A Crash Course with Little Kin Photography: Using Light

This is the penultimate part to the Little Kin Photography crash course for Enfants Terribles Magazine. So far in this series I've covered capturing natural moments, observing opportunities for pictures all around you, your camera's technical settings and how to use them when shooting in manual mode and most recently I talked about composition and how to frame your pictures to get the most effective results.

Today I want to focus on light. For me, light is the thing that breathes life into your images and the way you seek it out, use it and harness it to create different moods and stories in your photographs is the thing that will take your photography to the next level.

It takes time to get to understand how light can impact an image. To be honest, the best way is to practise, take lots of pictures and think about the light available as well as the look you want to create. Experiment with different levels of exposure for the same subject and work with the natural light available in your images.

For a long time I was afraid of too much dark in my pictures. It took courage to embrace shadow and shade in my photographs but once I did, I fell in love with the way I could create a mood and use light to help tell a story.

The photographs above of my daughter in our bedroom were taken on a dull and fairly gloomy winter's morning. The natural light source in this room comes from the large windows overlooking a park. By capturing her looking out of the window I was able to get the light on her face and embrace the shade around her and to the sides of her. I could have made this image much lighter and brighter but in doing so I would have lost the depth and rich quality of the tones. I was also able to bring in her window reflection by keeping my light fairly low. This wouldn't have been distinguishable if I'd gone lighter overall.

Allowing the darkness or shadows into your images can be very powerful and will help to illuminate your subjects more and draw the eye to them. Playing around with your settings to explore different levels of light is a good idea so I encourage you to experiment with shade and shadows as much as light and bright compositions.

If the space you're shooting in has oodles of natural light you can go with that and create an almost glow like feel to the image. In situations like this, going too close to the natural light source could cause things to blow out and you'd loose details. Look for where the even light is in the room and set up your subjects there. If you're photographing your children you could put some books or toys in that space and then sit back and snap away as they play. The pictures above were taken at a family shoot in London last summer in a white and bright home. I kept things feeling light to give them an airy feel which suited the playfulness of the subjects.

If you're shooting outside you really have to read the levels of light in order to understand how to best utilise the conditions. Shooting in the middle of a really bright day is never advisable. Where possible seek even shade and shoot there - under a tree or in a patch of shadow. This will avoid unflattering shadows on people's faces, eye squinting, or excessive blow outs of a photograph's highlights which is inevitable if you are shooting in that bright, white, midday light.

These photos above from a family photoshoot in Richmond Park in the height of summer were produced in challenging conditions. I made sure my light metre didn't go above 1 stop over 0 and looked for dappled shade and shadows to create intriguing light on the little girls I was photographing. 

Perhaps the trickiest technique to master is back lighting. Back lighting is when you use a light source from behind your subject to illuminate them from behind. The best time to try backlighting is at golden hour, either as the sun slowly rises or as it gets low in the afternoon and softer. To backlight a subject you will have to over expose on their faces by around +2 stops on your light metre in order that you can see the subject. This will make the area behind light and illuminated and give you that golden glow.

Mastering light will take time and practise but once you grow in confidence you'll realise that light really is the key to an image and that working with the light available you can create a variety of looks by playing around with your exposure levels. 

To summarise:

  1. Look for the source of natural light
  2. Seek even light where possible
  3. Play around with shadows and shade
  4. Over expose subjects that have a light source coming form behind (backlighting)
  5. Avoid shooting in the midday white sunshine instead opting for early morning or late afternoon
  6. Experiment and have fun. The more you try different things the more you'll learn

next time in the final instalment of this online photography course I'll be talking about storytelling.

I'd love to answer any questions you may have so do leave a comment below.

Polly Geal is a baby, children and family photographer from West London, UK. She specialises in natural light portraits, capturing genuine moments and connections between families. You can see more of her work on her Little Kin Photography website or through her blog A Modern Mama