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Light: what I learned to help take better photos, part 1

It is hard to connect to the people you work with these days, where a lot of us switched to remote work for 100% of the time. In that setting, getting to know your colleagues in the way that you would by having a chat at the coffee machine, or over a joint lunch or dinner, isn't so easy. To remedy this somewhat, a colleague of mine decided to set up a series of Friday morning virtual chats where everyone shares something that is not work related. And that could be anything, like music skills or sharing a passion for cooking. I signed up to share as well and I decided to reflect on what I picked up over the years that has helped me improve my photography. I decided to focus mostly on composition and storytelling as that can be done with any camera or smartphone, so I did not bother with more technical aspects of photography. In my 10 minutes I took the group through a number of principles that I've learned and are with me when I view a scene. Time was short and many colleagues asked me to share more. I decided to type it out in my blog so everyone can go through it at their own pace and perhaps this can be of use to some other readers. Sharing my experience, as an amateur in the truest sense of the word. Going through my principles, I realized there are more than I thought... so this will be a series of posts rather than just one.

For this post, I will focus on the first principle that dwarfs everything else, the fact that light matters. This may seem completely obvious, and of course it is. And yet, I have to admit that I forget it at times. Especially when I don't have that much time and I am not deliberately out to create a photo, but just catching life as it happens. A birthday, a nice scene on a walk, a vista on a vacation. For me, this is probably how I take 95% of my photos. I am guessing for many of you, this is no different. It is therefor kind of important to find a way to remind yourself to reflect on the light in that moment. This won't take long. Simply look around you and see if this is the best light to capture what you want, and adjust accordingly. Also don't hesitate to take a few photos from different angles to see what works best.

Take the photo below for instance. I took this photo while out biking. I just rode up a hill and was rewarded with a beautiful view of the Bavarian countryside. I took out my trusty tiny Ricoh GRIII and took this photo:


It's a decent photo. The fall colors are captured, the house adds a bit of dimensions to the scene and the tiny cloud make the blue sky a little less boring. But then I became aware of the light and I walked about twenty meters to the left and I was able to capture the scene in a very different way. This was the result:


The light is now clearly visible and adds so much to the picture. The colors shine even more, you also get a sense of the time of day and it just pops more. By reframing, I could also bring in some of the overhanging branches with their red leaves still on them. They were nicely lit by the setting sun as well. By becoming aware and moving a couple of meters, I was able to take a much better photo.

Here is another example, from another bikeride. This time in the Netherlands, on one of my regular routes that takes you through a woody area with some nice gravel roads. It was that time of day again where the sun was beaming with a beautiful golden glow. The trees and branches sliced up the light in many small beams. It was so pretty, I had to stop to take a photo. This time with my iPhone.


I took this photo within seconds of stopping. I am still in the middle of the road, I am taking the photo at eye height and I am just not putting that much thinking into the photo. And then I realize that I can probably catch the light a bit better if I get a little lower. That means getting off my bike and I decided to put the bike in the scene for some more visual context. Here is what my second shot looked like:


In my eyes, this is a better photo. The way the sun beams are sliced by the trunks and branches comes across much more. You can still see the gravel road but this time it has a dynamic line to it (more on that later).

Light changes throughout the day and the first thing any photography course will probably mention are the famous blue and golden hours. You can research more on the physics behind it, but I think we all know that the light from the sun when it is angled at either sunset or sunrise is truly special. Soft and gentle, this light is very different from the harsh mid-day light that creates deep shadows. For this kind of light you simply need to either enjoy it when it is there, or plan for it. That makes this a bit more deliberate but the result can be rewarding. The next example is a photo I took while on one of my business trips to Budapest. I knew the weather forecast was going to help produce a pinky hue at sunrise. My alarm went off at 5:30 in the morning and I had to walk a bit to get up the banks of the Danube for a good view. I almost missed it but I was there just in time to take the following shots:

This light only exists in the early morning, there is no getting around it. And it is the same with the light we get when the sun sets. The next example is a photo I took earlier this year in the south of Germany. The hotel we stayed in had these two small cottages at the entry of the grounds. During the day I noticed that the sun would set behind the treeline and thought it would probably create an interesting backdrop for these two cottages. Just like the photo above, this was a deliberate effort.

