When it comes to photography, there is no factor more influential than light. Its abundance or scarcity can dramatically affect the color, mood, and even composition of your image. As a rule, taking great photos requires plenty of light, but as with any good thing, there is such a thing as too much. Perfect light is abundant, but diffused, providing a soft glow of luminosity.
Rarely does a a situation provide this recipe naturally. The perfect glass of lemonade is likely to be sitting on a picnic table in the baking noon sun. Your seven layer cake, freshly frosted on your kitchen counter suffers under the glare of fluorescent bulbs. While we all dream of cooking every meal in the auspicious light of a perfect Sunday morning, life doesn't usually work that way. But fear not. Plenty of amazing bloggers and photographers work from tiny apartment kitchenettes or dimly lit galleys.
The trick to making the best of any lighting situation is knowing how to manipulate the available light. It might not always arrive on time, but when it does, it can be coaxed, teased, and trained into something magical. Here are a few tips, tricks, and gadgets to help get a handle on light.
- Find the sweet spot. Take some time to investigate your surroundings from the perspective of a hungry house plant. Sniff out the most abundant source of light, whether it is a window, sunlight on the patio, or just a really bright overhead lamp. Locate a light surplus, and set your subject in its glow.
- Diffuse the light. Direct light, especially in abundance, can create harsh shadows, and washed out bright-spots in your photos. To give your pictures a more beautiful appearance, it is absolutely essential to diffuse the light. Basically, you just need to get something sheer and white in between the light source and the subject. Try using existing shade, or sheer white curtains to diffuse direct sunlight. Tracing paper or vellum can come in handy to diffuse bulbs or light fixtures.
- Reflection is your friend. Use shiny, bright surfaces, like sheets of white foamboard, panels of foil, or professional light reflectors to fill in the shadows and shift the light around your subject. By bouncing light off of another surface outside of your shot, you can control the fill and shadows on your subject.
- Feeling the need to flash? Sometimes there just isn't enough ambient light available for a good photo. While ambient light is best, there are some steps you can take to make the most of a flash situation. Sometimes you've just got to roll with the punches. Scoops and diffusers can be used to take the edge off flash bulbs. If you are using an external flash, try angling it away from the subject, allowing the light to bounce of the walls or ceiling.
- Adjust Your Aperture. The aperture setting determines how wide the camera lens opens for each shot. Open the aperture wider to allow extra light in low-light situations, but keep in mind that wide apertures will also give your photos a very shallow depth of field. That means the camera will focus on a smaller area. This technique produces what is called a "bokeh" effect. Want to learn more about aperture? Check out this series on aperture from Pioneer Woman.
- Inspect your ISO. Your camera's ISO setting should be lowered in bright light, and raised in low light. By raising your ISO, you allow more light into the camera when the picture is taken, shortening the time your shutter needs to remain open. There is a catch, though. Raising your ISO too high can give your photos a grainy, noisy appearance, so only raise it as high as you need to get away with the shot. Learn more about ISO on the 365 Project Blog.
- Hold still. This is especially important when working in low-light situations. Your shutter will have to remain open for longer to compensate for the low light, leaving your photo susceptible to fuzziness from even the tiniest shakes and tremors. Using a tripod would be ideal, but if you don't have one, try resting your camera on something solid, or bracing your camera with both hands.
- Tweak your white balance. Each light source casts its own unique color over your photos. Your camera's white balance setting is there to compensate for this. Be sure to adjust your setting appropriately before starting to shoot. Providing light from just one type of source helps make this easier. Your camera might not be able to compensate for the mix of light coming from fluorescent lights, sunlight, and incandescent bulbs all at once. Here is a more in-depth look at white balance from Spicie Foodie.
(In this shot, just the baby is in focus, while the blanket, and the mom playing guitar are left in a nice, soft bokeh.)
Gadgets vs. DIY
In this world of internet tutorials and online shopping, there truly is something for everyone. I've collected an Amazon store full of goodies to help make the most of any lighting situation, accompanied by a collection of DIY tutorials to help you make/replace them at home.
DIY Lighting Gadgets
- How to Diffuse Your Flash With Tissue Paper (Steve's Digicams)
- Make Your Own Flash Diffuser From an Old Film Container (PhotoJojo)
- How to Build a Light Box (Never Homemaker)
- How to Make a Reflector and Backdrop for Photo Studio (Tiffany Angeles)
- How to Make a Photography Lighting Reflector for Under $10 (Brynn Stone Photography)
- Make the World's Cheapest Tripod (TechHive)
- How to Make a DIY Iphone Tripod from Office Supplies (Blurb)
Want more tips? Check out these great tutorials on food and lifestyle photography from other blogs.
- Eight Tips to Drool Worthy Food Photography (Melissa Skorpil)
- The Serious Eats Guide to Food Photography (Serious Eats)
- Food Photo Tips (Cookie + Kate)
- Tons of Fun Photography Tips: Iphones, Emotions, Fashion, Food, and more (A Beautiful Mess)
Disclaimer: The Amazon links above contain affiliate links that help support Mary Makes Pretty and Mary Makes Dinner. Thanks!