The secrets of taking good pictures: Light and shade

Photography expert Tom Langford gives his advice on how to turn an average shot into the perfect photograph.

Model on couch 311 (photo credit: Tom Langford)
Model on couch 311
(photo credit: Tom Langford)
Tom Langford is a commercial photographer, professional retoucher, and a website designer.
As a commercial photographer I have spent many years shooting products and models in studios and in a great variety of locations. When working in studios I use only flash lighting. On location I use either flash or a combination of natural light and flash.
Flash lighting is very dependable and can help you get great shots in all sorts of conditions, but you have to have a detailed knowledge of the equipment and plenty of practice to be able to guarantee a professional result.
It’s much more straightforward to use natural light, or available light, because how the scene looks in front of you will be how it’s recorded in the camera. You still need to know a few tricks of the trade, however, to get good results.
Early in my career I used to shoot fashion models, taking pictures for their portfolios. I was often busy on the streets around Oxford Circus in London with one or two models, and all I used was a simple manual SLR film camera and one prime (non-zoom) lens. Professional cameras back then didn’t have anything as sophisticated as a pop-up flash, so I quickly had to figure out how to take good shots using only natural light.
Shooting amongst the tall London buildings meant the models faces would be mainly top lit from the sky and this caused dark shadows under their eyes.
I found a simple solution to this lighting problem: Whenever possible I would stand on low walls and steps and shoot the models as they looked upwards into the camera. This trick not only removed the shadows but also gave interesting perspective effects for the backgrounds, and put catch-lights into their eyes. You can get the same effect if you stand and take a portrait of someone sitting and looking up to the camera.
Even in London the sun shines occasionally and you can’t shoot models squinting. I would move so that the sun was behind the model with their face softly illuminated by the shade. This works only if the sun’s halo around the hair is not too severe. You may need to move into total shade to avoid the halo.
When shooting in shade I would always keep a look out for white walls or metallic surfaces. They make clean backgrounds if you place the model in front of them but, better still, they made good reflectors when I stood with my back to them so that they reflected light back into the models face.
Another simple way to add reflected light is to sit the model at a light colored table to reflect light into the shadows under the eyes. This also lights up the lower half of the iris – an effect that is frequently used in professional portraiture. Of course it’s best to use reasonably neutral colors.
If you are taking a head-and-shoulders portrait and there isn’t a suitable table handy, a useful trick is to ask your sitter to hold a newspaper horizontally below their chin and just out of the shot.
When shooting with available light indoors, you need to be aware of how the intensity of light rapidly decreases as you move away from a window. Close to the window one side of the model will be bright and the other side dark creating high contrast. Move the model away from the window, closer to a light colored wall, and the light will be almost even on both sides – the contrast will be low.
Both situations can be used, but the effects will be very different.
The more you understand about light, the more possibilities you will have to create a great shot. Modern digital cameras give us an instant preview of the shot we have just taken so there is little excuse for not getting the lighting right. Have a look at these available light shots. Can you spot which lighting situation I have used for each one?
The difference between a snap and a good photograph is often just the difference between looking and seeing. 
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Tom teaches photography courses for beginners and advanced. Details of his courses and field trips at: