Good Picture Composition – improve your image framing

Good Picture Composition – improve your image framing

If you want to improve your image framing there are some very simple steps you can take. The first step is to bear in mind that even small adjustments in the positioning of your camera can have a dramatic effect on the framing of your photographs.

Camera angle and position

The slightest re-positioning of your camera, up, down, to the left or right, forward or back can improve instantly your image framing. Consequently, it can make a tremendous difference to good picture composition and the atmosphere of the picture.

Taken on the same camera, the two photographs on this page are pretty simple. With no cropping, both are of exactly the same scene. Not only that, but they have been taken within seconds of each other. The difference is that I have adjusted  the shooting angle very slightly for the second picture.

improve your image framing, good composition
Picture A
A pleasant enough scene. However, by making just a small adjustment of camera angle we can begin improving the composition a great deal. Let’s start by hiding that light-toned sky, and the ugly telegraph pole can go as well. See the photograph B below

Better Composition

However, the overall effect in the second picture B is much more pleasing. This is partially because in the second picture the change of angle has the added bonus of hiding the ugly telegraph pole beside the bridge seen in A.

improve your image framing, good picture composition
Picture B
Notice that by raising the camera position a little and pointing the lens angle down slightly, the telegraph pole has gone, and so has that distracting sky

Create an illusion of depth

As a result, and simply by raising the camera level a couple of inches. a much stronger illusion of depth is created. The foreground leaves at the top are now lower in the frame resulting in these dark leaves partially covering and breaking up the outline of the top of the bridge. In fact, the leaves are now being used as a device to create a separate layer.

Even the outline of the dark leaves in the foreground is looking more substantial.

There was no need to overdo this adjustment in camera position. However, the angle and position of the camera has been altered just enough. Notice that it is now hiding completely that intrusive telegraph pole. Plus – it has broken up that straight outline of the top of the bridge.

Cut out the sky

Also, this slightly higher shooting angle of our second picture B now looks downwards a little. Hence it has the advantage of cutting out the light-tones sky altogether. Plus, the sky is now less distracting and the composition of the picture takes on a more intimate feel. Added to this, the eye is now kept within the composition and is not tempted to wander off into the empty sky.

Read more about Good Composition

You will learn much more about how to improve your composition on a photography workshop with Philip Dunn.

Continue Reading

Good Picture Composition


How to achieve good picture composition – the first thing to realise is that good picture composition does not have to be confined to landscape photography. All pictures, whether they are photographs of people in the street, animals, portraits or still-life, will have the power to attract your viewer’s eye – and hold it within the picture – if the composition is based on sound principles.

So how do you improve picture composition?

Answers vary according to the subject. For this reason, hard rules, despite what some photographers and many artists might tell you, don’t work all the time for every subject. You can, in fact, sometimes even make up your own rules as you go along.

I have used here, quite deliberately, only black-and-white images. That’s because pictures in monochrome are much simpler to explain in terms of good picture composition. As soon as you introduce colour, a whole new set of variables are involved. For instance, areas, or even small details, of different colours can be used to balance or imbalance an entire composition. More about that in a future article. For now let’s keep it simple and stick to B/W..

The key to good pictures composition – the magic No. 3

The key to good picture composition is the overriding importance of attracting, and holding, the viewer’s eye within your picture. The pictures below conform to no absolute rules that I know of except that the human eye nearly always responds favourably to the magic number 3.

There is an obvious triangle of leading lines in the first picture A – and triangles (that magic number 3) can be highly effective and pleasing.


good picture composition
Where does your eye go when you first look at this picture? There is a clear triangle within this composition


This is a very simple triangular composition and I’m prepared to bet that when you first looked at this photograph your eye went directly to the area that contains the faces of the man and the dog, and quite rightly so. There are two reasons for this.

You are human and have a natural desire to find out what other people look like.
Your eye was guided there because that area of the image is contained by three leading lines created by lighter tones of the grass, the stick and the dog’s head.

