Make Better Photos: The Secrets of Indirect Light

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On a bright sunny day in South Africa, stepping inside the door of a market yielded soft, beautiful light.

On a bright sunny day in South Africa, stepping inside the door of a market yielded soft, beautiful light.

For most of the first half of my photography career, I chased the rich warm light of the golden hour — that magical period at sunrise and sunset when the sun is low in the sky, light is filtered through many more miles of atmosphere, and everything has a beautiful yellow glow. “Hour” is a bit of a misnomer, though, because the duration of truly golden light is pretty short, maybe 20 minutes or so, and that meant that all the pressures to get the shot were packed into a tiny window, especially since I barely shot in the middle of the day because midday light is so harsh and unforgiving.

Two things changed. First, photography moved from film to digital, which is a far more forgiving medium, both during and after production. Second and more important, I finally discovered for myself what photographers have known for at least 150 years — that there’s a far better light than the syrupy, showy glow of the golden hour.

It’s the soft, milky light of high overcast clouds. The clouds act as a giant diffuser, their airborne water molecules bouncing and scattering the strong, hard rays of the sun. The contrast that darkens sunshine shadows into black is gone and the brightness that makes people squint is diminished, replaced with a cottony blanket that hides blemishes, fills wrinkles, and softens the skin. Sunset light might embody the ideal of beauty, but soft indirect light is far more versatile and flattering to the subject. Indeed, generations of studio photographers have devoted countless hours to mimicking this very effect with umbrellas and screens and soft boxes and bounce boards.

I guarantee your photos will get better if you start shooting in indirect light. And you don’t need fancy studio equipment to do it, nor do you even need a high overcast day. All you need is to get out of the direct rays of the sun. Here’s how.

On a sunny day in Santiago, Chile, we simply stepped into the shadow of a wall for this richly saturated portrait.

On a sunny day in Santiago, Chile, we simply stepped into the shadow of a wall for this richly saturated portrait.

Indirect Light Is Best For…
People, portraits, flowers…basically, anything. It works especially well when shooting closeups as, say, when you’re capturing travel details, like fruit in a market.

Drakensberg Mountains, South Africa

Drakensberg Mountains, South Africa

Indirect Light Isn’t So Good For…
Landscapes and big scenes. And action.. The reason is that a lack of contrast can suck the life out of a scene and make it look listless. A cloudy day also means there’s less light available, which can mean lower shutter speeds.

As with almost all things photo-based, there are exceptions — some scenes look more lovely in grey light, more wistful, more subtle. It depends on the scene (and your expectations). My advice is to shoot no matter what the light.

Iceland. Moody and grey, but not dull.

Iceland. Moody and grey, but not dull.

Make the Most of What You Have
Professional photographers are experts at reading light and making the most of what they’re given. If you have a cloudy day, look for subjects that work best in soft light and shoot the things you might not on a sunny day. Have a portrait sitting. Focus on tone and texture.

If it were sunny, the grass would be way too busy in this shot of Linus from Kairkoura, New Zealand, but the diffused light brings out the texture of it and contrasts with the simplicity of his jacket.

If it were sunny, the grass would be way too busy in this shot of Linus from Kairkoura, New Zealand, but the diffused light brings out the texture of it and contrasts with the simplicity of his jacket.

Think In Color
You might assume that colors would look better and brighter in direct sun, but they don’t. In fact, indirect light makes colors more saturated and intense.

The glow from this bank of windows in Puertas Natales, Chile, brings out the subtleties in her blue coat.

The glow from this bank of windows in Puertas Natales, Chile, brings out the subtleties in her blue coat.

Get Closer, Get Tighter
Direct sunlight adds depth to a scene, and, conversely, soft indirect light reduces it. Moving into toward your subject is always going to bring the focus more onto them, but in soft light the background can blur into a lovely colored backdrop. Take trees, for example — on a sunny day, the contrast between light and dark is so strong they can be impossible to shoot well. Throw a blanket of clouds over them, though, and now you have a nice soft uniform wall of green or brown.

Expose Normally
Your light meter actually has an easier time figuring out the correct exposure on a cloudy day than on a bright sunny one. Meters are programmed to expose for what’s called 18 percent grey. Black is 100 percent, white is zero, and so when there’s a lot of contrast the meter can have a tough time knowing which settings to pick for the focal point of your shot. Lower contrast means the scene is closer overall to 18 grey, so readings are more accurate. Bottom line: Expose normally.

Shoot Before the Sun Comes Up and After It Goes Down
Not only do you have perfectly diffused light, you might also get a lovely pink or purple glow to it.

This is Erg Chebbi, Morocco, at sunset. The light is very pretty, the shadows are deep.

This is Erg Chebbis, Morocco, at sunset. The light is very pretty, the shadows are deep.

Same location, just before sunrise the next morning. Just a pretty, but a very different feeling.

Same location, just before sunrise the next morning. Just as pretty, but a very different feeling.

Yeah, But What If It’s Sunny?
It sounds obvious. It is obvious. Get out of the sun.

There are million ways to find indirect light on a sunny day. Light is like water or gas, it moves around to fill the scene, so even if you’re on the shadowed side of a building, say, you’ll find plenty of light with which to work. When outdoors, you can use anything in shadow — the wall of a house, a truck or car, a tree, boulder, awning, porch roof…absolutely anything that gets you out of the sun.

You can also shoot indoors and use the light from a window or open door, but the trick is to make sure your subject is solely lit by indirect light. If you have sunlight falling on them, you’ll end up with the same issues you have outside.

A wall of windows behind the camera and an open door to the right provided the light that brought such color out,

A wall of windows behind the camera and an open door to the right provided the light that made the color pop.

Here's the same scene from the right. We grabbed a tray to reflect more light onto Marissa, but didn't need it. Note how the direct sunlight totally blows out the carpet.

Here’s the same scene from the right. We grabbed a tray to reflect more light onto Marissa, but didn’t need it. Note how the direct sunlight totally blows out the carpet.

"Bouldering" takes on new meaning.

“Bouldering” takes on new meaning.

In the coming weeks, I’ll address shooting with backlight and starting to control light. But this should give you plenty to get going.


Adventure Journal’s Make Better Photos series is brought to you by Adobe Photoshop Elements. Learn more at adobe.com.


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