Tutorial #1 – Lighting

Our first tutorial will be about lighting. When it comes to photography, proper lighting is your best friend. Unfortunately, bad lighting can be your worst enemy. You can have a beautiful setting and gorgeous items or people to photograph, but if you put them in bad lighting, it can ruin the whole image. It really doesn’t matter what type of camera you have – if you can utilize proper lighting, your pictures have the potential to be awesome. I’m going to show you some quick and easy tips that should help your lighting improve today. 🙂

I’m a very visual learner, and it’s much easier for me to understand something if I can see it. So I’m going to show you “pull-backs” of each of these lighting setups so you can see exactly what I do to achieve different lighting setups.

If you’d like to take your pictures indoors, window light is going to be your best bet. The bigger the window, the better. If you have a North or South facing window, you can take pictures at any time of day (as long as it’s light outside). The best lighting in my house is actually in my master bathroom – the combination of South facing windows and bright white walls creates perfect light, but the layout isn’t ideal for taking pictures. If you’re best window is on an East or West facing wall, just make sure that the sun isn’t shining directly in the window when you’re taking pictures (my window is West facing, so I find that the best time of day for me to take pictures indoors is in the morning or very early afternoon – once the sun is shining directly in my window, the light is too harsh and doesn’t work any more).

Here’s my setup for taking staged pictures indoors. I pull a card table up to the window and drape a blanket over it. Then I have my daughter stand on a chair behind the table and hold up the blanket to create a nice, simple backdrop for my pictures. Using a blanket (or wrapping paper, or a pretty piece of fabric) as a backdrop REALLY helps keep the focus of the image on the items you’re photographing rather than all the distracting elements in the background. Here’s what the final image looks like when using this setup. I know it’s a random assortment of items, but the ornaments give a good idea of where the light is hitting the items, and the cake mix and frosting show what text will look like when photographed in different situations.

Notice how all the ornaments and the side of the cake mix and frosting are dark on the right side? This can be really distracting in certain pictures, but it’s easily fixed by adding in a reflector on the side opposite the window. The cheapest, easiest item to use as a reflector is a piece of white foam core that you can pick up at Walmart or Target. The next picture shows my toddler on “reflector duty,” and the following picture shows how this setup looks with the addition of a reflector.Notice how the right side of the cake mix and frosting are now nice and bright rather than dark. You’ll probably want to experiment a bit – sometimes a reflector is really helpful, but sometimes it’s not necessary. If you feel like you’re not getting enough light with the window on the side of the objects, you can reposition your setup so that everything is facing the window. Stand in front of the window to take your picture, and everything will be more evenly lit, like in the sample below. If you look at the picture below, you can see how I set up the picture – my reflection and the window behind me can be seen in the Christmas ornaments. Now I’m going to show you what NOT to do when taking pictures indoors. I know we’re all busy, and it can be really tempting to put off taking pictures until the last minute. And if you’re like me, the last minute is 1AM, when there’s NO good lighting indoors. The only option at 1AM is to use the flash on your camera. This is the worst thing you can do for your pictures – especially the type of pictures that generally go on The Dating Divas blog. There are two problems with using on-camera flash. One: the flash really isn’t powerful enough to provide enough light for a properly exposed picture, which means your pictures will always be too dark straight out of the camera. And two: the flash hits the items being photographed straight on, which is never flattering. The colors get really washed out, and you can’t see all the beautiful detail in the items you’re photographing.

The first sample shows what this image looked like straight out of camera. NOT pretty, and REALLY difficult for me to edit. I can clean it up a little in Photoshop (although it’s almost impossible to recover detail in really bright items – especially if there’s a lot of red, yellow or orange), but it’s just not great. The second sample shows the “cleaned up” picture – notice how flat the picture looks compared to the samples above taken with window light. It’s also a good idea to pay attention to the background of the picture. See how I allowed my fireplace, beanbag, and bookshelf to be visible in the background? Not nearly as clean or pretty as using the blanket as a backdrop.Another option is to take your setup outdoors – sometimes it’s easier to “see” the light outdoors rather than trying to use window light. You’ll still want to pay attention to the details – you can use a blanket/wrapping paper backdrop, or you can sometimes use your surroundings, but just be sure there’s nothing distracting in the background. For example, if you decide to place your items in the grass, make sure that you don’t have the foundation of your house or the bottoms of your fence showing in the background.

You’ll also want to be careful about the time of day you take your pictures. The best time to take pictures outdoors is right after sunrise, or a couple of hours before sunset. The light is really magical at this time of day, and you have more options on locations you can use. Whatever you do, don’t shoot out in the open in the middle of the day. Look at the picture below. I took this shot at around 1PM on my back deck (please excuse the pine needles – we’re fighting a losing battle against pine needles living in the South, lol). Notice how dark the cake mix box is – it’s really difficult to see any detail. The sunlight is creating really harsh shadows, both in front of the items (the shadows created by the items themselves), and in the background (the harsh shadows created by the deck railing).This next picture was taken just a few minutes later, but I moved around to the front of my house where we have a covered porch. The porch creates nice open shade, which is PERFECT for photography. You can see all the detail in the items, and there are no harsh shadows or patches of bright light. Open shade is my favorite type of lighting for staged photography – I actually do most of my food photography on my front porch, because the lighting is so nice. 😉 If you don’t have a covered porch or back deck, try shooting in your garage. As long as you create a “pretty” background with blankets or fabric, garage lighting can be ideal.