Notice those leading lines and how they lead your eye to the most important elements of the picture


The whole image is ‘capped’ by the dark area of the skyline and dark clouds. Therefore your eye should certainly head up there to gather information, but it is naturally drawn back to the lighter area in and around our triangle.


good composition
A more complex but still triangular composition


The composition of picture B is far more complex. There are many compositional elements, three eyelines and several triangles; one of these is more dominant than the others.

I suppose if you are a vintage car enthusiast you may look at the car first. Most people will look first at the man cooking breakfast in the middle of the composition. The eye will probably move up to the face of the man in the tent because it is pulled by curiosity and the diagonal slope of the tent roof.

The eye goes round and round a good composition

Chances are that the eye will then go to the man with the dog, then to the car, where the headlight on the left acts like a full-stop. From there the eye moves back into the tent gathering information about the interior floor before starting its tour once again. Each time the eye goes around the composition it gains more information.

By the way, this pictures was taken for The Sunday Times at the gloriously-named Sandy Balls Campsite, in Dorset, It was printed very big without any cropping.

better composition
The same picture with the obvious leading lines highlighted in yellow


Three things to remember about good composition

  • Three is the magic number
  • Eye lines – that means the direction in which a subject is looking – can become leading lines
  • Lighter areas attract the eye like a moth to light

Good picture composition awareness

When this article first appeared I was asked by a well-known artist painter – ‘just how aware is a photographer of all the rules of composition when actually taking a picture?’ A painter, after all, has time to consider and plan the composition even before paint touches canvas. Often a photographer has little or no time to plan, and must capture the image as it presents itself.

Let’s take the question a few steps further and ask how much can an understanding of the rules of good picture composition help a photographer capture a better picture – or, indeed, might an understanding of composition actually hinder or even inhibit a photographer?

You can learn about picture composition on a 121 course with Philip Dunn in Shropshire

My belief is that the more you know about good picture composition the easier things become and the more you can push back the boundaries of photography and express yourself.

I know my artist friend is very talented and successful – he can paint the most beautiful portraits that capture the very essence of his subject’s personality. But he can also paint landscapes, and boats, and houses – in fact, he can paint just about anything he wants to paint.

Why? Well, mostly because he is talented, but I suggest that part of that talent is borne of understanding and training. You see, he is a very fine draughtsman. He understands the rules and the basics of good composition.

It is the same in photography.

Pictures that can’t be cropped

When I was working for The Sunday Times, I was known on the Picture Desk as the photographer who took pictures that were difficult to crop. Now, shooting pictures that could not be cropped was fine for a newspaper like The Sunday Times – they really appreciated good photography and were prepared to use big pictures that included all the photographer intended to include in the composition – however, I do not recommend this strategy for most freelances trying to sell their pictures.

In truth, you can crop any picture – you simply cut a piece off the image. But not if you want to preserve the integrity of the whole composition, the subtle linking of one part of the composition to another, and the whole meaning and context of the image.

Good picture composition helps tell the story

I enjoy producing pictures in which every part of the composition is in some way linked visually; pictures that need all their elements to tell the whole story. I am fascinated with this concept.

The example here might help explain what I’m trying to say. It shows a street scene in Jaipur, India,

How the photograph was taken

The obvious potential of a picture with the cows in the foreground was spotted immediately. So, naturally, I positioned myself to include them in a fairly wide-angle photograph of the street – a very busy place with people moving around all the time.

I took a photograph (get one in the bag – the cows might move). Glancing behind me I saw the cycle rickshaw and lady with her three children coming towards me. So I turned back towards the cows and the street scene and waited for the people and the rickshaw to pass me knowing that they might create another interesting part of the whole composition as they moved into the picture.

good picture composition
A fraction of a second later everything came together – see the final picture below


As they got just in front of me I started taking pictures – this was a single shot film camera. The first shot was just a little too early and did not work. The second shot worked perfectly.

good picture composition
Everything came together at once. The people, the rickshaw, the cows, to create a circular composition that takes the eye on a ride around the picture


The point is – I knew absolutely that the composition was going to work a fraction of a second before I pressed the shutter. Everything came together: the rickshaw overtook the family and moved further into the picture while one of the children kept his eyes on me. At this precise moment the other rickshaw up the street pulled into the road to turn around. The composition was complete – the circle joined up. I pressed the button.

I also knew when I took the picture that the composition had a circular form in which the eye might move around the light area in the middle gathering information before heading round the picture again to see more.

In conclusion, there will usually be one decisive moment when everything comes together. It’s up to you to develop that sense of timing, and that will only come with practise.


  • Develop a ‘feel’ for the moment when all the elements of composition come together and gel. This takes practice.
  • Always be aware of subjects moving around you – and check behind to see what’s approaching.
  • Think ahead – anticipate the action.

This article, written and illustrated by Philip Dunn, first appeared in Amateur Photographer Magazine

Continue Reading

Street Photography 1


Could you master the art of street photography? Or are you self-conscious about pointing your camera at strangers? Nervous about carrying your gear around in public? Philip Dunn offers guidance on how to relax while taking pictures and build your confidence to become an effective street photographer.

street photography child with dog on slum doorstep
One of Philip Dunn’s earliest street photography images. A dirty, barefoot boy eats a biscuit while standing on the doorstep of his home with his mongrel dog. This picture was taken in the north of England in the 1970s with an Pentax camera – using film, of course. Photograph by Philip Dunn

The most easily accessible location for photography is right outside your own front door – in the street if you happen to live in town. Out there people are coming and going about there daily lives, and the houses, buildings and surroundings themselves can make really worthwhile subjects.  Why then do so many photographers get into a sweat at the very thought of taking pictures in the street?

Because, understandably, they feel self-conscious and a bit nervous about pointing their cameras at perfect strangers. This is normal, and if you feel that way, you are not alone.

You probably also feel as if you are being intrusive. Well, in a way, you are and because this type of photography brings you into contact with total strangers. It does not suit everyone.



However, you don’t always have to tackle your subjects head-on. It is important to remember that you have a perfect right to take pictures in a public street and that there are many more subtle ways of capturing pictures of people than simply sticking a camera in their face.

It can help your street photography skills if you start by taking pictures at street events or parades, where everyone participating and watching will expect lots of photographs to be taken and will readily accept the presence of photographers. A good training ground can be a busy tourist town – again, people will be expecting photographers to take pictures. Aim for rear views of people to begin with so that they may not even know they have been photographed and will not question you. All this will help you build confidence.

street photography people
A man wearing overcoat and large hat walks through the snow covered street in Kirkcudbright with a small child. You can build your confidence by taking pictures of people from behind. Photograph by Philip Dunn



Eventually someone will turn around and see you taking their photograph. Rule Number One – press the button again, smile broadly and say something pleasant. Tell them what a great picture they have helped to create, how good they looked and how you could not resist taking it. Show them the picture on the preview screen if they are interested. Let’s face it, you would not have taken the person’s picture in the first place if you felt the subject looked at all threatening, so who knows, you may gain a friend, or a least a ‘tame’ subject who you may be able to ask to ‘do it again’.

This approach can lead to countless happy encounters with strangers and many great pictures. Most of all, don’t expect to be an expert overnight, it takes time to build technique and confidence – especially confidence.


All this will help you get started, your aim is to feel confident enough to take out you camera in almost any situation and take pictures.

Remember, good street photography is about much more than just taking pictures in the street, because anyone can do that. Your pictures must have meaning, relevance, context, focal points and sound composition that will attract and hold your viewer’s attention. Each picture must tell a story and have a sense of immediacy. Going out there, tilting your camera at an angle and convincing yourself that becasue you have recorded a ‘moment’ is not street photography.

You can learn from years of professional experience on one of Philip Dunn’s Photography Workshops


It seems like I’m always asked the following questions when I suggest we go out and take pictures of people in the street. Some photographers have to make a great effort to pluck up enough courage just to take the camera out of the bag. However, it does not take them long to see how much fun it is and how good the rapport can be with total strangers.

