Amazon Photos: How to make your photos shine

This is the second in a series of photography tips for Prime members.

There are a lot of things that make a photograph "pop," and one of the most important things to think about is light. Not only does light brighten your subject, but it can be used to set a tone or mood, direct your view, and emphasize or hide textures and details. Light is a key part of every photograph, so it can help to think of it as one of the constant players in your scene.

The first thing to do before you take a photo is to find the light. You want to be sure you know where the best light is coming from and what that will mean for your photos. If you can, arrange your subject or choose your vantage point to give you the light that you want.

While light is important to make your photos shine, it doesn't always cooperate with you. Here are a couple tricky lighting situations and tips for handling them, by Wenmei Hill, editorial manager of Amazon's Digital Photography Review (

Sunset portraits

If you want to take a photo of your subjects with the sunset behind them, you either get a beautiful sunset with dark faces or lovely faces with a washed out sunset. The way to handle this is to add in some light to brighten just the faces without affecting the background. If you're using flash, be sure that you dial the flash power down so that it doesn't overwhelm the background. Ideally, have your flash off-camera so that the light is not coming straight at your subjects (making them look flat and the lighting look too artificial). If you don't have an external flash, you can use another light source (lamp, flashlight, smartphone light) so that it only lights up your subject. This can be a difficult shot to do well if you're not comfortable with adding light, so it might be a good opportunity to try some dramatic silhouettes or other creative shots instead.

Overhead lighting

Light coming from directly overhead (ceiling lights, high-noon sunlight) casts unflattering shadows on your subjects' faces. It's best to avoid the overhead light, if possible, or if you can't avoid it, add more light from another source to brighten the shadows. If you're photographing outdoors on a sunny day, put your subjects in a shady spot and face them toward a lit area so that the light is reflected in their eyes but shadows are not cast on their faces. If there's no shade or you are indoors, look for a large white or light-colored surface (like a wall or a concrete paved area) to "bounce" the light. Face your subjects toward the wall/pavement so that light can reflect off of it to fill some of the shadows in their faces.

Harsh or bright light

This is similar to overhead lighting, but in this case the light comes from an angle rather than directly overhead. This situation is easier to handle, because you can simply turn your subjects so that the light is coming from behind them and use backlighting (increasing brightness until your subjects are well lit and your background becomes overexposed) to get your photo. If that won't work, the same tips from above for finding shade or using a light-colored surface to fill in shadows can help. You can also use a diffuser — white or translucent curtains, a bedsheet, paper, etc. — between the light source and your subject to soften the light and shadows.

Challenging backgrounds

Sometimes you want to get a photo where your subject and the background need completely different lighting, but you want them in the same photo. Examples of this include taking a photo of your subjects in front of a bright screen or sign (such as at a theater), in front of festive lights, or with a bright background like the Grand Canyon, the ocean or snow-covered mountains. All of these situations can be handled in the same way as the sunset photos above: by adding just enough light to brighten your subjects without affecting the background.

  • When the background is close (screen, holiday lights) it is easier for added light to spill over to the background, so this is a great opportunity to use less powerful and easily controlled light sources like your smartphone, a lamp or a flashlight. You can ask other people to light your subject with their smartphones while you take your picture without flash.
  • If the background is far away (as in a landscape), give your camera or smartphone flash a try. By focusing on your subject, the flash should light your subject correctly and allow the background to stay properly lit. Note that this is only true for backgrounds that are brightly lit. If you use flash when the background is darker than your subject, then only your subject will be lit and the background will darken even more.

When to turn off your built-in camera or smartphone flash

  • Your subject is further than a few feet away. The light from your flash can only travel a certain distance, and if you are trying to photograph someone who is 40 feet away, the light will fall off long before it reaches them.
  • There are people or objects between you and your subject. The light from your flash will illuminate the first object it encounters and will then fall off to darkness quickly. If you are trying to photograph a child on stage but you are sitting several rows back, even if your light is able to make it as far as the stage, it is more likely to hit the heads of the people in front of you before it reaches your child.
  • You want to include a background that is darker than your subject. Because the light from your flash illuminates the first thing it hits and then falls off, if the scene is dark, your subject will be well lit and everything else will fall into darkness.

In the above cases, you are better off turning off your flash and seeing what you get without it. If it's still too dark, look for sources of light (candles, windows, screens) and turn your subjects to face them so that you can harness as much light as possible.

Note: A more powerful external flash or light can handle many of these scenarios.

Light and photography are so intertwined, once you start playing around with it and learning how it can impact your photos, you will be hooked. You'll likely start to "see" light everywhere you look, and we hope this will inspire you to take bigger creative leaps with your photography as you learn to control the light. Once you get more comfortable with lighting, print your favorites. Not quite ready to show off your photos? Remember, as a Prime member you get unlimited photo storage included with your membership. Looking for more photography tips? Learn how to take everyday photos when you're busy.

Wenmei Hill is editorial manager at Digital Photography Review.