In the midst of growing our businesses, upgrading our gear, keeping up with Instagram, trying to find new clients, and be everything to everyone we sometimes forget to work on our actual photography skills. Those photography skills are something we have to nurture.

Here are a couple of things I’ve noticed about the photography industry. We all get into this business because we’re artistic, creatives and we love using those skills. Many of us have got the photography side down, or it at least comes naturally. However, a lot of photographers feel like the business side is not their strong point. Maybe it is probably just me, but I always felt like the business side was the stronger one for me, where the photography itself lacked. Sure, I can draw well. I’m even more awesome at sculpture (in fact that seems to be something I have a knack for). Photography is okay for me. I like it because I’m impatient and I can enjoy the results of my creativity almost immediately.

That said, the photography part has never felt like where my talent truly lies. I love people, and I LOVE the business side of being a wedding photographer. The thrill of figuring out the latest marketing trend or reading through tax documents is what brings me the most joy. I know, I’m the minority. However, I figure maybe you’re a little bit like me. Maybe you feel behind on the actual photography skills sometimes. Raise your hand if you’ve ever looked at another photographer’s image and said, “WHERE THE HECK DID THEY GET THAT GOOD LIGHT?”

Let me tell you a little story about early photographs by yours truly. I had noticed this awesome trend in other photographer’s images. Where the background was all blurry, and the subject was in focus, and I wanted that. So I dove into Google and figured out how to make it happen with fancier lenses that had lower apertures. I continued to take photos, and I felt like I was improving my photography skills, but what happened is that I was less limited by my camera gear and had properly learned how to use a camera. Was I showing off my artistic prowess? No. When I look back at the photographs of that person, I see someone who largely understood how the camera worked, rocked the business side of things, but the lighting circumstances were inconsistent in the photographs.

Here’s the thing I know now. Photography is ultimately all about light. Sure, you will find all kinds of principles and elements of art and design in photography, and it’s good to chase after those things too, but understanding light is like learning how to see the world through a camera. Understanding light will help you use it to your advantage in combination with other elements of art to create beautiful and meaningful images. I am still working on this by the way.

I believe not all of us are great at seeing light. That even though we’re creative and we’re artists, our brains are tuning into one or a few other elements or principles of art. Some people notice color, some notice value, some notice texture. Some photographers shoot for the emotion. These are all incredibly important, but a little light knowledge can help enhance all these things. There are so many images I’ve looked back on and thought, dang the composition was good, the posing needs some work, the color is spot on, white balance is great, but man if the light were just different it would enhance the mood of the image. Since space, tone, color, and texture tend to be the things I see more in art I needed to work on that light stuff.

I wrote this post to help those of you who are like me. If you have ever wanted to create a more impactful image, maybe these tips will help you better take the camera skills, business skills, and other artistic talents you’ve got and take them to the next level. Maybe you’re like me, and this just was difficult for you. Here are a few things I’ve done as daily practice over the years that have helped me focus my photography and overall taken my skills to the next level.

1. Look where the light source is wherever you go. One of my favorite games (that I can’t take credit for), is to watch TV, movies, or just notice in daily life wherever the light source is. It’s the most fun with TV and movies though. If you can guess what direction the light source is from you can start figuring out how to re-create that type of light in your work. You can also start to get a handle on how larger or smaller light sources make your subjects look different. If this is extra hard for you, watch for catchlights in actors/actresses eyes and sometimes you can see what type of light source they’re using off screen, like a huge beauty dish or octobox. The more you do this, the more you’ll be able to naturally identify what types of light create what types of moods and take that to your business.