Will people object to being photographed?
Well, I suppose you can make a friend or a foe in 1/500sec, but mostly people will either ignore you altogether, or ask why you are taking their picture. A perfectly reasonable question that deserves an answer. The amateur photographer has got the ideal reply – “I’m just a keen photographer who enjoys photographing people, I hope you don’t mind.”

Will they become aggressive?
Very, very rarely. Common sense and basic street craft comes into play here and you will soon learn when it’s best not to point a camera. If someone tells you to ‘go away’, just smile and move on, don’t argue, there are plenty of other subjects to choose from.

Should you ask permission first?
I nearly always prefer to get something in the camera first and ask permission afterwards. Again, much depends on the circumstances, but remember, when someone says they don’t mind being photographed, you have a ‘tame’ subject and you should ask to take more pictures.

What should you do if they spot you taking their picture of them?
Press the shutter button again – that’s because the initial reaction to being photographed can create a very special photograph. Then smile broadly, hold both hands up and tell them what you are doing and why.

  • Use fast shutter speeds to freeze people’s movements. 1/250sec minimum if possible. This may require a faster ISO in poor light conditions.
  • Keep your camera set for instant use either with the correct exposure if you are using Manual mode, or use TV(shutter priority mode), or AV (aperture priority mode), whichever suits you best.
  • Keep your camera accessible – preferably around your neck and perhaps tucked into your jacket a little.
  • Patience is essential.
  • Observe and watch people closely.
  • Be aware of everything going on around you – that includes behind you.
  • Anticipate where people are likely to go – you will learn to predict their movements quite well with practise.
  • Find good viewpoints and wait for people to move into them.
  • Start with ‘back view’ shots of people… there’s less chance of you being spotted taking pictures.
  • Take lots of pictures because that ‘decisive moment’ can be elusive in the beginning.
  • Travel light – big, heavy camera bags are a nuisance and will attract attention.
  • Finally – keep your camera bag tightly zipped up when working in a crowded street. It would be a shame to lose equipment to light fingers while you are concentrating on taking pictures.
Continue Reading

Photography Courses in Shrewsbury

Photography Courses in Shrewsbury

It’s taken a couple of years, but, at last I’m in a position to ‘get out more’ and again start sharing my lifelong passion for photography. I’ve started by running Photography Courses in Shrewsbury.

For 15 years until 2016 we ran countless photography courses, 121s and workshops in the lovely town of Kirkcudbright in SW Scotland. The people there were so delightful that it was a joy to take my students through the town taking pictures in the street. People, buildings, the harbour, churches, fishing boats, the river – anything and everything that caught our eye. Nobody ever objected.

Photo Exhibition – Your Town

In fact, we never – not once – met with any objections or unpleasantness during these walks with our cameras. It was so good, and I was so grateful to the people of Kirkcudbright that I held a photo exhibition ‘Your Town’ with a display of some of the pictures I had taken while working alongside my students. There are around 4000 inhabitants in Kirkcudbright – 2500 of them came to the exhibition. It says it all. They even insisted I publish a book of the photographs, and so I did. It was a sell-out.

street photography,shrewsbury
Dog walker on Porthill Bridge – what a great spot to photograph people in Shrewsbury


Imagine my delight then, when – with great trepidation – I ventured out into the streets of Shrewsbury for the first time with a student to cover Street Photography.

How would Shrewsbury people react to the camera?

street photography,ukelele,shrewsbury,market
Happy to play his ukulele while having his picture taken, this jolly chap is on his stall in the indoor Market Hall


Photographs of people

The answer is that the people of Shrewsbury responded in the most positive way possible – for the most part, people just let us get on with taking pictures and took no notice of us (perfect) or they responded with interest and a welcome for an idea that they believed was ‘good for the town’ and would bring more visitors.

Reading room in the indoor Market Hall in Shrewsbury. Regular browsers look for a bargain in the market


Now where have I heard that before – yes, Kirkcudbright in Bonnie Galloway.

Photography Courses in Shrewsbury
There are interesting corners and angles almost everywhere you look in Shrewsbury



So now I have a date fixed my first Photography Workshops in Shrewsbury – Saturday 21st April. We’ll do a daytime workshop, and then an evening ‘Mixed Light’ session. There are just 3 places left.

