Lesson: Seven Reasons to Immediately Take Advantage of the Harsh, Direct Light Pockets in Your Home | by Erin Mufford


Things that are scary: clown with rusty scissors, canned pork brains, my son’s propensity for licking things. Things that are NOT scary: cameras, the great indoors, and harsh sunlight. If you would rather share a meal of canned pork brains with a clown instead of photographing indoor light that is not softened or diffused in any way, these tips are for you!


#1:  Finding a pocket of harsh light is incredibly easy. So easy that my two year-old could do it, if he wasn’t too busy licking a seatbelt or something. There is absolutely nothing subtle about this light, so finding it is as simple as looking at the floor or the walls and seeing where the light starts and stops.


#2: A pocket of harsh, direct light makes junk disappear. When your subject is placed in this kind of light, your camera will require the lowest possible ISO, a fast shutter, and possibly even a narrow aperture. This means that anything that is NOT placed in the light will quite possibly be utter darkness and shadow and they will NOT show in the photograph, even if they are in the frame. Think obnoxious plastic toys, dirty laundry, your other kid wandering around half naked with a dog toy hanging out of his mouth. You know, assuming that happens to anyone other than me.

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It is entirely possible that Ryan Gosling is in the shadows of any of these photographs, along with a combine and a small herd of gazelle. Nobody will ever, ever know. It is MY secret.

#3: Related to point #2, even the most basic, starter DSLR lenses will rock a pocket of harsh light. No more singing sad songs to your camera because there is just not enough light and your lens only opens to 5.6! With this type of light, you may need a narrow aperture anyway in order to achieve a proper exposure because the available light is SO bright. Also, if the background is not illuminated by the light you are using, it likely isn’t going to show very much in your photo. So that background could be as blurry and dreamy as 1.4 can make it, but if it does not really show, it is not adding anything to the overall look of the photo.  

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#4: Super bright, direct sunlight is what creates the most magical indoor backlight. The first step in achieving this look is to position yourself so that you are facing the window or door through which the hard, direct light is entering the room. Place your subject in between you and that light source. For best results, make sure you are shooting from an angle that places your subject against a darker background, NOT the window or light source itself.

K Twirl Kitchen Backlight.jpg

#5: Harsh light creates distinct shadows. You know all of those photographs you have seen in which people use window blinds to create a cool pattern across their subject? That’s often because of very harsh light, my friends. When we moved into our current house, we removed all of the metal blinds along with the eight feet of dust that resided on them, but did manage to find some while on vacation.

Ian Mickey Santa hat blinds.jpg

To achieve this look, adjust your settings until there are no blown highlights. This is what it means to “expose for the highlights;” the brightest parts of the image are perfectly exposed, and the darkest parts might be total shadow with no detail (remember Ryan Gosling from point #2).

#6: Minimal editing is necessary when using a pocket of harsh, direct light. Vibrant colors, sharpness, and bold contrast will all be yours. No Photoshop required! With the exception of minor color adjustments and straightening, the photo below is untouched.

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#7: A pocket of harsh light can be advantageous any time of day. Getting comfortable with this “imperfect” light has given me so much freedom with photography. The golden hour is the preferred time of day, but what if something really exciting happens a different time of day, like Ryan Gosling showing up? Where your hard light pockets appear in your house will change as the sun moves, but if you start to look for them, you will find them all day long. The photograph below of my kids brushing their teeth was taken mid-afternoon.

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So, what do you think? Do you still prefer a clown and some canned pork brains, or are you ready to embrace those pockets of harsh, direct light?

xoxo, Erin