Understanding Light


Lighting is arguably the most important factor at making all of your photos better. Once you understand light you can begin seeking out the ‘good’ light for each photo you take - and pretty soon all of your photos will be one step closer to amazing!

There are two different kinds of light of light when it comes to photography - direct light and indirect light. Each serves a unique purpose and each has its own advantages and disadvantages. We’ll chat through the specifics of each type below.

Direct Light

If we were standing out in the yard, or out on the beach, and the sun is shining directly down on us, that is direct light. Direct light comes at your subject from a specific direction and creates a shadow on the ground. Unfortunately, those shadows on the ground can also mean shadows across the face as well. That bright sunshine also often means squinting - definitely not ideal for portraits.

Full sun. Like we just mentioned above, anytime you’re out in the sunshine and it’s shining directly on your subject, creating a shadow on the ground, then you’re in full sun. I’ll be honest with you - full sun is not ideal for photographing in. Period. Even as a seasoned professional wedding photographer, I always do my best to avoid it! But life still happens, so from time to time you’ll find yourself on the beach, embracing harsh shadows. My main tip for this type of light is to either keep your subjects back to the sun, or have them facing full into it. The harsh shadows fall across their faces when the sun is coming from either side of your subject.

Sunset shots. Sometimes direct light can be really beautiful, like at sunset. They call the hour before sunset the “golden hour” because it creates a beautiful golden light color. It’s a great time of day for portraits.

Silhouettes. You can also use direct light for neat shots like silhouettes. You’ll expose your photo for the light, rather than the subject. That may sound complicated, but this is what your camera will automatically do in Auto mode. Play around with these situations and you can get some really creative shots.

**The best way to work with direct light is to put your subject’s back to the sun, so they’re not squinting. Unfortunately, when shooting in Auto Mode, the camera automatically exposes your photo for the bright sunlight and makes your subject much darker than you’d like it to be (similar to what I just mentioned about silhouettes). In order to overcome this, you’ll need to override the Auto settings and expose for your subject’s face instead of the light. I’d love to teach you how to do this, but it’s going to take us a bit more effort. If you're interested, check out the Full Circle Photo School for more info.


Indirect Light

Consider our yard/beach situation from above. If direct light is standing out in the yard, then indirect light would be us sitting on the shaded front porch. The sun isn’t shining directly on us, rather is reflecting upon us. This type of reflected light is known as indirect light.

Indirect light comes from all sides and completely illuminates your subject - no harsh shadows, no squinting - just beautiful, even light. This light is ideal for photography. I’m constantly seeking out indirect light to put my subjects in and I would encourage you to do the same. Your photos will totally thank you for it!

Below are some examples of where you can find indirect light and how to harness it for your best photos yet!

Overcast Days. These are the days that are ideal for photography. You don’t have to worry about shadows or harsh sunlight or people squinting. Everything is very evenly lit and you can photograph just about anywhere you’d like.

Shade. When you put your subject in the shade and point your camera towards the shady area, you’ll get beautifully, evenly lit photos. I love finding tree lines or shade from buildings. They provide beautiful backdrops as well as lovely, indirect light.

In the slide example below, you can see the shadow line in the top left corner of the photo. The sun is bright (and direct) outside of the shadow that my subject is playing in. In the swing example, we're hanging out in the shade of the tree line behind us - a fabulous place for photos!

Window Light. I love putting the kids close to an open window or door inside of the house. I put my back to the window/door and let the beautiful, even, indirect light pour onto the kids while they play. I open every blind in the house each morning for this very reason :)

Lighting can seem overwhelming at first, but as you practice more, you’ll start to become more aware of where the light is coming from. I find myself driving down the road and paying attention to the shadows from cars, trees, etc. The more you pay attention to the light, the more you’ll be able to seek out that beautiful, indirect light and get better photos every shot!