Find out more about these workshops

More dates will follow, with plans to run courses in Ludlow and in the Shropshire Hills.

Of all the venues in Shrewsbury that produced the most interesting pictures, the indoor Market Hall was tops. The student and I (he just happened to be a cancer research professor with a passion for photography) had a great time in there. Everyone was so welcoming. There was no ducking away, just a positive, fun response to having their pictures taken. Of course we respect people who do not want to be photographed for whatever reason. But the customers and stallholders in the market just enjoyed the moment. It makes me think I have found a great place for the Photography Courses in Shrewsbury.


Window shopping in Shrewsbury – maybe they’ll find that special gift


So, thank you, market stallholders and the people of Shrewsbury. You were great – and I look forward to bringing more visiting photographers to your town.



Continue Reading

Photographing Birds in the Snow


Although I have always had a deep interest in the wildlife that surrounds us, I don’t claim to be a nature photographer. It is a branch of photography about which I know little, and so I have great respect for those who achieve beautiful pictures of wild animals. But I still love photographing birds in the snow.

bird photography,wildlife photography,photoactive,philip dunn,fieldfare
Photographed through the double-glazed kitchen window – the drama of a life or death battle for survival



No, my ‘prey’ has mostly been of the human kind – capturing people unawares in the street or in moments of drama or joy.

That doesn’t mean that I will miss easy opportunities to take pictures of the wild birds and animals I’m so fond of.

During this terrible cold spell, we’ve been putting out on the lawn the remaining, rather bruised, cooking apples that have been stored in our shed. The Blackbirds, Robins and Thrushes love them. A couple or three Blackbirds can polish off a large cooking apple in about 15 minutes at this time of year. I’ve counted at least 20 blackbirds at one time.

wildlife photography,bird photography
Blackbird V Fieldfare – it seems a pretty even contest – but you have to be quick to capture it on camera


This morning, however, the regular garden birds were inundated with a flock or fieldfares – that’s when the fun began. Among the Fieldfares were some Redwings. The Blackbirds fought back to protect their food source. This was a real battle for survival on one of the coldest winter days I can remember.


I had to photograph the scene, but being of a wimpish disposition, there was no way I was going to sit outside to take pictures. Not in this weather. See, I told you I have respect for wildlife photographers, a proper one would have been out there braving the elements. I opted for a camera position behind the double glazed kitchen window.

bird photography,wildlife photography,philip dunn,fieldfare,blackbird
A hen Blackbird fights it out with a Fieldfare – the winner took the piece of apple


I know the pictures won’t win any prizes, but I enjoyed taking them, and hope you enjoy seeing them. The session gave me another insight into the behaviour of our wild birds and made me aware of just how beautiful are the Fieldfares and Redwings that visit us each winter.

  • I used a Nikon D700 with a 70-200mm Nikkor f2.8 lens
  • Exposure compensation +1
  • ISO 400
  • Aperture priority mode
  • F5 which gave me a shutter speed of 1/2000th sec


wildlife photography-bird photography
Fieldfare fights back – aerial combat. Photograph by Philip Dunn




Continue Reading

Understanding Light – its colour


The colour of the light we use has a direct effect on our photographs. But there’s no need to get bogged down with technicalities to make the most of this colour temperature.

An understanding of the colour, or temperature, of light is essential if you want to get the most from every subject and all situations. Not least because when you understand what’s going on you can take steps to avoid simple mistakes. It will also open up the most wonderful opportunities for capturing and emphasising colours in situations when you might otherwise be tempted to put away your camera.

colour-temperature,warm light
Low temperature golden light of the evening sun has lit the bridge, but the fishing boat is in deeply shaded, high temperature blue light – it’s so dark the fishermen have switched on the deck lights, and added more low temperature light to the mixture. The camera’s White Balance was set on the ‘sunny’ icon. Photograph by Philip Dunn


daylight,high temperature light
Different colour temperatures are very noticeable here. The white band of paint on the wall on which the melon sits is actually the same colour as that on the house in the background. But – the foreground is lit by soft, direct sunlight and has a natural white colour. The white paint in the background is in shadow and lit only by indirect reflected light from a blue sky – that is very blue high temperature light. It looks like blue paint. Photograph by Philip Dunn

