Lighting is one of the single most important aspects that should be considered when it comes to taking a really stellar photo. This applies to everything from still-life, to landscapes, to portraits. Awesome lighting has the ability to make or break a photo’s composition.

When I teach my Snap Happy class, lighting is one of the things I spend a fair amount of time on before we delve into anything else. This is because lighting is by far one of the best ways to set the tone for your photos. The improper use of lighting can make your photos dark, blurry, or even uninteresting despite their amazing subject piece. If you’re going to pay a photographer to document you and your family, trust me, you want them to obsess over the lighting options available. You’ll get the best results this way.

Some of the variations a great photographer will consider when setting up a shot include:

  • The temperature, tone, or even color that suits the subject(s)
  • The light’s intensity
  • The light’s source and direction
  • The type of contrast the light creates

If you’re taking photos for yourself and your family, here are some tips I give my students during a Snap Happy class.

photo of boy on an orange chair

See the Light

  • Diffused Light – The nicest light for portraits is right at the edge of the shadow in the area called the penumbra. This is where the subject would still be in the shadow, but in a spot where the light from outside the shadow is still illuminating them (like in the first photo). This includes photos taken under overhangs, doorways, inside a garage, under a tree overhang, and even beside a window. Shooting a subject from the front when the light is diffused softens it enough to take great photos; where if you used full frontal light (like the sun), it would be far too harsh.
  • Side Light – This lighting includes diffused or direct light that hits the subject from one side or the other. With natural light, this happens best at dawn and dusk. The second photo shown here is a great example of diffused light coming from a window at the side of the little boy. The side of hisface closer to the window is more illuminated than the side that is further from the window.Photographers Obsess
  • Back Light – By having the light source directly behind your subject, you can create a very specific mood by creating a dark silhouette of who (or what) you’re photographing. I love this type of lighting when accenting a pregnancy bump, for instance, like in the third photo. You can achieve particularly dramatic backlit images at sunset.
  • Front Light – By shining the light directly on your subject, you will create a strong contrast in details. While this can be good in certain circumstances, you’ll often find there’s a squinting effect happening to your subjects as they try to shield their eyes from the light. Generally speaking, this is a less flattering form of light when used on people, so it’s not one I tend to use very often (and why don’t have any examples to share with readers).

I encourage all of you, the next time you’re setting up a photo, take a beat to consider your lighting. If you’re trying to capture a moment with your kids, look for opportunities to use natural diffused light for the best results. Overall, have fun learning about how light affects the photographs you or your photographer take.


Julie Kubal family portraits Washington D.C.About the Photographer and Author:

Julie Kubal is a child and family portrait artist and photographer serving Washington DC, Maryland, and Northern Virginia. She is passionate about creating warm and meaningful artwork through modern portraits and lifestyle photography at a location of your choice!

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