2. Notice how different types of light around you affect the color and contrast of what you see on a daily basis. Oh man. I was so bad at white balance when I started photography. I didn’t even know what it was. That was not a button on my old film camera, so I didn’t get what the point was. Now, I GET IT. Watching how any light source can affect the color of the object, it falls on will help you if white balance is a struggle. Different types of light sources emit different colors. Your lamp by your couch may give a very orange or warm glow, which affects the objects lit by it. When you start marathons on Netflix start looking at the color of the light too. You’ll begin to notice how cooler or warmer tones change the vibe of a tv show or movie. Then you’ll realize you can have that too. You can use a light source’s color to your advantage, or you can alter it if you don’t like it.

3. Look through your portfolio and see what types of lighting scenarios you can see. Are they consistent? Cull your portfolio to show your most ideal lighting situations. Culling was a fun activity for me. When I went through my highlight or favorite images I had posted to my Facebook business page over the years the light was all over the place. There were images in harsh light, some in twilight, some indoors, some in very flat light, some extremely backlit photos. It wasn’t consistent at all. It was good to look through my images and see where my light sources were coming from and how they could have improved. I took the time to learn my favorite lighting scenario. As much as everyone tells you, it doesn’t have to be golden hour. Some love using off camera flash, some love twilight. Want to shoot more photos in your favorite type of light? Show more of your photography with that type of light in your portfolio. Cull out the images that may have been meaningful, but weren’t your best work or your favorite type of light. Your website and marketing will gain from a very consistent look and feel to your images. They’ll become recognizable to those who follow you. The hardest part of this is the next tip!

4. Start creating the type of light you like in every session or wedding so that you can have that handful of signature shots from every client. Once you have a favorite type of light, you love photographing in, and you cull down your portfolio to show more of that and less of other types you’ll want to strive to get a few signature shots from every session or wedding in that type of light. It means putting all these things you are practicing to good use. If you don’t like harsh light at weddings, but you have no control over the timeline you’ll have to figure out how to build in time to get your signature light even if it’s just for a few shots. For me, overcast is one of my favorite types of light so at every wedding I look for shady areas that can create that same look. If I know the timeline is a bit out of my hands, I started asking my clients if they’d mind taking 5-10 minutes outside once the reception starts to get some of that end of the sunset/twilight type light that I love. Now that’s something I strive to build in regularly in my timelines, and I seek out my ideal lighting scenarios wherever I go to help create consistency not just in my portfolio as a whole, but also in the entire set of wedding images as a whole story.

5. Practice at home as much as possible with your kids, spouse, friends, pets or just plain objects. It goes without saying that the best way to better understand light is to practice it yourself at home as much as possible. Flash used to make me nervous. I remember when off camera flash seemed impossible. Instead of practicing on my clients I’d practice on my dogs at home until I got my settings right or I had a good feel for it. I remember learning how to do off camera flash with four flashes and pretending my family room was a giant wedding reception and figuring out how I wanted to light the couple’s first dance by using my dogs as models. I’m a giant dork, but it gave me the confidence I needed to start creating better images with a much better understanding of light. It’s one thing to read about better lighting methods or instructions online, but for hands-on learners (like a lot of creatives), we need to practice it to get it and remember it!

I appreciate you reading all the way down this far about what a terrible photographer I was at the start. I know you can probably relate. I’m hoping these basic tips will help some other newer photographer build that awareness of light sooner than I did so that you can skip all the fluff I went through and get better images sooner.

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Carrie Swails

I’m a serial entrepreneur. Owner at Photography Awesomesauce, Rock Your Weird and Made in the Lab and I photograph offbeat weddings. In other words, I’m crazy. I have a birthmark in my armpit, and am a terrible mathematician. What I lack in understanding of complex theories such as Pi (clearly a food item – apple is my favorite) and invisible numbers (if I can’t see them, why should I care?) I make up for in awesomesauce. I believe there is no right way to put the toilet paper on – I’m just happy it’s available. I believe there’s no such thing as a bad fortune in a fortune cookie. I believe we only live life once so we should wear costumes as often as possible. I believe wine is like the force – it has a light side and a dark side and it holds the universe together. I howl with my basset hound every morning, call my brother to beat video game bosses for me, and love eating fried cheese.

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