In the days of film, we often had to put a ‘warm-up’ filter over our lens. These 81 series filters were tinted slightly amber in colour and took away the blue cast in a picture taken on an overcast, cloudy day. That’s because our Daylight colour film was formulated to produce correct colours – whites as pure white etc – on a sunny day with a few puffy clouds in the sky. Now, with digital, all we need do is adjust our White Balance (WB) setting. It’s great, we even have the luxury of Auto White Balance (AWB). This acts like a sliding scale, correcting a little too much blue or too much yellow in the light either side of ‘daylight’. AWB is not the answer to everything, but it’s good.


Of course, many photographers now shoot RAW files, and these images are then corrected in post processing. Here I am talking about setting the camera to shoot JPEG files, and with these, colour corrections are made, mostly, in the camera when the picture is taken.


You’ll notice that what we naturally think of as ‘cold’, blue light is, in photographic terms, high temperature light on the Kelvin Scale. What people normally think of as ‘warm’ golden light (the golden light from tungsten light bulbs, candles etc.), is in fact low temperature light. A tungsten light bulb is around 2,500K. Unless you adjust your WB setting to Tungsten – that’s usually indicated by the little icon of a light bulb, or take a Custom WB setting, pictures taken in the light of ordinary light bulbs will have a yellow colour cast.


The colour (temperature) of light is measured on the Kelvin Scale, and our Daylight colour film was formulated to produce correct colours at around 5,500K (Kelvin). The same principle applies to our digital cameras. When the sky clouds over the temperature of the light actually goes up the Kelvin Scale. Maybe to around 6,500K. In deep shade on a sunny day the light can be very blue indeed – very high colour temperature. Perhaps about 10,000K or more.

Don’t panic! You don’t need to remember these numbers, but they do give you an idea of what’s going on. When you know what’s happening, you can use these different colours of light to create the most beautiful effects – and you can often change things by taking control of your WB settings on the camera. Understanding colour temperature opens up the most wonderful picture opportunities.

light,mixed light,colour temperature,you magazine,dog racing
It’s almost dark at the dog races, and the deep blue of the sky has been mixed with the low temperature artificial lighting. Mixed light has added greatly to the atmosphere of the picture. Philip Dunn for YOU Magazine


sunday times,mixed light,newlyn,colour temperature
An understanding of colour temperature saved the day on this assignment for The Times Magazine travel desk

Knowing how to use colour temperature can often save the day for a professional photographer. I was sent by The Times Magazine to photograph Newlyn in Cornwall. A tight deadline meant I had just one day to do the pictures. My brief was for a couple of very colourful pictures. It rained solidly all day and colour was in very short supply. When the rain stopped just before darkness, I quickly set about getting my first colourful picture – using the blue light of dusk mixed with the golden light of a floodlight at the end of the pier.

So I had one picture, but needed another. It was now dark, but I knew I would have a second bite at the Mixed Light cherry – before dawn. That night in the darkness, I dragged the lobster pot into a position beneath the harbour light ready for morning. I was back on the quayside well before dawn. The lobster pot was lit with a flash from the side. A long exposure captured the low temperature glow of the harbour lights and the high temperature blue light of the pre-dawn sky.

light temperature,newlyn cornwall,fishing,mixed light
After a day of heavy rain, the first opportunity to take a colourful picture came at dusk when different colour temperatures could be combined. Philip Dunn for The Times Magazine


William Thompson, Lord Kelvin 1824-1907
lord kelvin,kelvin scale
Lord Kelvin – he came up with the Kelvin Scale


Next time you set the ‘cloudy’ or ‘light bulb’ icon on your WB settings, spare a thought for Lord Kelvin, he was quite a man. He not only quantified the Kelvin Scale of absolute temperature, he was a Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy at Glasgow University. He developed the science of thermodynamics, invented the mirror galvanometer, a telegraph message receiver, and supervised the laying of the first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable. He published 660 scientific papers, the first at the age of 16. He was a champion rower and founded Glasgow University Music Society.
He was knighted in 1866 and created Baron Kelvin of Largs in 1892. He is buried in Westminster Abbey.

