Here is a simple photography tip that any photographer of any skill level can use to immediately see better results.

When someone asks me “how can i take better photos….?” my first tip is – Don’t make this common mistake:

…Pointing the camera into the main light source.

This is one rookie mistake I see all the time. It invariably results in dark, underexposed, and/or grainy photos.

Your camera is trying its best to get a good photo, but without reasonable lighting, you are giving it an impossible task.

So here is the tip:

1. Look around: where is the main light source coming from?
2. Keep that main light over your shoulder.

You will get far better lighting on the subject you are trying to shoot.

A Practical Demonstration:

Here’s an example of 4 different ways you could take a snapshot indoors, using the available light (no flash).

Only the camera and subject position has changed. Lighting has remained the same.

All shot in fully automatic mode. I just pressed the button.

direction of light examples

Look at the first shot: (A) The window is the main light. It’s behind the subject. So the light is coming from behind the subject. This is known as back-lighting.

You could try to boost the camera exposure. But it would still be a lousy picture because the light just isn’t very flattering. (the face is in shadow).

You should be able to see that as we gradually turn around – the quality of the portrait improves dramatically. The subject now faces towards the light. The lighting changes from awkward backlighting to simple front lighting.

To summarize the results:

  • A: Back-lighting. Terrible.
  • B. Angled back-lighting. Still Terrible. (unless your aiming for super moody drama)
  • C. Side-lighting. Pretty good. (Can be a bit dramatic. Not always flattering for every face type.)
  • D. Slightly angled front lighting. Great. Best lighting for most faces.

There is no “Bad” light.

I see people attempting to take photos in “bad” lighting all. the. time. But it’s not really bad lighting at all, it’s simply a failure to seek a better angle on the subject.

Here’s a typical scenario I saw yesterday at a cafe. I watched a diner pass her phone across the table – to a buddy – to take her photo. Their table was in front of a huge window, which flooded the cafe with lovely light. But I know that photo would have turned out poorly. Why? because the one getting her photo taken had her back to the window – the main light source.

What should they have done?

They could have simply swapped places : so that she was now facing the light.

Or both could have sat “side-on” to the window, to create a side-lighting situation. (like in the 3rd frame of the sample shots: “C”)

Doing either of those simple things, would have transformed the “bad” back-lighting into lovely portrait lighting.

The main light source could be anything.

The main light source doesn’t have to be a window. It could be a table lamp, or a ceiling light. It might be the sun, or the brightest portion of a cloudy sky. There may be more than one light source – but there is usually one main one. And it is usually coming from one general direction.

Whatever the source, you make your job far more difficult if you try to shoot pointing into that light source. (It’s not impossible…but it is an advanced technique. It requires pro camera gear and lighting).

Back-lighting throws your subjects face into shadow, which is rarely flattering.
When you are using your smartphone, and especially indoors, you really do need to try to maximise the available light.

Photography is not about the camera, its about the light.

Understanding light is central to getting better photos. There are many different characteristics of light… but the most basic thing to consider is: direction.
Where is the light actually coming from?
This line of thinking is the first and most important step in the journey to taking better photos.


PS: This tip is for the most common subject we point our cameras at: people and portraits. For other subjects, like food photography.. some angled/back-lighting can be ideal. (but that’s a whole other topic!) -GM