A quick note about the setup – my daughter was bored with helping me and didn’t want to hold up the blankets, so I used a chair to hold all the items – not very pretty. If this was an actual staged picture that I was going to put on the website, I would have created a less distracting background.Here are some quick tips for photographing people. The same rules apply as above, but there are also a few more things to keep in mind. Here are some things to avoid.

Again, try to stay away from shooting out in the open in the middle of the day. Nobody wants eyes that look like black holes. 😉 Besides, bright sunlight makes people squint, which generally isn’t flattering.You can get around the “black holes for eyes” by seeking out nice open shade. Be careful not to go too deep into the shade, or you won’t have any light in your subject’s eyes – try to stay on the edge of the shade so that the sky or surrounding buildings will bounce light into the eyes (you’ll probably have to stand in the sun to take the picture, but your subject will be in the shade). Also, if the only available shade is underneath the trees, be especially careful. Look at the ground before placing your subject – are there big patches of light on the ground? Try to find somewhere else to place your subject. If you shoot in dappled light, you risk having an uneven exposure, which means there will be distracting patches of light and dark on your subject. Here’s a sample where I placed my daughter in dappled light – notice the overly bright areas on her skin – especially on her face and arms.After that, I moved her a little deeper into the trees where the light is less dappled. I had her kneel down on the ground and look up at me so the sky would be reflected in her eyes. The lighting is much more even and “pretty,” and her eyes have lots of sparkle.Here’s a pull-back of the same shot. You can see the dappled light that was in front of her – I moved her back until she was in a fully shaded area.If you don’t have any shady areas in your yard, the front porch or garage is always a safe bet – as long as it’s shady underneath the porch. The open shade creates perfect even lighting and gorgeous sparkly eyes. Just make sure to keep your subject in the shade created by the porch. My daughter really wanted to sit on the steps, but the sun was high in the sky, so the steps were covered in dappled light. This first image is a pull-back (you can see how I had her sit further back on the porch so her feet weren’t touching the sunny area at the front of the porch), and the second image is the resulting closeup.

I know this is a lot of information to digest, but if you read through this tutorial a few times, and look at the examples, I think the information will start to make sense. Feel free to email me if you have any questions. 🙂 The most important things to remember are:

  • Don’t shoot at night – on camera flash is one of the least flattering types of light.
  • If you decide to shoot indoors, find a BIG window. North or South facing windows are best, but East and West facing windows are great as long as the light isn’t shining directly through the window. Walk through different rooms of your house at different times of day to find the best lighting setup – you might be surprised which rooms work the best.
  • Eliminate distracting backgrounds (mantles, couches, master beds, dishwashers, etc) by using a blanket or fabric as a backdrop (just be careful to avoid wrinkles – they can be equally distracting and are difficult or often impossible to fix in Photoshop).
  • Feel free to take pictures outdoors, just pay attention to your lighting. Don’t shoot in the middle of the day, and try to find nice open shade. If the best shade is under a tree, be sure to avoid dappled light. Try shooting in the garage or under a covered porch.
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7 Responses to Tutorial #1 – Lighting

  1. Wendy says:

    Ok so this is awesome! I knew most of these tricks, but the explanation behind it helps it make sense and sink in. Thank you!

  2. Kiirsten says:

    So well written & I reeaally appreciate the visual examples! Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  3. Kari says:

    Um, wow. Thank you!! I didn’t realize most of these tricks (which is probably why I’m no photographer). I was always under the impression that since my house faces north/south instead of east/west that taking them indoors is fruitless. I’m so glad to know that I was just focusing on the wrong places! I have a nice shady porch, and a huge window that faces north — perfect lighting in the morning time. Also, thank you for the pull-back pictures. I too am a visual learner, words sometimes get lost on me, so that is extremely helpful!! I’m very appreciative! Now I just need to get to work testing these out.

  4. I love the reflective tip! It pays to have helpers around the house 😉

  5. stardust says:

    first off I am loving your little helper! Her faces were cracking me up! 🙂
    Thank you so much for putting so much time into this post, it is very helpful and all those tips are great! Although I wish there was some more Ideas for photography at night! Only because a lot of our dates are at night, an besides staged pictures I wonder what some creative ideas for just taking pictures of you and your date could be?
    Thanks again! This is all so great!

    • esianoyam3 says:

      We’ll work on lighting at night eventually. *Great* night photography generally requires more equipment. The quickest, most user-friendly fix to help lighting group shots at night is to have a DSLR camera, and using a little product called a “Light scoop.” It attaches to your pop-up flash and bounces the light for you so that you don’t have harsh shadows, “flat” lighting, and washed out colors.

  6. Erika says:

    Thanks for the awesome instructions. I’m going to try and apply a few more of these ideas.

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