Photography for Testers Part 2: Lighting

Welcome to Part 2 of our series “Photography for Testers”. Last week, we covered some general tips on testing and preparing for final photos. This week, it's all about lighting! Our focus will be on the use of natural lighting and the different types available. Flash and other types of artificial lighting will be covered in a later post. 


Lighting, in my opinion, is the most important element of photography. After all, if you break down the word photography to it’s Greek roots (phos meaning light and graphe meaning to draw), it translates to “drawing with light”. Natural light is typically the best light source. However, there are different types of natural light available. Knowing the difference between them and how to use them, can be the difference between an okay photo and a great one. Today, we’ll discuss how to shoot under several different lighting situations; the golden hour, the blue hour, midday sun, cloudy/overcast days and using natural light indoors. We will talk about the qualities of each one, how to best use each type and provide tips on model placement in relation to the light source.


I can tell you that achieving well lit photos doesn’t always come easy. Some people intuitively just know what makes good lighting. If you’re like will take practice to train your eye to “see” those qualities. It’s not difficult to do. I had to learn to slow down and really look at the scene before photographing it. In no time, it became second nature to me.


The Golden Hour


When asked, most photographers will tell you that the best type of natural light is found during what is known as “the golden hour”. The golden hour is typically about one hour before the sun sets, but can also refer to the hour just after sunrise. The light during this time is more diffused, softer, and has a golden or reddish hue that makes for nice, warm skin tones. The term golden “hour” is somewhat misleading. It isn’t always an hour. The length of time will vary depending on your location, time of year and even the weather. There are websites/apps available that will tell you when the golden hour is in your area. Here is one.


When shooting at this time of day, the best advice I can give you is to be prepared! Find out when the golden hour is for your area and set up beforehand. Have your model ready and in place. Have your camera ready to go. Know where the sun will be in the sky. Like I said before, the golden “hour” isn’t always an hour, so being prepared is crucial.


There are various ways to position your model to take advantage of this golden hour light. This is where knowing where the sun will be comes into play. Front lighting is exactly what it sounds like. It’s when you have your model facing towards the source of light so that the light falls across the front of them. Because the sun is low in the sky at this time of day, it makes it possible for your model to face towards the sun without squinting and without harsh shadows falling across them. Front lighting is also easier if you are shooting with a phone or a point and shoot camera.


My "golden hour" was overcast. That and adding text seems to have taken most of the "golden" away. 

Backlighting is when the light falls on the back of your model. You simply place them between the camera and the sun. Backlighting can be trickier than front lighting, especially if using a cell phone. To do this, you need to meter and expose for the subject, otherwise they will be darker than the background (in silhouette). This is especially true if shooting in auto mode. Your camera sees all of the light from the background and sets the exposure for it, which underexposes the model (makes them darker). You can set your exposure for the model’s face, which will overexpose the background, making it look washed out. This will bring the focus solely on the model. Some cell phones have a slider to adjust your exposure (this will lighten or darken the photo). You can experiment with this in order to achieve the desired backlit effect. With a dslr, it takes a little bit more knowledge about the manual controls on your camera. You can use spot metering (on the face) to get your exposure, lock it in, and then recompose to take the photo.


The Blue Hour


After you have taken photos in the soft, warm light of the golden hour, consider sticking around a few more minutes to take advantage of “the blue hour”. This is the short time (once again, not usually an hour) after the sun dips below the horizon. The light takes on a cooler, bluish tone, but still remains soft because there is no direct sunlight hitting your model. This “hour” is fleeting, usually lasting only minutes. Because the light fades quickly during this time, you will need to compensate by raising your ISO. This will allow you to use a faster shutter speed. Another option is to use a tripod.


When it comes to choosing which time to shoot, the golden or the blue hour, remember that one is not necessarily better than the other. It’s simply a matter of preference. Personally, I prefer the golden hour. I tend to like warmer colors and skin tones. So, it really is a matter of preference. Both will make for great photos.


Midday Sun


As great as the light can be during the golden and blue hours, it’s not always possible to take advantage of them. We’re all busy people and sometimes you just have to take your photos on a moment’s notice. Like at 1 pm,when your child is finally in a good mood! Unfortunately, this is also when the sun is high in the sky, which makes the light bright and hard and creates harsh shadows. (Hard light means that there is nothing between the light source and your model to diffuse it.) While the light at this time of day isn’t ideal for photos, there are ways to utilize it and still make great images!


If you have to shoot in the midday sun, make sure not to have your model face towards the sun. This will cause squinting and harsh shadows. It can also make your photos look flat and boring. This is front lighting and, while it looks quite nice when shooting during the golden hour, it is not flattering in the harsh midday sun.

 You can see the harsh shadows on her face here. Not a very flattering portrait.

An easy way to fix this is to have your model turn so that the sun is completely behind them (backlighting). Doing this will eliminate the squinting and harsh shadows. It also makes for more pleasing skin tones. While this is now a better photo, depending on the angle of the sun and the way the light falls over your model, their face may now be in shadow and appear dark. (Typically morning or late afternoon when the sun is not directly above.) One solution for this is to use the technique above to meter off the face and expose for it. This tends to overexpose and wash out your background, bringing the focus to your model. Another solution is to use a reflector to brighten up the shadowed areas. Simply angle it so that the sunlight bounces off of it onto your model. Play around with the angle to get the best results. You will be able to see this happen as you move the reflector around. (An assistant is very handy here unless you have a way to prop it up.) This will lighten the model’s face, while keeping the details of the background. If you don’t have a reflector, a piece of white poster board or foam board will do. If you have a silver sun shade for your car’s windshield, those work great, as well. Another option is to use fill flash, but that will be covered in a later post.

