Use the Best Light for Awesome Photos

Long, long ago, I worked with someone who would get fidgety if he thought anyone was wasting time. He'd admonish us, saying that we were "burning daylight."

I've always liked that expression: Daylight is a precious resource, and it burns away whether we use it wisely or not. I think about that a lot when I take photos, since daylight is so essential to photography. But how do we make the most of it?

This week, let's look at some secrets for taking advantage of natural light in your digital photos.

Know When to Use the Flash

Ah, the misunderstood flash. If you have a flash built into your camera, it can illuminate a subject only up to about 15 feet away. If you're shooting a scene that's any farther than that, you are probably better off turning off the flash and letting the camera calculate the exposure with the available light.

When doubt, take a photo with the flash on and check the results. If you don't like what you see, try it again with the flash disabled.

And while the flash is usually deployed in low-light situations, it can also come in handy outdoors in the middle of the day. For example, you can use your flash as a fill light to eliminate harsh shadows caused by the sun. For more details on using your flash this way, read "Digital Focus: Deal With Harsh Lighting."

Avoid Harsh Contrast and Shadows

Midday is when we tend to take most of our photos. That's unfortunate, because that's the worst time of day for outdoor photography.

If you peer through the camera's viewfinder and see even a slight shadow on your subject, know this: In your photo, the division between light and shadow will look like the line that divides day and night on the moon. Digital cameras have a much more narrow exposure range than the human eye, so they tend to exaggerate the division between light and shadow.

If you can, move your subject under a tree, behind a building, or anywhere you can get away from the harsh sunlight. This will reduce the overall contrast in the scene.

Use the Magic Hour

If midday is a bad time of day to shoot, when is a good time? Early or late in the day is great, because the sun is much lower in the sky and you won't get harsh, contrasting light. Photographers call the hour surrounding sunrise and sunset the "magic hour" because the lighting is especially flattering.

Nighttime Photos

Want to try your hand at night photography? If you take long exposures (anywhere between a half-second and several seconds of exposure) with the camera mounted on a tripod, you can get wonderful scenes with city lights and automobiles trailing red and white lights behind them.

Here's a secret that most people don't know: If you try shooting photos at twilight (usually about 10 minutes after sunset or 10 minutes before sunrise), the sky takes on a rich, deep, romantic blue, yet you can still capture all the city lights that make night photos so special.

For more tips about taking photos at night, read "Digital Focus: Better Night Photos."

Hot Pic of the Week

Get published, get famous! Each week, we select our favorite reader-submitted photo based on creativity, originality, and technique. Every month, the best of the weekly winners gets a prize valued at between $15 and $50.

Here's how to enter: Send us your photograph in JPEG format, at a resolution no higher than 640 by 480 pixels. Entries at higher resolutions will be immediately disqualified. If necessary, use an image editing program to reduce the file size of your image before e-mailing it to us. Include the title of your photo along with a short description and how you photographed it. Don't forget to send your name, e-mail address, and postal address. Before entering, please read the full description of the contest rules and regulations.

This week's Hot Pic: "Quiet Harbor," by Diane Randolph, Mayville, New York

Diane says that she captured this photo while vacationing in Peggy's Cove, Nova Scotia. She took the photo with a Canon Digital Rebel XT.

This Week's Runner-Up: "Maddy's Hiding Place," by Walter Coet, Commerce City, Colorado

Walter writes: "I took this photo at my granddaughter's favorite park. I used a Nikon D50 in aperture Priority Mode. I then did some light editing using Corel Paint Shop Pro XI."

See all the Hot Pic of the Week photos online.

Have a digital photo question? Send me your comments, questions, and suggestions about the newsletter itself. And be sure to sign up to have the Digital Focus Newsletter e-mailed to you each week.

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