Take Better Pictures Lesson 8

Light Basics - Let's get outside!

A few weeks ago I wrote you an email about driving home one evening, and seeing the beautiful setting sunlight shining on the rising moon. Several of you wrote to me saying you could relate to that story. This lesson gets back to that topic of outdoor lighting.

Outdoor light for landscapes and people

photographer taking sunset shot

We just can't resist sunset photos. Why is that? We are hugely attracted to the warm colours of sunrises and sunsets. Colour plays a major role in making our photos appealing.

Light is the other thing that defines our photos -- the quality and the direction. You've already learned about this in lesson 6, but in landscapes it is particularly important to find things that make your photos stand out. Often a scene looks great with the eye, but in a photo it loses something. Our brains can embellish a scene, but sometimes the camera can't. We can also use post processing techniques to bring back the colour that our brain remembers.

You can learn to photograph a scene in the best possible light and colour, so that you don't have to do much in post processing. Sometimes that just means going back at a different time of day when the light is coming from a different angle or direction, or when the weather is better, or dramatically worse! When the light is low in the sky, it also tends to be warmer in colour and softer looking than when it is directly overhead.

You learned about warm and cool colours from Lesson 4, on white balance. Review that if you need to. Remember to retain the warmth in a sunset, use the Daylight WB setting.

In Alberta, where I live, we are blessed with really gorgeous prairie light that doesn't have much polution in it. But in some locales, the light is filtered through polution particles. Wherever you are, the quality of light is different depending on the time of day, the direction of light and what is in the air. If there is a lot of wind, or an approaching storm, dust particles and also temperature can change the quality of light. Notice how much bluer the skies are in winter than summer?

When you are driving around the countryside and something catches your eye, ask yourself, what is it that attracts you to that scene? The light? The colour? Both?

Compare the following photos, all taken outdoors

outdoor light - prairie

This photo (above) of the prairies near Drumheller, was taken at mid-day. Even though the sun was high in the sky there was enough interest in the composition, the clouds, and the solitary tree to make this a successful photo. (By the way, this is my most popular image ever! I have sold the most prints of this image through direct orders and through RedBubble.) It was shot on film in May 2000, just after I moved back to Alberta. Due to the film grain, when this image is blown up really large, people say it looks like a painting.

outdoor light storm

This approaching hail storm was photographed on the same day as the prairie photo above. Yes, it was this blue. The sun is still shining from directly above on the grass in front of me, but in the distance the clouds are darkening and in the shade. This makes a really interesting combination of light and colour. I carefully positioned the fenceposts to align with the horizon in the bottom third of the composition. To learn more about composition, read this blog post I wrote.


This sunrise photo above, from the Port of Montreal, shows how tricky it can be to properly adjust exposure when pointing your camera towards a bright light source. The photo has blown out highlights, and dark shadows. So I had to compromise a bit with both.

Our eyes see much more than the camera sensor (or film) can capture, so keep that in mind if you have really bright highlights combined with lots of detailed shadow areas. You may have to do some creative post processing to show both highlight and shadow detail.

sunset photo

About face! Though it is inviting to point the camera directly at a sunrise and sunset, sometimes the most interesting effects are behind you. This photo shows the setting sun against the darkening sky at a Sarnia, Ontario oil refinery. In the daytime, that water tank is white and is dramatically changed by the warm sunset light reflected off it. So don't forget to turn around and look behind you when the light is low and gorgeous.

Tips for landscape lighting

You stumble upon gorgeous landscapes all the time, but you don't always have your camera with you, you don't have time, or you can't pull over safely on the side of the road. Plan a visit back to some of those places at a time of day when the light plays nicely off things in the scene. Go back until you get what you want.

Outdoor portraits

Outdoor portrait

This cyclist was photographed very late in the day to take advantage of the low-angled, warm light. I positioned the cyclist facing the setting sun at about a 30 degree angle, to make sure that there was light on her face and on the side of her. Look for clues in the shadows as to the direction of the light. When you photograph people late in the day, the warm glow lights up their faces nicely.

Outdoor portrait

This photo shows light on both sides of the cyclist's face. The main light is coming from the left side with fill on the right. The reason we see it on both sides of her, is that It is reflected off a nearby building on the right side. You can see it on her backpack, helmet and cheek. Take advantage of buildings or add your own reflector to bounce the light back into portraits.

Your homework this week

You really do need to practice in order to take better pictures. Reading about it doesn't mean your photography will magically improve. Just like you, I subscribe to newsletters, and blogs and I'm being exposed to new information every day on all sorts of topics. I don't always get a chance to put what I've learned into action, or rather, I don't always make the time to do so. To get the full benefit of these lessons, you need to practice.

Your homework this week is to take action! Review the lesson topics you are shaky on, and practice one or two things from each lesson while you are waiting for lesson 9. Here is the list:

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Happy Shooting!