Photographers love certain types of lighting for photography – the golden hours and the blue hour are two great examples – but what do you do when the lighting is bad? Do you give up? Do you go home?
In my view, it’s entirely possible to create interesting, meaningful photos when the lighting is poor – you just have to know a few tricks! And that’s what I share in this article: a handful of easy techniques to get great shots using strong sunlight, powerful backlight, boring flat light, and more.
Let’s dive right in.
1. Use fill flash
When the light is dull, or when you’re working on bright, sunny days, fill flash can be a major help.
For one, a bit of fill flash can add much-needed life to a flat photo. It can also help eradicate harsh shadows under portrait subjects’ chins, noses, and eyes.
You can carry a speedlight – which you can use on-camera or off-camera as needed – though if you’re in a pinch and you don’t have a speedlight on hand, your camera’s pop-up flash can work, too.
Aim to balance the output of your flash with the available light; that way, you get natural-looking results. You don’t want your flash to produce hard shadows of its own!
Take a few photos and review them on your camera’s LCD screen. Adjust the level of your flash output and experiment until you get a result that you like.
If your photos are still looking a bit too “flashed,” try bouncing the fill light off a light-colored surface such as a wall, a ceiling, or a reflector. This will soften and spread the light. A modifying cone or softbox will also help the flash output look more natural.
2. Use reflected light (or a reflector)
If you’re shooting with harsh sun or against strong backlight, you don’t always need fill flash; reflected light can work great all on its own.
Try using a portable reflector to reflect light up into the shadows on your subject. If you’re capturing portraits, your subject can even hold the reflector for you (though if you have an assistant who can hold the reflector, you’ll certainly have more flexibility). Lighting setups often call for a reflector positioned below the subject’s chin (so the light shines onto their face). But feel free to experiment with other angles and see what you can create.
Reflectors come in different sizes and colors, but a medium-sized white reflector is a good first purchase. Over time, you can develop your reflector collection based on your preferences.
And if you don’t have a reflector, then a light-colored wall, a white car, a white umbrella, or even white sand can work, too!
3. Move your subject
Sometimes, the light is bad in one area – but it’s far, far better just across the room (or even a few steps to the side).
That’s why, before you break out your fill flash or your reflector, consider simply moving your subject.
For instance, bright sun doesn’t work so well for portraits, but you can always move your subject under a tree for some nice open shade. You may still need to use a reflector or fill flash to add some life to your shot – that’s ultimately up to you – but the results will definitely look better than the alternative.
And if you’re working indoors, your subject might be heavily shrouded in shadow. Simply ask them to take a few steps over to the window, however, and you’ll end up with a shot like this:
So when you’re working in bad light, slow down. Take a deep breath. Look around for other, better-lit areas, and see if you can improve your photos simply by adjusting your location.
4. Compose creatively
Oftentimes, bad lighting won’t show throughout the entire scene. Instead, it’ll cause unpleasant highlights in one corner, along one part of the background, or along one side of the subject.
And in such situations, you can compose creatively to avoid including these problem areas in your shots.
You can zoom or move closer to your subject to omit parts of your composition where the lighting is problematic. You might also try holding your camera at an unconventional angle, such as above your subject or down low to the ground.
For instance, I didn’t love the bright white light – produced by the harsh sun – in the background below:
So I simply moved closer and positioned the camera above my subjects:
The unpleasant bright areas disappeared, and I got the shots I was after.
You might also think about ways you can crop the photo later on. If you’re willing to create a panorama, you can always crop out a blandly lit sky, for instance.
5. Think in black and white
Did you know that black and white images actually look better when shot using “bad” light?
It’s true! When the light is harsh and high-contrast, or even when the light is flat, you can get amazing black and white shots that emphasize shadows, highlights, or subject details.
This next image might look harsh in color, but in black and white, the dark shadows and bright highlights turn out great:
If you use a mirrorless camera with an electronic viewfinder, you can even adjust your settings so you can see in black and white as you shoot. And if you don’t have an EVF, that’s okay, too. Simply do your best to imagine the world in black and white, then do careful B&W conversions in Lightroom, Photoshop, or another post-processing program.
6. Use a filter
While no filter can make bad light look amazing, there are a few filters that can make a major difference when working in less-than-optimal conditions.
For instance, a polarizing filter will reduce reflections and haze, both of which are common on sunny days. And it’ll make blue skies look dark and saturated:
You can also use a neutral density filter to slow down your shutter speeds and take advantage of moving water or clouds. Or, if your scene features a too-bright foreground or background, you can use a graduated neutral density filter to darken down the offending area and balance out the scene.
7. Do some post-processing
I don’t recommend that you rely completely on post-processing when shooting. If you always plan to fix your images when editing, you’ll never learn to get them right in camera.
Fixing bad lighting using Lightroom or Photoshop can be incredibly effective.
If your exposure contains detail in both the highlights and the shadows, and you’re working with a high-resolution RAW file, you’ll have plenty of post-processing flexibility. You can brighten the shadows, decrease the highlights, adjust the contrast, and much more. You can also modify your shots to deal with washed-out colors.
And you can selectively modify the subject or the background to create more or less contrast. For this next photo, the background was too bright and distracting, so I darkened it down:
Again, don’t rely completely on editing software to get the image right. Do what you can when out shooting; you’ll have a much better file to work with.
But if you do know how to combat poor lighting with a few editing tricks, your images will be much improved.
How to fix bad lighting: final words
Now that you’ve finished this article, you’re well equipped to handle bad lighting – be it dull light, harsh sun, or something else entirely.
Just remember the tips I’ve shared. Remember to bring a flash and a reflector along (just in case). And make some incredible photos!
Do you have any additional tips for working in bad light? Which of these techniques is your favorite? Let us know in the comments below!