Leica SL - Voigtlander 21mm F1.4

Timing is everything. The two examples below are from another, more deliberate photo. We were staying in the Monument Valley national park in the US and we booked a sunrise drive with a local guide. That meant getting up at 4:00 this time. No one said finding the right light was going to be easy... But, what we got was well worth it. The landscape is amazing and sunrise is a beautiful sight in such a spectacular environment. Even when being that deliberate, it comes down to being ready at the right time. The two shots below are a few minutes apart, and you can see the difference it makes when the sun just about appears in the second photo. It makes for a more interesting shot.

Sony A7 - Sony 24mm F1.4
Sony A7 - Sony 24mm F1.4

Light is not just about what time of day you shoot. It's also about the weather. Another thing you can't control. But the weather can change, and then you need to be ready. If you are a professional landscape photographer, you might be able to wait a week for that perfect light but for most of us, we will just have the one chance. The shot below comes from a trip to Scotland. The Isle of Skye to be exact. Here we were, on a famous hike, taking in this amazing scenery and the sky was covered in grey clouds. It didn't take anything away from the beauty of this place and we enjoyed every bit of it. But as we progressed along the trail, the sky opened up and I was in just the right position to take this photo:

Leica Q

In this case, I was just lucky and as we had the sun in our backs, it was a matter of paying attention and quickly taking the photo. The break in the clouds lasted for about 5 minutes and then it was back to grey again. So sometimes, you just have to get lucky and capture the moment.

But what do you do when you have too much light? When it is midday and the sun is high above you and shining with great intensity? There are a few things to keep in mind. People shots are not great in this kind of light. That doesn't always matter, as sometimes you just want to take a photo as a memory of being somewhere. There are some mitigation tactics though. Here is an example of a normal portrait of my lovely wife in harsh light conditions.

Leica SL - Leica 50mm F1.0

You can clearly see the hard shadows. The light comes from above so the face is a mix of direct light and shadows which is not great. Again, that doesn't always matter. In this case it is just a nice vacation photo of her with LA in the background. What you can do in these conditions is to ask your subject to look up a little. As a true amateur, I forget this most of the times. But sometimes I don't and then you get a better photo. Here is my wife again in similar conditions, this time I asked her to look up a bit and it takes away some of the mix of hard light and shadows on her face. Much better.

Leica SL - Leica 50mm F1.0

Another tactic is to simply move out of the direct sunlight. When the light is this strong, you can easily step into the shade and you'll see you will still have plenty of light to take a nice photo. See the example below of my wife again, but this time I asked her to just walk a few meters to the alley and I was able to create an environment with more even light. I quite like this portrait, and it's one of my favorite photos of my wife. As you can imagine with me being an enthusiastic amateur photographer, I have quite a few photos of my wife. So me stating this is one of my favorites, says a lot about how you can still make memorable photos, even if you have to mitigate hard light.

Leica SL - Leica 50mm F1.0

Alternatively, you can choose to put the focus on the background and play with blurring the people in the shot. Just enough to be able to still recognize them, but so they won't have harsh shadows and ultra bright light all over their faces. Harder to do with a phone and definitely not for every occasion but worth giving a try nevertheless.

Sony A7 - Zeiss Batis 13mm F2.8

Another way to mitigate harsh, mid-day sunlight is to embrace it and make it a feature, instead of something you are trying to reduce. This could mean shooting straight into the direction of the light and including the sun in your composition. This will bring the harsh light into context. I took the photo below on the blistering day in Vienna.

Leica SL - Leica 50mm F1.0

I chose to shoot against the sunlight. The shadows tell the story of how hard the light is and by framing the sun in the top left corner of the shot, I made it part of the scene I was trying to capture around the group of young guys.

The next example of how you can make hard light work in a photo was taken in Yosemite national park in the US. It was a really hot day and we were at this particular spot sometime in the early afternoon. It was summer so there was not as much water in the waterfall but it still made for a nice shot. I climbed on a few boulders to get to the middle of the stream and In my first attempt, I framed the shot a bit tight without the sun in it, but that did not work. The waterfall was very shadowy, as it is below as well, but there was no context for why that was. It simply looked like an underexposed photo. I can't show it to you because I deleted it.... But anyway, back to the one I kept. I decided to frame the waterfall with the sun directly over it.

