In the game of photography, lighting conditions occasionally throw your camera a curveball. In the game of baseball, the pitcher and catcher must coordinate and communicate their actions precisely through a series of gestures or signs. By learning to read the signs that a scene tells you about the existing light, you will be able to capture the light exactly the way your eyes perceive it.

Image: The catcher must know exactly what kind of pitch the pitcher is going to throw so he knows ex...
The catcher must know exactly what kind of pitch the pitcher is going to throw so he knows exactly where to position his mitt.

Interpret light for better photography

To learn to see, read, and interpret light, let’s first take a look at some typical lighting conditions that are best captured by certain photographic settings.

Golden lighting

When you take outdoor pictures (especially nature), try to schedule them during the golden hours, usually between 7-9 am and between 5-7 pm. This is when the lighting is at its richest intensity for photography. During morning and afternoon/evening hours, the light is warmer in color and more flattering to all colors of skin.

Image: Even this faded wood fence took on a golden color during “golden hour.” f-4.5, 1/4000, ISO 16...
Even this faded wood fence took on a golden color during “golden hour.” f-4.5, 1/4000, ISO 1600, 35mm.

Conversely, try to avoid taking pictures of people when the Sun is directly overhead as the shadows it creates are very harsh and unflattering to facial features.

Mid-day sunlight

The light from direct sunlight is more intense than your camera’s image sensor can deal with.

Typically, your camera’s metering system caters to the brightest light in the scene. When this happens, the darkest parts of the image lose definition!

Despite the Sun providing ample light, the use of a fill flash illuminated the shadows caused by the noonday light. f-4.8, 1/500, ISO 200, 82mm.

Fill flash

Believe it or not, it is usually a good idea to use a flash during the brightest hours of the day. Simply interpret light and keep your subjects from displaying too much contrast.

Your flash won’t affect the lightest parts of the photograph, but it will shed some much-needed light in the darkest parts of the image. Unless you take preventative measures (using either a fill flash or a carefully positioned reflective surface), these “shadow” tones will print too dark!

Lighting and people

If you are outside, try to keep the Sun behind you and off to the side. This way, the light will illuminate their faces and create good definition and shading.

But watch out for your own shadow in the picture.

Outdoor pictures provide only a single light source. Be very careful about that big lights’ position. f-2.2, 1/1900, ISO 25, 29mm.

If you are inside during daylight hours and want to interpret light without a flash, set the camera’s white balance (WB) to Shade and brace yourself for a longer exposure.

If there is not enough available light for a good exposure, set the WB to Daylight and let the camera’s flash take care of the lighting.

Manual flash

If you must take a picture of people outside with the Sun in front of you instead of behind you, remember these two things:

  1. Keep direct sunlight from entering the lens, and
  2. Manually direct your camera to use the flash.

If you set your camera flash to fire “automatically,” it may misread the overall lighting and not fire the flash at all. Unless you are looking for a good silhouette, you won’t be pleased with the result.

The use of a flash inside requires you to pay close attention to distance. Standing too close to your subject (less than four feet) may put too much light on the subject’s face and wash out the skin color.

Alternatively, standing too far away (more than 25 feet), the flash could fail to light the skin tones correctly.

Skin is very picky about the light it likes. Light that is either too strong or too weak just doesn’t look natural.

Shooting indoors under mixed, existing light is best captured with the camera set to AWB (automatic white balance). This sets the camera to seek the most neutral color in the scene and to record balanced gray light. f.1.8, 1/35, ISO 320, 24mm

Light shaping

Your digital camera measures the brightest light, compares it with the darkest areas, and determines how to interpret the light and expose the picture based on an average of the two readings.

Always keep extremely bright light from entering the camera through the lens. And that includes camera flash lighting reflecting from shiny surfaces, like glass and mirrors.

Beware of specular light of any kind reflecting from any surface, as it influences these meter readings.

Cloudy and overcast lighting

Some of the very best lighting for color happens on cloudy and overcast days. Overcast days allow your camera to capture much more of the natural light and, therefore, provides a much more natural feel to your photos.

Image: Softbox lighting softens harsh shadows even when used as a single light source in close proxi...
Softbox lighting softens harsh shadows even when used as a single light source in close proximity to the subject.


Professional photographers in the controlled setting of a photo studio use special lighting enclosures called “soft boxes” to limit the contrast created by their bright studio lights.

Direct lighting from studio flash units (called strobe lights) can be so strong and brilliant that it creates very harsh shadows.

To avoid these shadows, these lights are either enclosed in softbox tents or bounced off special photographic umbrellas to disperse the intense light.

Made from material similar to an umbrella, these enclosures are translucent and absolutely neutral white in color.

Nature’s softbox

An overcast day serves the same purpose outdoors as the tents and diffusers used in studios. The clouds soften and diffuse the direct Sun’s harsh light.

On an overcast day, the light is so evenly diffused that you can position your subject in almost any direction.

Since the clouds tend to make the scene color slightly bluish, your camera’s Overcast Mode setting interprets light with a slightly warm tone that neutralizes the bluish cast.

Image: Cloud cover softens the harsh lighting of direct sunlight and allows the full tonality and sa...
Cloud cover softens the harsh lighting of direct sunlight and allows the full tonality and saturation to show without either plugged shadows or blown-out highlights. f-4.5, 1/250, ISO 200, 105mm.

The three major outdoor lighting modes are:

  1. Daylight,
  2. Shade, and
  3. Overcast (or Cloudy).

Daylight WB allows the natural coloring of the existing light to expose the shot.

Shade provides a slightly yellow cast to the scene.

Overcast WB applies an even more intense yellow cast.

All three WB settings attempt to record whites, grays, and blacks in the scene as completely neutral in color.

If you want to capture the natural lighting mood of any daylight color temperature, leave the WB setting on Daylight.

Low-key vs. high-key lighting

Photographs generally get divided into three groups: full range, high key, and low key.

Full range photos are the most common since they display a full range of tones from dark to light.

High-key photos contain more light tones than dark tones, while low-key photographs display a near absence of light tones.

Image: High-key images contain more highlights than mid-tones and shadows, while low-key images cont...
High-key images contain more highlights than mid-tones and shadows, while low-key images contain more shadow tones than mid-tones and highlights. The most important challenge with either type of image is to maintain the distinction of detail in each.

Generally speaking, to properly interpret the light and record low-key pictures, set the camera’s Exposure Value (or EV) compensation to a minus setting.

Alternatively, to compensate for the lighting of high-key pictures, set this EV compensation to a plus setting. These adjustments will override the camera meter’s intent to expose all subjects as middle tones.

With shooting either high or low-key lighting, great care must be taken to preserve the minor presence of highlight tones in low-key scenes and the minimal shadow detail in high-key situations.

But as a general rule, the absolute extremes of pure black and pure white should be avoided unless the drama of the scene requires that level of contrast.

The post Learning to See, Read, and Interpret Light for Better Photography appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Herb Paynter.

Here are some other great photos with “tricky” lighting:
Structural Photography of Castle during Nighttime
Photo by: David Skyrius with Pexel photos

Gray Asphalt Road Surrounded by Tall Trees
Photo by Pixabay

Brown and Green Grass Field during Sunset
Jonathan Petersson with Pexel photos

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