How to Use Light For Better Pictures

Do you really need an expensive camera to take good pictures? Learning to see and use light will make your photography sing, even with  the camera on your phone.
How many times have you heard someone complement a photo, then tell the photographer 'You must have a great camera!'  (shiver) No. Just don't ever do that. It's like telling a carpenter he must have a great hammer. The flip side of this is thinking you have to have a great (and expensive) camera to take nice pictures.
A very good camera can make a difference if you know how to use it, but a good photographer who knows how to identify and create good lighting can make a limited camera do the tango.
Inexpensive cameras aren’t as easy to focus precisely, and often don’t do as well in low light, so the trick is to give them what they need to do the job, which is usually just plenty of light coming from the right direction.
You see, it’s all about light. Where is the light coming from, what color the light is and how much light there is. That can be hard sometimes, because our eyes are so adaptable that we often think there is more light than there really is.
You can learn a lot from looking at other people’s pictures, and figuring out from the reflections where the light was coming from and whether it’s hard or soft. The easiest way to explain hard or soft light is how the reflection looks. If the shadows are very hard edged and defined and there’s a particularly shiny spot reflecting the light, that’s obviously hard light.
Hard light reflections on shiny apples
See the definite white shine spotlighted on the apples? That's hard light.
There’s a big range between light and shadow and it’s harder for a camera to pick up detail in both the shadowed and bright spots. There’s just too big a difference.
Soft light is like the light on a cloudy day. There is still light and shadows, but the difference is not so big. That type of diffuse light makes it easier for a camera to record the details in both the lighter and darker spots of the object.
soft diffused light on a cloudy day
Soft cloudy light, so soft shadows and gentle highlights
To do product pictures (as well as flattering  portraits) on the cheap indoors I like to use a north facing window, or a window that doesn’t have sunlight shining directly in. If I can’t escape direct sunlight I’ll hang a white sheet or sheer fabric over the window to cut the glare. Then I’ll put something on the other side of the object I’m photographing to reflect the light back on that side.
I have photographer’s reflectors of various sizes that have 5 colors in one, depending on how much reflection and what color you need. They're cheap on Amazon. (That's an affiliate link that helps keep my lights on.) The black side can deepen shadow a bit to add definition. Refolding a large one is also great entertainment.
collapsing reflectors can be a challenge
I hate you so much right now.
This is when you really have to train your eye to see color. Most of us just think light is light, but the source of light makes a huge difference. For instance, if you have natural light on one side and lamplight on the other, one side of your picture is going to look yellowish. Not a problem if you’re going to make the photo black and white, but bad for color accuracy, which is what you need for product pictures. Keep your light sources uniform. Your flash has a very blue tone compared to other sources of light, and makes the product look very flat and unappealing if it’s directly over the lens. I avoid using that.
In 2013 I did a series of somewhere near 400 dolls for an estate, and I’m sorry to say I can’t find the picture of how I set up my ‘studio’. And yes, that was Four Zero Zero. Not forty. Four hundred.  It was a fairly dark and crowded house (as you can imagine), but I commandeered the lone sliding glass door in the TV room, and set up my tripod and camera there, disrupting the favorite spot of the curmudgeon watching Fox news.
I set up a TV tray with a high backed chair behind it at a 30 to 45 degree angle to the window, then rolled out half a roll of butcher paper up and over the whole thing to make a plain white background. I used a little painter’s tape and some weights to hold the paper still, and had my white reflector next to me where I could raise and lower it to cut down on shadows on the side away from the window. There wasn't room to set up a reflector stand.
And this is an example of the finished project:
Soft window light coming from the left and a white reflector on the right makes for a cheap lighting system in this picture.
To be sure that your colors are accurate, just color adjust the picture until the white background looks white, not yellowish or bluish. That’s all there is to it. 🙂
Hope it helps.
Cheryl