Read more about MIXED LIGHT

This article, written and photographed by Philip Dunn, first appeared in Amateur Photographer Magazine


Continue Reading

Understanding Light – its quality


What’s all this about the quality of light? Philip Dunn shows you how to recognise good light – and improve it when it’s not so good.

When asked to define the quality of light, there are some photographers who go all precious and claim it’s the sort of thing that only ‘artistic’ people (like themselves presumably) can recognise. Well, as I’m only a simple photographer I’ll try to be a bit more objective.

quality of light quality,philip dunn,photo technique
You must be able to see the quality of light when you are taking pictures. High quality light has no harsh, sharp edges on the shadows. It’s soft and there is detail in those shadows – yet the light can still be directional as in this still life picture taken in a potter’s dusty studio. Photograph by Philip Dunn



I think of the quality of light in terms of its softness or harshness. Its diffuseness or clarity. High quality light brings a luminescence to the shadows and reduces – but does not lose – contrasts between shadows and highlights. Once you know what to look for, you will be able to recognise high quality light when it’s there. The real bonus is that when you realise what’s going on, you may well be able to alter and enhance the quality of your light by using some very simple tricks.

photo technique,light quality
At midday when the sun is glaring down from a clear sky the light will be very poor, hard quality top light. That’s the time to hunt pictures in the shade. Here I have found a great subject and the quality of the indirect, reflected light is excellent. Look on the floor at either side of the man and you can see just how hard and poor that direct sunlight is outside – that hard light is also cutting across his right shoulder and the right side of the box he is sitting on. But he is in shade and there was a white wall behind me reflecting light back onto him. This has created excellent soft light that shows all the folds in the blanket covering his knees – and the creases in his face. Photograph by Philip Dunn

If you photograph someone standing out in the open, on a sunny, cloudless day you’re going to get hard, sharply-outlined, empty black shadows. I’d call that poor quality light. The sun may be almost a million miles in diameter, but to a photographer it’s just a dot in the sky – a very small light source – and the smaller the light source, the harder and poorer the quality of the light it offers. Poor quality light has another extreme; if you take that same picture outdoors on a gloomy day with thick cloud cover, you are going to get flat, uninteresting image with no contrast and no indication of the direction of the light source.

Between these two extremes lies a whole range of beautiful high quality, directional light that will enhance almost any subject. So what makes the difference?

If the sun is veiled with just a thin haze of wispy cloud, it will diffuse the light and soften the shadows. The light can still be directional, but the outline of the shadows will be less defined – softer. There will be detail in those shadows and I’d call that high quality light… directional yet slightly diffused.


You can learn about the quality of light when you join Philip Dunn on a 121 photography course


The sort of conditions that produce high quality light are frequently created in the late afternoon when the sun is low in the sky and shining through a hazy atmosphere that has built up during the day. It is a good idea to have a particular subject in mind for the occasions when these conditions occur because they are very special and will not last very long. If you do have a subject in mind, you will be able to go straight to it, be in position and use every minute of the high quality directional light.


If you really have to photograph someone in strong sunlight, there is a simple way to convert that hard light into soft, high quality light – and it costs nothing. All you need is a white wall.

light quality,portraits,hard light
Dreadful hard light is NOT suitable for portraiture




PICTURE A – using the hard sunlight with the white wall behind the subject and the sun behind the camera. The result is dreadful, with hard, empty black shadows. Not only that, but it is uncomfortable for your model to stare straight into the sun. This is no way to photograph a lady – or anyone else for that matter. Don’t do it.





light quality,portrait,reflector
Same lady, same light, but photographed using a reflector to soften the light




PICTURE B – by turning my subject right around, putting the wall behind me and photographing into the light the effect on the model’s face is fantastic. Now her face is lit by soft, high quality, reflected light from the wall. Just look how it has lit up her eyes, softened her features and flattened away those ‘laughter lines’.