 Much better!

This is with the reflector on the ground directly in front of her. 

Another way that you can get great results is by shooting in the shade. The light found here is soft and diffused. You want to look for what is known as open shade. Open shade is when your model is just inside the shaded area and facing towards an open area of the sky or sun. The sun won’t be directly on them, but it will provide nice diffused light for your photos. If there are any shadowed areas, you can use a reflector to brighten them. The reflector can be placed on the ground in front of them to do this. You can also create a backlit effect by having your model stand in open shade, but with the sunlit area behind them.

 Compared to the backlit photo in full sun, you can see that she doesn't have any hot spots on the top of her head and shoulders. This is because the light isn't hitting from directly above.

If you are feeling adventurous, you can also create your own shade using a scrim. A scrim is a white, translucent fabric on a frame that is used to diffuse light. Simply hold it above your model to block some of the sun. I have a 5 in 1 reflector that has a’s pretty handy. If you are going to buy a reflector, I highly recommend one like this . I’m sure some of you fabric “collectors” might have something on hand that can be used in a pinch. I’ve used sheer white curtains before.


One thing to watch for when shooting in a shaded area, is dappled light. The best example I can give for this is the effect you get when shooting under a tree that doesn’t provide full coverage shade. The light coming through the leaves will cause you to have spots of light covering your model. It can create interesting and dramatic portraits, but isn’t always the right effect for tester photos.

 You can see the spots of light from the trees. This is something you want to try to avoid.

Also, don’t worry if your model wanders further away from sunlit areas into a fully shaded area. The light here is not as soft as in open shade, but it will still make for a pleasing photo.


Cloudy and Overcast Days


I love a nice cloudy, overcast day for taking photos. The clouds act like a giant diffuser, making the light soft and even. The only downside is that this giant diffuser can make everything look flat and dull. To avoid this, look for any brighter areas in the sky and have your model turn towards it. This is frontlighting (again) and will brighten up the photo and add a little dimension. If it’s only partially cloudy, you can find find any pockets of sunlight and use it to backlight them. Simply place the sun to their back, but keeping them out of the direct sunlight. Again, the same techniques can be used from above for taking backlit photos.


You can see that turning away from the sun makes for a darker image. I didn't compensate for this. I could have used a reflector here to brighten up her face.

Another thing to consider when shooting on overcast days is your camera settings. Because it tends to be darker, you might need to raise your ISO. This allows the camera to let in more light. If raising your ISO still results in a dark image, you might have to widen your f-stop or use a slower shutter speed. Be careful of lowering your shutter speed too much, you don’t want any blurriness in your photos. (If all of this talk of ISO, f-stops and shutter speeds have you confused, don’t worry. Next week’s post will be all about these.) For any strike off seamstresses, overcast days can also be used to showcase bright, colorful fabric. The gray skies and flat, even lighting can make things look dull. If you add in colorful fabric, the colors can really pop.


Natural Light Indoors


The last lighting situation for today is using natural light indoors. This can be tricky. If you have a big enough window, you can place your model in front of it and backlight them. With a cell phone, you can adjust your exposure if yours has an exposure adjustment slider. The same as described in the golden hour section, this allows you to lighten or darken the photo. With a dslr, you can use the same techniques as above. Depending on how much light there is, you might have to raise your ISO.


If you don’t have a large window, you can still use that natural light to take your photos. Once again, raising your ISO might be necessary. One thing I like to do is place my daughter with the window on one side and use a reflector on the other side. This helps to even out the lighting by brightening up the shadows on the side not facing the window. Remember that it doesn’t have to be an actual reflector. Poster board and foam core work just as well. You can also have your model face the window and place the camera between the window and them. Just be careful not to block the light falling on them.

 This is similar to what most cameras will do when shooting in front of a window. Trying some of the techniques mentioned above should help correct this.  

This is facing the window. My dining room (which has the most natural light) is tiny and isn't ideal for this. I have about 5 feet of space to work in, but you can get an idea of the difference. 

This is with the window to the left. Adding a reflector to the right would add more light to the shadowed side.

All of these suggestions work best with a north or south, facing window. The light from these directions will be soft and indirect. East and west facing windows are the opposite and not as ideal. If possible, you want to turn off any lights and open all curtains/shades of any other windows in the room. Your interior lights can throw off your white balance and cause a weird color cast. Sometimes, like with my small dining room, indoor natural light photos just aren’t possible, no matter what you try. Unfortunately, when this is the case, you either have to wait for better lighting conditions or use an artificial light source (flash or studio lighting).


I really hope that this blog post has been helpful. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask!! You may leave a comment here or in the main PTP group. Thank you for reading and stay tuned for next week’s post, which will be on the exposure triangle (ISO, f-stops and shutter speed) and metering.