How To Take A Five Star Image: Follow The Light

As photographers we know that sometimes, it’s all about the light.

But often the five star image is a perfect storm of finding great light with strong content; impactful framing with sharp focus at the best aperture/shutter speed for the particular image triggered at the decisive moment. Can’t be too hard right?

We all know it’s no easy task, especially when we have no control of many of the elements that make our images great.  You don’t need all of them to come together for every photo to be successful, but if you’ve got great light, you’ve got a great chance of making a great image.

It is why we wake up early for sunrise and stay well after the sun goes down, sometimes for the beautiful blue hour light , when the sun goes down (or before it rises) and the sky takes on a deep blue color, that twilight morning/evening light that is somewhere between complete darkness and subdued, fading daylight.


d5-8000iso-1-13th-f2-8-58mmtwiinstAs photographers we are looking for light and with the tools we have now, there are really few limitations. I’m looking for nice, even light even if  it’s very low, as with this image made last week in Old Havana. My D5 is remarkable in low light and this shot was made at ISO 8000 with a favorite new lens, the 58mm f1.4G. 

I  follow the light to put the odds in my favor, shooting when the light is best—and that’s often early morning sunrise and later afternoon sunset.

Arguably, light is more important with color work. Mainly because, color can be distracting, hi-jacking the viewers’ attention from where you want their eye to go when the light is a little harsh and contrasty. Just like your eye is drawn to light areas in the frame, certain strong colors can have a similar pull a visual weight tugging at the viewers eye for attention.

This is why I often use the desaturate tool in post and why a warm bath of golden hour light can subdue distracting colors, bathing all colors in a warm glow. With black and white, particularly with the street photography I love to do, harsh light can enhance the image or I can boost a flatly-lit scene by adding contrast.

In photography, there is really no bad light but maybe there is inappropriate light depending on your subject matter. There are pockets of harsh mid-day light in the city illuminating street life in strong graphic ways, which can make great photos.

This bold, hard light may not work for a portrait (or maybe it would) but might be ideal for architectural details.

When I study the light, it opens my eyes to photographic possibilities I hadn’t noticed before. Observe how light changes relative to your camera position as you do a compositional dance finding new angles, and see how light direction affects your subject. The direction of light is an important consideration and can be used to your advantage.

When I’m doing street photography in the city, the light is often my first consideration. I go to where the light is. If the sun is out, I look for where it bathes the city and start there. Where the sun beats down, the light will be interesting—harsh, perhaps—but as I move around the scene watching how the light hitting the subject changes, I learn how to react to the light instinctively, swiftly getting myself into the right position.

Harsh light can be cool but where there is light there is also a shadowy alternative nearby. Then there’s reflected indirect light, bouncing off buildings and glass which can be soft and beautiful. The indirect light in Old Havana make it one of my favorite destinations for street photography (but mostly it’s the people).

What’s your philosophy when it comes to light?


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  1. says: Tony Serwatuk

    Great insights Steve. Making a compelling photograph without “seeing” the light and it’s potential impact on your image can present great challenges.

  2. says: Liz Roberts

    Hi Steve, I couldn’t agree more with this important reminder! In between the lines, for me personally, the word “patience” comes to mind. All too often I am looking at my watch and saying “another time” but the light will never wait for us… we need to be in tune with it and the subject it may present or enhance, whether natural light or not. Your body of work from Cuba is very inspiring! Thank you, love and “light” wishes 🙂