Learn How to Use the Light

by | Light


I love “chasing” the light! I love wandering my house and seeing light cascade across the room at different times of the day, the shadows it creates, and the way that it diffuses through the trees in my garden. My favorite time of day is as the sun is setting low in the sky.  

My family has lived all over the US and now lives in Europe. People always ask where my favorite place to live is, and when I think back, it has always been dependent upon the light in that location. If I loved the light, I loved the location. I remember when we were leaving Southern California, I was watching the sunset with my niece and said how much I would miss the light it creates. She replied, “Aunt Dena, the sun sets everywhere in the world; you just have to find it.” Little did she know how right she was. Amazing light is everywhere; you just have to know where to look and learn how to use the light.

My motto is “shoot for the light and not the location.” I say it all of the time. I tell my clients when I am photographing their sessions, and I tell my students when I am teaching them…I even tell my husband when he’s taking travel photos with his smartphone. If you learn how to use the light correctly, it will make your photographs go from mediocre to absolutely amazing!  

And once you learn how to use the light it is not that hard; it just takes practice. Try following these basic steps!

1. When you are beginning to learn how to use the light, search for and find the light to use.

Carry a small notepad or use your phone. Jot down where you see good light, what time of day it was, and the emotion that light evoked. 

2. Pay attention to whether the light is “hard light” or “soft light.”  

  • Hard light creates sharp shadows. There is a hard contrast to this light. It is the light produced on a bright sunny day with almost no clouds in the sky. The smaller the light source, the stronger the light. Look below at how the light creates harsh shadows on my son’s face. The shot below that, where he is doing homework shows a strong contrast in the light. 
hard light sharp shadows photography
hard light black white photography
  • Soft light is more gentle, soft, and understated. It is the light that is created on an overcast day when the sun is diffused through the clouds. Soft light’s transition is much more subtle and soft and tends to be much more flattering than hard light. When learning the light, soft light is by far the easiest to use. It softly falls over your subject, almost wrapping them in light. Look at the image below. The light is even and wrapping the girls in its glow. Soft light is a perfect light to use in family photography.  
soft light photography

3. Use the light to set the mood in your photograph.

Photography is about telling a story, and you can learn to use the light to help tell that story. How do you want your photo to feel? Different types of light evoke different emotions

  • Hard light creates more of an edgy look, a bit more masculine. It is a great light to use when photographing men or boys.
  • Soft light is used to create emotion, nostalgia, and is used to portray tender moments.
  • Flat light is often forgiving and used when the photo itself is full of character, and the light doesn’t need to be the star.  
  • Backlight tends to lend itself to a more nostalgic look. It is the light that you get during the golden hour. 

4. Pay attention to the direction of your light.

Try to place yourself between the light and your subject, and avoid having the sun “blind” them.  Always try to catch the catchlights in subject’s eyes.  

5. And lastly… practice, practice, practice.

While mastering light can be difficult, it is amazingly rewarding and so fun to play with.  

So, grab your camera, practice a bit, and start to learn how to use the light to tell your story and see if you notice a change in your photography!


Learn how to use manual mode and take control of your camera so that you can create the amazing images that you’ve always imagined with the Beginners Photography Essentials Program!

Lifestyle Photographer & Mentor

Hi, I’m Dena, a natural light lifestyle photographer with 20+ years of experience capturing other people’s memories and teaching photographers how to understand and easily use their cameras.

Learn Photography Community

Join the Membership and learn how to take the photos you’ve always wanted to take!

Start Taking Better Photos with My Free Cheat Sheets

You have a great camera, but you still aren’t getting the photos you want — the photos that truly WOW you! My Photography Essentials Cheat Sheets will help you improve your photos in just minutes!



You have a great camera, but you still aren’t getting the photos you want — the photos that truly WOW you! My Photography Essentials Cheat Sheets will help you improve your photos in just minutes!