How to Avoid Making Bad Lighting Mistakes

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Good lighting is essential to good photography. Bad lighting mistakes can ruin an otherwise fabulous photograph. This is frustrating for any photographer.

Learning how to manage bad lighting is challenging. When the light is not to your liking, sometimes it’s not possible to change. So what can you do? 

Here are a few tips and tricks. These will help you next time you find yourself faced with artificial or natural light that’s not helping you produce the type of photos you want.

Working with Natural Light Limitations

Photographers generally prefer to avoid taking photos in the middle of the day. Especially on bright, sunny days. When the sun is high in the sky, shadows are harsh and often ugly. Waiting until the sun is lower in the sky and it provides a softer, warm glow is preferable. But it’s not always practical.

Professional photographers know this. If you have booked in a portrait season, a wedding, or a commercial job, you are often at the mercy of the weather. Postponing is not an option. You can’t hold up a couple from being married or waste a client’s time by booking another time just because you don’t like the lighting. Well, you may be able to with some clients, but only on very rare occasions.

Managing the lighting that you have available is vital to any professional photographer. Whether it’s natural or artificial, being able to get the look you want for your photos depends a lot on good light. You have to produce the images you are being paid to take and they must look great, no matter what the light was like.

male portrait with bad lighting.
Portrait lighting from below is not often flattering.

Working with flash or studio lights you have many options to alter the light. If this is not possible, using a reflector you can enhance the look of the light in your photos. Effective use of a simple reflector can bring an otherwise dull image to life.

Using a Collapsible Reflector

Collapsible reflectors are affordable and effective. Sometimes it’s not practical to use artificial light for photography. Having a portable reflector gives you the ability to control how available light affects your subject.

Typically I use a collapsible reflector when taking portraits. It can be less distracting than flash or studio lights. A well-positioned reflector can add a beautiful soft light to a subject when you are in the shade or the sky is cloudy. On days when you are forced to take photos in the bright sun, a reflector can help reduce shadows. It can help provide an overall more even light for your portraits.

Reflectors are not limited to portrait photography. You can use a reflector to help improve the light, no matter what you are photographing. Landscapes, cityscapes, and other large subjects will challenge you to find a large enough reflector, but in theory, it’s still possible. Light reflecting off the side of a mirrored skyscraper can prove very interesting light.

Keep an open mind about what you can use as a reflector to help make improvements to your lighting. You don’t need to use a shop-bought reflector. A sheet of white paper, or even newspaper, can act as a reflector and bounce light back into your subject.

Another way to make good use of a reflector is to block light. When working in high contrast light you can often get dark shadows. By using a reflector to block the light it takes care of the contrast and the shadows.

using a collapsible reflector in portrait photography to fix bad lighting.
Using a large reflector to enhance the lighting.

Having someone to help you is better with a reflector. You can stay with your camera. Instruct the person to manage the reflector to create the right light. You may have to coach them a little as learning to work with a reflector takes time.

Using a Flash

Adding a pop of light into a composition where the light is bad can make an impressive difference. It will take time and a little practice to get used to using a flash at first. It is worth putting in the effort to make sure you’ll get good exposures as often as possible. 

Many photographers don’t like using artificial lighting, but it is often best when you have a problem with the available light. Adding light from a flash has its challenges, so it pays to learn a few tips and tricks and practice with your flash. Make some time to experiment. If you’re not used to using a flash creating harsh light is a common problem.

Learning to manage your added light well you will be able to light your subject well in every photo you take. Get used to it and before long you can have a great time adding during the day or when it’s dark. But without sufficient practice using a flash can seem too complicated. 

Outdoors portrait of two people with flash and softbox.
Using a flash outdoors with a soft box to diffuse the light.

By adding an extra light source you have to set your shutter speed, aperture, and ISO a little differently. Even if you use fully automatic exposure and light settings you may face the challenge of a photo that’s too bright or too dark. Learning some tips about adding lighting can do much to fix the problems. Without studying how to use your equipment you will need to guess why you may not be getting the exposure you want.

Learn How to Fix Bad Lighting

Artificial lighting can be bad lighting. But when you manage the lighting well you can control the contrast levels and shadows in your photos. Learning to see the effect of light you add to an image is a great way to help figure out changes you may need to make to fix lighting problems.

Use the monitor on the back of your camera. By analyzing how your camera has captured an image you’ve added lighting to you can get a good idea of how you can try and fix your photos. Focus your attention on the black areas and the light areas. Take care to study the lights and the darks in your images. Much can be learned about how to create better photos when you see a photo you have already taken,

man in a forest with bad lighting.
Strong light behind the subject is distracting.

Look at the color in an image and try to see if it accurately reflects what you can see with your eyes. If the white areas look too bright or too dark, you need to focus on how you can alter the lighting to get the image to look more realistic. Sometimes you’ll have to adjust the exposure settings on your camera, other times you might have to fix bad lighting.

When you use lights that are portable, you can move the lighting around your subject creating shadows in different places. When you are doing this, think about things in your composition that are most important to your photo. Does the position of the shadows really enhance the image or would placing the light in a different position result in a much better photo?

photography portrait session with lighting.
Using off camera flash you can position the light where you want it.

Try Moving Your Subject when the Lighting is Bad

When you are photographing a subject you could move, sometimes this is the best option. The first location you might think of will not always be the best. If there is too much contrast when you’re outdoors on a sunny day, bring your subject into the shade. This really makes a huge difference when you are stuck in a bad lighting situation. 

Weather is something we cannot change, so the one thing you can do is to move your subject and take photos in a location with lower contrast. 

By positioning your subject just inside a shaded area, not far from the bright light, the lighting will not be too flat. The deeper into the shade you put your subject the flatter the light becomes. To set your subject up near the edge of the shade means light could reflect off the ground. This can be a great way to overcome bad lighting on sunny days when photographing outdoors. If you have a dark background this technique works even better.

Bad Lighting Photography

Photography is much more than knowing your camera and managing your shutter speed and aperture settings. Understand that every photo is made when the camera captures reflected light. This will give you a deeper appreciation to work with both color and black and white photography.

Look around you. Focus on how the light reflects off different surfaces. See how things appear different depending on the lighting. Take time to consider how your camera will capture an image and how this would change if the light were very bright or if you were to filter it.

One other advantage of understanding bad lighting and being able to fix it is that you will have less editing to do during post-production. So do whatever you can within your ability to use your camera well to capture good lighting every time you take a photo.

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Kevin bought his first camera in the early 1980s and started working in the photography department of a daily newspaper a few years later. His whole career is focused on photography and he’s covered a multitude of subjects. He loves to photograph people the most. During the past decade, Kevin has begun to teach and write more, sharing his passion for photography with anyone who’s willing to learn.
Kevin bought his first camera in the early 1980s and started working in the photography department of a daily newspaper a few years later. His whole career is focused on photography and he’s covered a multitude of subjects. He loves to photograph people the most. During the past decade, Kevin has begun to teach and write more, sharing his passion for photography with anyone who’s willing to learn.

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