4 Types of Light to Take Your Photos from Ordinary to Extraordinary

When I first started really learning how to shoot with my camera, I loved what is called flat light. This is the light on a cloudy day or that you find just at the edge of the shade, beautiful diffuse light that is easy to expose for. If you are trying to learn manual mode on your camera, flat light is your best friend, but it can also be completely boring.

As I’ve grown more confident with my camera, I almost dread those cloudy days that used to make me so happy. Once you start looking for interesting light, you will see that you can find it everywhere! Especially in these winter months, don’t be afraid to look for interesting types of light inside as well.


1. Backlighting

Back lighting a subject - Photography by Kim Still

Did you ever learn to keep the sun at your back when taking photos? I don’t know who came up with that rule because that has to be my least favorite way to take a photo. Unless, you are looking for squinty eyed subjects!

I love backlighting my subjects and this is especially easy to do in those late afternoon hours right before the sun sets. All you have to do is make sure your light source is coming from behind your subject. It adds a wonderful glow to your photos and some dreamy haze. Especially if you shoot with a long lens like an 85mm, you can compress some of that gorgeous light.

There are some tricks to backlighting to keep in mind. Generally, you are not going to be able to capture any detail in your background, Secondly, depending on how much light you let hit your lens you will get haze and sun flares, these can be amazing, but make sure they don’t distract from your subject. Finally, you will lose some contrast, so consider editing your photos to add that back in.

2. Rim Light

Rim light - Photography by Kim Still

Rim light is a variation of backlighting. By using your subject and environment to block most of the light from behind your subject, you can achieve a glowing rim of light that outlines your subject. It’s easiest to achieve this type of light outside at the golden hour, but can also be done indoors or anywhere you can block out the light behind your subject. Unlike a silhouette, you want to expose for your subject and just allow for a glowing highlight around them. Be careful not to overexpose your highlights. Your camera or camera app may have an option to allow you to check this, so look for an option called something like “Highlight Warning.” It’s okay to overexpose these sometimes, but you don’t want to be overexposing for the subject of your image.

3. Pockets of light

Pockets of Light - Photography by Kim Still

A lovely and easy way to separate your subject from a busy background is to catch them just as they step into a pocket of light. As you can see here, Sam is just perfectly lit while the background around her falls into darkness. It makes it feel like a spotlight is shining on your subject and instantly draws attention to them. It can even feel a little magical, which is why some photographers refer to this light as “God light.”

4. Side light

Side lighting - Photography by Kim Still

Side light is a wonderful way to bring out texture and shadows in your photos. By making sure your light source is to the side of your subject, the light and shadow will bring out the tiny details of surfaces. (This is something to keep in mind when shooting people! Not everyone wants to see the texture on their face.) It also allows you to add dramatic shadows to your photos.

Side light can be easily achieved outside when the sun is low in the sky, but it is also easy to achieve inside if you place your subject near a window with light coming in.

The next time you are taking photos to document your memories, keep an eye out for these different types of light and you will have some truly great photographs for your memory keeping. Also, don’t be discouraged, but keep taking photos and eventually you will know exactly how to harness the light available for the look that you want in your photography.


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  • Donna K January 11, 2017   Reply →

    Thank you so much for your insight on lighting. Great information and your photos are beautiful.

  • Jen Flaherty January 23, 2017   Reply →

    Wow, Kim. What beautiful photos! I hope you continue to share your insights on taking great photos even after this series finishes.

  • arawls January 23, 2017   Reply →

    Thank you so much! Such helpful information.

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