Sony A7 - Sony 24mm F1.4

With the sunrays diagonally across the frame, it works. The waterfall is dark, but the balance is there because of the inclusion of the sun. The next shot was taken in Salzburg and this time, I used the fountain to show the intensity of the light. The sun is just outside of the top left corner of the frame but you can see the waterdrops being lit up by the rays. This emphasizes the hard light and makes the drops standout which creates an interesting dynamic. This photo also works well from a proportionality perspective, I will come back to that in a later post on that topic alone.

Fuji X-Pro 2 - Fujinon 35mm F1.4

So don't be afraid to bring the sun into your compositions. If you take that even further, you can start to play with silhouettes. You will need the sun to be a bit lower for that to work as most of your subject will be at the horizon level. You can get a bit lower to the ground to emphasize this as well. The photo below was taken on a beach in Cape Town. It was early in the evening and the sun was starting to set. This created nice long shadows from the group of boys that were playing football near the shoreline. By placing them in front of the sun, you create this nice contour effect.

Leica Q

I moved towards the group some more and composed them even tighter by using a longer lens against the sun. I love how that creates this feeling of summer with the golden light outlining the silhouettes of the footballers.

Nikon Df - Sigma 135mm F1.8

Another example of this effect comes from Greece. Atop a small hill in one of the towns of Santorini was this bar with a canopy. This created a great backlit scene once the sun started to set. These kind of photos are a little harder to with a smartphone because they require quite a bit of correction in editing. But it is not impossible to do it.

Leica SL - Leica 50mm F1.0

Finally, let's talk about how you can shoot when there is intense light on a small part of your scene and the rest is covered in darkness. I will do a separate post on shooting in the dark using high ISO or longer exposures but this is something else. Here is an example that gives you an idea of the lighting conditions I am talking about.

Leica CL - Voigtlander 75mm F1.5

This was taken during a trip to the north of Norway in the middle of winter. We went dogsledding and it was absolutely pitch black. Everyone got headlamps and they created this nice effect in the photo above when the rider was looking down to pet the dogs. The isolation created by this light is great and also one of those moments you need anticipate. In this case, this guy and his sled was ahead of us and I was waiting for the moment when he would look down towards the dogs. When he did, I was ready. As I will explain in the post about shooting in the dark, this does require a little more technical knowledge. When you let the camera do the work on autopilot, you won't always get what you are looking for. With a smartphone, this is hard to do. Although the AI in phones is getting better and better at dealing with low light. Fortunately, there are also scenes when you do not need to respond to a situation so quickly and this kind of light is more permanent for you to shoot. Take the next photo, taken on a street in London. The iconic red phone booth, barely visible in a dark alley.

Leica M240 - Leica 50mm F2 Summicron

The reason this photo works is because it embraces the darkness. Just like embracing hard light, in this case, you should not want to make this scene too bright. It is meant to be dark because only then will the phone booth stand out the way it does. The final example comes from Rome, inside the Pantheon. This church with foundations dating back to the Roman era, has a large hole in its domed roof which creates a beautiful light beam that slowly moves across the large room as the day passes. I captured it here when it lit up a one small section.

Leica M240 - Leica 75mm F2 Summicron

Without light, there is no photography. And as such, there really isn't bad or good light. It's just a matter of figuring out what to do with it. And if you are an amateur like me, who won't scout and wait for the right light for hours or even days, you just work with whatever the light is in the moment you want to capture something by using some of the tactics I described above. It does help to experiment and see for yourself what different ways you can make the light work for you, instead of against you.

In my next post, I will write about how to tell stories with your photos. For now, I leave you with a final photo that pretty much sums up what light can do. A photo taken of a gigantic soap bubble, made by a street performer, in the English Garden in Munich. As the breeze gently moved the bubble over the stream, I pressed my shutter button and was happy to see how the light played with the soap, creating an eclectic mix of colors.

Leica M240 - Leica 50mm F2 Summicron


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