As camera technology improves we become more and more dependent on auto settings that presumably do all the heavy lifting for us. They prevent red eye, recognize people’s faces, and compensate for lighting extremes. But the moment those easy-click settings fail us and we’re faced with missing an excellent shot – that’s when we realize that we really need the skills to take charge of the situation.

Today I want to share with you some of my favorite photography lighting insights that will teach you about how light works and how you can use it to create stunning homemade family portraits.

Rule #1: Light travels in a straight path

In every image below, see if you can identify the direction of the light source. You can usually tell where the light is coming from by observing the direction of the shadow that is cast or by checking out the light reflected in the eyes of any people in the picture. Try this little game out any time you’re looking at photographs you love, and you’ll start becoming an expert on light sources in well-executed photographs.

Washington DC and Northern Virginia baby photographer

Rule #2: A subject receives less light as the light source is moved farther away.

Common sense, right? But it’s because there are fewer light rays on a direct path to the subject. Keep in mind that doubling the distance between light source and subject reduces the amount of light the subject receives by 25%! This baby in the image below (my son!) is illuminated by a very narrow stream of light coming through a distant skylight.

Washington DC baby photographer Julie Kubal

Rule #3: The larger the light source (relative to your subject) the softer the light.

Smaller light sources (relative to your subject) produce more contrast and harder light. In this example the little boy is being lit by a large window directly in front of him (behind me).


Rule #4: In portraiture, soft lighting is the people’s choice.

Professional photographers achieve this look by using secondary light sources, reflectors, and bounce techniques.

Baltimore baby photography by Julie Kubal

Rule #5: Be wary of clear skies.

Bright, cloudless days are not a photographer’s friend – though the kids certainly love it! Strong, uninterrupted light – like the light we have on a clear sunny day – causes harsh shadows and cause people to squint into the camera. Clouds diffuse the light, filtering it down while still preserving that warm, rich light that only natural lighting can provide. Now that’s a silver lining, isn’t it? 


Rule #6: Keep the light source on the sidelines.

Direct lighting (or flat lighting, as it’s sometimes called) can be harsh and unnatural looking – just think about your last ID card photo shoot – it probably felt like more of a mugshot than anything else. Try positioning your subject so that the light source is slightly off to the side and splashing the subject with gentle rays. Placing your subject next to a window is an easy way to achieve side lighting as I did with this little girl in the image below.

children's photography in Chevy Chase, MD by Julie Kubal

Rule #7: Avoid being lit from behind.

When the light source is placed behind the subject, the detail goes down the drain and all that remains is a silhouette cloaked in shadow. This can be a fun effect to play with, but most of the time backlighting is something to avoid if possible. In this photo, I intentionally used the silhouette effect to showoff this mom’s pregnant belly.

silhouette photo of pregnant woman

Rule #8: Only use the flash to fill.

Most people think that low light automatically calls for turning on the flash, but that’s not necessarily the case. A camera’s flash should never be the only light source, as images will be unbalanced and grainy. However, if your subject is lit from behind (standing in front of a window, for example) a flash can fill in the details that back lighting would have left out.


Rule #9: Use a steady hand in dim light.

Low light scenarios require your camera to have a longer shutter speed and wider aperture, so that more light can be let in. Because your camera’s shutter must stay open longer, you’ll need remain as still as possible or risk producing a blurry image. Steady your arm on a fixed object or use a tripod. This doesn’t work very well on a moving subject, but it’s a great technique to use on a sleeping baby. 😉


Rule #10: Become an obsessive observer.

Light behaves in predictable ways, yet still can be quite surprising. Pay attention to how light interacts with water, smoke, fog, snow, how it changes throughout the year and the day. You’ll begin to recognize different lighting scenarios and will be able to plan family portrait shoots with stunning results.

Now it’s time to go out and get practicing! I’d love to see what you’re creating so share your photos in the comments section below. Or if you have any questions regarding tips for photography lighting, please feel free to ask!


Professional Washington DC Photographer Julie KubalAbout the 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!