Why Light Trumps Location in Photography

Feb 5, 2015

JP Danko

JP Danko is a commercial photographer based in Toronto, Canada. JP can change a lens mid-rappel, swap a memory card while treading water, or use a camel as a light stand.

Why Light Trumps Location in Photography

Feb 5, 2015

JP Danko

JP Danko is a commercial photographer based in Toronto, Canada. JP can change a lens mid-rappel, swap a memory card while treading water, or use a camel as a light stand.

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why light trumps location in photography jp danko, blurmedia, toronto commercial photographer

One of my favorite locations for photography sessions is the beach in front of our family cottage.  Its a location that I use quite often for everything from family photos to commercial photography gigs.

The reason that it makes such a great photography location is because (besides being accessible) it has a little of everything: interesting texture, rugged wilderness, water and waves, ice and snow, sunshine, moody rain and fog, unobstructed star fields and everything in between.

But even with a great location, light trumps location in photography every time – and sometimes you have to break the rules!

I recently took a walk down the beach with my daughter and I was capturing some photos for my stock portfolio as we went.

From those images, I want to share a few example photos to explain how important it is to use light to its full potential – and how much more important it is to use light to your advantage rather than relying on a great location to carry your photography.

You should also see how important it is to break the “rules” once in a while!

why light trumps location in photography jp danko, blurmedia, toronto commercial photographer

Winter Beach Stock Photography

This series of images were taken in mid afternoon in January.  Up here in the great white north the sun is pretty low in the sky in January, so the resulting light in mid afternoon looks a lot more like typical early evening light.

It was a very cold and windy day – I had water spray from the lake freezing onto my lens every time I took the lens cap off – and it was partially cloudy.

This meant that it was constantly alternating between sun and cloud.

Example 1 – Sun versus Cloud

Looking down the beach away from the sun, is the safe way to create outdoor natural light images.  Photographing your subject away from your light source is also following the rules.

However, as you can see from the following images, there is a dramatic difference between sun and cloud.

why light trumps location in photography jp danko, blurmedia, toronto commercial photographer

why light trumps location in photography jp danko, blurmedia, toronto commercial photographer

This is the same photo, taken just moments apart.

To my eye, the image taken with cloud cover just looks so much more interesting in this instance.

That is not always the case – but regardless of which image looks better to your artistic vision – sun our cloud – the important point is that they are two very different photographs.

Example 2 – Break the Rules

Guys, rules are GOOD.  Rules help control the fun!

Monica Geller

Photography 101 teaches us to always shoot away from our light source.

Its practically the first lesson we learn – and if you want to get a nice properly exposed photo, especially if you’re relying on your camera to calculate the exposure, it is great advice (see this article on my thoughts on getting correct exposure).

However, sometimes breaking the rules is a lot more interesting.

This is what happens if instead of taking photos away from the sun, we turn around and shoot into the sun.

why light trumps location in photography jp danko, blurmedia, toronto commercial photographer

Compared to how this image would look if I followed the rules:

why light trumps location in photography jp danko, blurmedia, toronto commercial photographer

To me this is no contest!

The safe photo taken looking away from the light is completely boring and bland compared to the texture and mood created by shooting into the light.

If you look closely, the big difference is that in the safe photo, the light is filling in most of the shadows and the highlights are safely exposed – while in the photo looking towards the light, it is the shadows and bright highlights that create that sense of drama.

Shooting Into Your Light Source Is Not Photography 101

There is quite a lot going on here that might not be immediately obvious.

First, the only reason that my images looking directly into my light source are not complete silhouettes is because there is a lot of reflected light bouncing off of the snow and water.

All of this reflected light bouncing around has allowed me to create an exposure that shows detail in my subject without having to completely overexpose the background.

Second, this is a very difficult scene for your camera to produce a correct exposure.

Snow, beach, water, shooting towards bright light – if you are relying on your camera to figure out how to expose this scene I can guarantee that you will end up with a photo that is way too dark – no matter what metering settings you use.

To put it simply – automatic settings are great when you’re following the rules – even an iPhone will nail the exposure on this shot (which is roughly perpendicular to the light):

why light trumps location in photography jp danko, blurmedia, toronto commercial photographer

But if you want to explore new ways of photographing the same scene – you’re going to have to use either Manual (M) or some pretty significant exposure correction and trial and error to use forbidden light.

why light trumps location in photography jp danko, blurmedia, toronto commercial photographer

Incidentally, I clipped the highlights in this image – so its no good for stock, but personally its my favorite photo of the day.

What Do You Think Is More Important – Location or Light?

I hope I’ve given you some inspiration to find different ways of seeing light to create very different images of the same scene.

But, what do you think is more important – a perfect location or great light?

Leave a comment and let us know!

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JP Danko

JP Danko

JP Danko is a commercial photographer based in Toronto, Canada. JP can change a lens mid-rappel, swap a memory card while treading water, or use a camel as a light stand.

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2 responses to “Why Light Trumps Location in Photography”

  1. mike Avatar
    mike

    Why Trumps Light Location in photography? :)

  2. Ralph Hightower Avatar
    Ralph Hightower

    Light and Location. For 2012, I had a photography project to photograph the sunrise over Columbia, South Carolina from the Lake Murray Dam on the equinoxes and solstices; if the sunrise happened after the change of season, then I would shoot on the next day.
    But clouds make for a dramatic sunrise; if the sky is cloudless, then it’s going to be a “blah” day (boring).
    I was on the dam when the Mayans predicted that the Apocalypse was going to happen; it didn’t. But the winds from the lake for the first day of winter were brutal, gusting to 45 MPH!. I was the only fool on the dam walkway. With that wind, any clouds were blown away. Needless to say, it was a boring sunrise.
    But my project was time specific.