Capturing Magic with Light

Published on: May 15, 2022

In this next instalment of his series on how to take great candid photos of your kids, Ian Taylor shares his tips on using light.

By Ian Taylor

While the most important thing to getting natural pictures of kids is to keep it all fun, four or five other elements go into the mix.

The usual course of photography instruction is to cover all the standard topics like cameras and lenses before moving on to actual photography. But I realized early on that ‘seeing’ is much more important than the gear, and the most crucial detail you need to see is light.

All pro photographers share one thing; they understand light—or at least their light. And while you don’t need perfect light to make a decent image, bad light ruins every potentially perfect portrait before you even press the button to take a photo.

Overhead midday sunlight is the most common unflattering light. We all know the look: the bright sweaty face, squinting eyes buried in dark eye sockets. It never works—unless you use a flash, but that’s a different approach.

The general rule of thumb is, if the overhead light is strong enough to cast shadows, it will be almost impossible to take flattering ‘people photos’. It can be great for landscapes, though! Natural-light photographers constantly look for ‘open shade’. These are areas protected from the sun but with high ambient light levels. In other words, it’s bright, but has no shadows.

In a portrait photographer’s heaven, every day is overcast with high clouds letting through plenty of light. On those days, you can work pretty much anywhere that’s wide open. Beaches are the best, but parks can be ideal as well. If it’s a bright day with that harsh overhead sun, head for open shade. That’s 90% of how I deal with the sun.

You will know you have perfect light when there is even illumination across the face and ‘catchlights’ in the eyes. ‘Catchlights’ are those tiny reflected bright spots in the eyes, usually the pupils. These little details will give your portraits life.

The most accessible spots to work with kids are in what I call ‘light-tunnels’. These are locations where the light is cut off from all sides, except in front of the subject (the person you are taking the photo of). The mouth of an alley or a doorway are perfect examples of ‘light tunnels’. You can also create this look with rocks and trees, and indeed anything that cuts light off from all sides except in front.

‘Light tunnel’. Bright catchlights. 35mm

For each location you’ll learn to ask yourself, “Where is the light coming from, and what is the quality of that light?”

Understanding what makes for good light is the quickest way to instantly elevate all of your photography, not just your portraits. Whether you shoot with a new Canon or a ten-year-old iPhone, understanding how to light the face and eyes is a key skill. 

There is no reason not to have great photos of your children in this era of technological advancement. Once you get the basics down, getting pro-level shots is straightforward. Like driving a car or playing the piano, it’s all about getting to where you do things automatically. It takes a bit of practice, but in a 100 years, your kids’ kids will have amazing photos of this generation. Take the long view with family photos!

And learning how to take a flattering portrait, whether of your kids or your friends, is a trick that never goes out of style. “Nice light” is one of the best compliments you will receive.

Next time we’ll get to some more ‘kid-specific’ ideas. Prepare to get active!

Using shade of a pillar to block harsh light. 135mm

Photos courtesy of Ian Taylor Photography.


About the Author

Thailand-based Ian Taylor has been a roving family photographer since 2006. His e-book, ‘Never Say Cheese: How to Take Great Natural Photos of Your Kids’ is available at iantaylor.ca. For questions and comments, contact Ian via his website or on FB: @IanTaylorPhotography


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