primary source. Subjects can be portrayed as silhouettes or bathed in a rimlit glow, revealing shape and form.

Because it isn’t commonly used, the backlit image stands out as being unique. So why not use it all the time? Because it’s hard to master. You must deal with exposure and lens flare problems to create a successful image. With backlit subjects, exposure can be tricky. The darker the subject, the more difficult it becomes to determine proper exposure.

The best way to get proper exposure for any backlit subject is to use spot metering. If your camera doesn’t have it, get closer to your subject and take a reading off the most critical area. Lock in the reading by holding the shutter button down halfway, reframe the image, and fire the shot.

It sounds simple, but here’s the rub. Now that you’ve gotten proper exposure on your subject, the background may overpower it. The subject looks great, but the highlights in the background are washed out and hold no detail. If you use print film, a custom print can be made in which detail can be restored to the background. But slide shooters encounter a bigger problem due to the film’s unforgiving contrast level.

However, don’t despair–there are solutions. The easiest is to move closer to the subject. By doing so, there will be less background in your photo. If you can move the subject, place it in a location with fewer background distractions. Backgrounds that are darker or those that can be thrown out of focus work well.

To make a photo look more professional, try using a reflector. They generally come in three colors: white, to keep the light source soft; silver, for a harder source; and gold, which warms the light. With the sun aimed directly at the reflector, you simply redirect the bounced light toward the subject. With more light on the subject, the balance of light between the subject and the background becomes more even while you maintain the beauty of backlighting.

Fill-flash can also portray a professional touch. By balancing just the right amount of flash with the ambient light reading, you can achieve great results. With today’s technology, fill-flash has become simple to use–many point-and-shoot cameras have the technology built right in. Shoot some tests and witness the fabulous results.

For those who shoot with a more sophisticated SLR and have a fairly powerful auxiliary flash, here’s a great trick. To emulate the light of a reflector while having more control over the intensity of fill-light, modify the light from the flash. Straight flash emits a harder light source. To model the light of a white reflector, diffuse the flash by covering it with a handkerchief or a small detachable softbox. To add warmth to a scene, tape a small gold or amber gel to the flash head. Regardless of the modification, you’ll maintain proper exposure with TTL compatibility.

Lens flare is also a problem with backlighting. If the light source is facing the lens, flare will result. The overall contrast of the image is reduced and circles or hexagons appear depending upon the aperture at which the photo was made. To eliminate flare, you must block the sun or other light source from striking the lens, either with a lens shade, hat, newspaper, or another device.

You can shoot most subjects successfully using backlight. My favorites include silhouettes, which can be very dramatic. I use no modification because I want my subject to become an outline. Just take a meter reading off the background. Subjects rimmed with tiny hairs produce a glow when backlit. Spider webs are also great backlit subjects.


This light emphasizes a subjects three-dimensional aspects–textures, patterns, shapes and form all become more well defined. As light rakes across the subject, peaks and valleys of light and shadow are revealed. By creating these areas of contrast, you can convey more depth.

Direct sidelight comes from a 90[degrees] angle to the camera. If you shift the source of illumination 10-20 [degrees] in one direction or the other, you can still maintain a strong effect. When using the sun as a sidelighting source, you need to shoot at sunrise or sunset, as these times produce the greatest amount of sidelight for outdoor photography. When shooting in a studio, the photographer has the luxury of being able to change the position of the lights or the subject.

As one of my favorite subjects is landscapes, much of my photography is done out in the field. To bring life to landscapes, I photograph them only when they’re sidelit. If the time of year is wrong, yet the composition is dramatic, I note in a journal that I should return to the same location during a different season.

Sidelight can be used to separate a subject from the background. In a front-lit situation, both the subject and background receive light. The background becomes just as important as the subject, so if it creates distractions–regardless of how beautiful the focal point is–the photo will fall short. By returning to the same location at sunrise or sunset, you’ll find light striking the subject from the side, resulting in a background that doesn’t compete.

Soft Light

This type of illumination is nondirectional and produces an even, wrap-around effect. As highlights and shadows aren’t strong, no details are lost. Outdoors, soft light is usually present on bright overcast days or in the shade. Indoors, it can be achieved with a softbox, umbrella, or by bouncing the source of light off a white ceiling or wall.

Soft, ambient lighting conditions flatter some subjects better than others–flowers and people are two that come to mind. When photographing people in soft light, shadows under the nose and eyes are nonexistent. Flowers also work well because of their delicate qualities. The petals of a flower often vary in color from very light to very dark. When shot in sunlight, slide film can’t handle the extreme contrast range. The use of flash or a reflector can even it out, but the quality of light is still harsh. There’s nothing like bright overcast conditions to bathe a flower in soft light, revealing detail overall.

In studio portraiture, the photographer emulates bright overcast conditions by using softboxes or umbrellas. Soft, wraparound light is very forgiving in exposure and doesn’t emphasize lines or wrinkles. Outdoors, bright overcast conditions are ideal for photographing people. When strong sunlight persists, professional photographers go to great lengths to mimic soft light. An easy fix is to place the subject in the shade, but the peripheral areas lit by the sun will be overexposed. The proper exposure on a subject in the shade is very different from the background illuminated by the sun. To balance the exposure between the two, you must use flash or reflectors.

Another way professionals achieve soft, ambient light when it’s sunny is by using large diffusion panels placed between the sun and the subject. They’re quite large and require the use of assistants, can be unwieldy in the wind, and also require additional light on the subject to balance the exposure with the light on the background.

Scenic photography definitely works well with gorgeous sunrises and sunsets. The sweet light of early morning and late afternoon produces dramatic results. But if clouds stick around, creating flat light, it’s time to look at the subject matter differently. You can still make excellent pictures by moving in close and seeking our details. Lichen-covered rock, wildflowers, waterfalls, and rock patterns all make great subjects under these circumstances.

The Cutting Edge

Front, back, side an soft light all have their pros and cons. Learning how to use them to your advantage takes patience and practice. But there’s a special, rare quality of light that produces the most spectacular and dramatic conditions: I call it light on the cutting edge.

Sunrises or sunsets that envelop the sky in a blood-red canopy, an iridescent rainbow that emerges from storm clouds behind it, or a spotlit scene against ominous skies all produce a special, fleeting quality of light that beckons to be photographed. Working quickly and carefully is key. It’s very easy to get caught up in the excitement and overlook the fundamentals.

Rainbows appear when the sun is near the horizon and the sky opposite it is filled with moisture. A rainbow’s colors can be enhanced by a polarizer but can also be obliterated if the filter is rotated to the wrong position. Finding an interesting foreground subject must be done quickly. Obtaining the proper exposure is straightforward, but I recommend bracketing.

There are many other types of light in which a photographer can shoot. The light of dawn and dusk occasionally creates an alpenglow that can take your breath away. Shooting at night under a full moon produces a unique quality unobtainable by any other light source. The light that occurs on stormy days produces a unique mood. The most important thing is to remember that light is the essence of any photograph.

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