Yes, there are downsides – flare in the lens can be a problem when photographing into the light. Use a lens hood. Don’t use light green or brightly-coloured walls as reflectors – they will give a nasty colour cast.



light quality,photo technique,reflectors
It is very easy to raise the quality of light when shooting close-ups like this. Just a small sheet of white paper will do the trick. Soft sunlight is coming from the right side of the picture. The reflective paper has been held out of shot to the left and this has lit the shadows with soft, diffused light – couldn’t be more simple. Photograph by Philip Dunn


light quality,lifejackets,rnli
The lifejackets have been photographed in the wide-open doorway of the lifeboat house. There is no direct sunlight, so the light source (the whole doorway) is very big. The larger the light source, the softer will be the shadows. Add a little reflected light from white walls inside the building, and the result is beautiful high quality sidelight. Photograph by Philip Dunn


The full version of this article, written and photographed by Philip Dunn, first appeared in Amateur Photographer Magazine

Continue Reading

Understanding Light – its direction


Good light is the photographer’s most vital yet least understood ingredient. It’s more important than a whole bagful of expensive gear. Let’s get to grips with the direction of light.

Let’s face it, you can’t take photographs without it so the more you get to grips with it the better. An understanding of light will transform the way you see and enable you to express yourself visually. It will help you highlight the vibrancy of colours, create visual mood, pick out the textures of everything from stone walls to wrinkly faces, and capture the outline shapes of almost any subject you choose.

the direction of light - side light for portraiture
It’s not just the old man’s face and beard that brings impact to this portrait. It is the strong side light. That’s what is emphasizing the texture of his skin. I deliberately positioned my subject beside a small window. Photograph by Philip Dunn


Oddly, you don’t need a camera in your hands to practice ‘seeing the light’. Start by observing the way the light falls on everything around you; people’s faces, buildings, trees, water. You can do this any time, anywhere, no matter what you are doing; walking to work, sitting by a window, out shopping. This is part of a process that will enable you to be objective about your photography and to start seeing the way the camera sees.

Observing the directions of light in particular becomes a habit and you won’t be able to stop doing it – I tell my students it’s like the Chinese curse of having a monkey on your back – you can never get rid of the habit once you’ve got it. However, our Light Monkey is a helpful soul and he is always there to help… although he may give you a sharp prod if you stop listening to him.

The photographer is an illusionist

Think of yourself as an illusionist – and one of the most powerful illusions you can create within your two-dimensional photograph is the illusion of depth – the third dimension. Composition is one way to achieve this, the other is intelligent use of light.

I divide light into three, its direction, its quality and its colour. I want you to be able to recognise these particular attributes of any light source instantly. This will enable you get exactly what you want from every subject.

Let’s take a look at the direction of light first of all, but bear in mind that in the real world the direction of light might be a combination of some of these headings…. ‘toppy-back’ light, for instance – there’s a new word for you. And sometimes the light may be totally non-directional.

You won’t always be able to change the light – but often you will be able to adjust your shooting angle or the position of your subject in order to make the most of what you have. For instance, you may be able to time your visit to a certain location to coincide with the direction of light that will show it off best. Sadly, this is not always possible especially for professional photographers under pressure of time and deadlines. They will have to resort to all sorts of tricks – but I’ll tell you more about those in future articles.


direction of light,side-light-photo-technique,philip dunn
Side light gives the illusion of the third dimension, by emphasizing texture and form – just look at that red table cloth and the roughness of the white wall. But it has another trick up its sleeve; it can create strong shadows, like that of the man projected on the wall. These shadows can be used as composition devices. They become an integral part of the image and can, as in this case, help convey more information to the viewer. At first glance it is not entirely clear what the man is doing, he might be playing a tin whistle, although the cigarette packet on the table is a clue – but the shadow on the wall tells the story instantly and gives the information that he is lighting a fag. Photograph by Philip Dunn


photo technique,philip dunn,side light
Beautiful, soft side light can usually be found just inside doorways and arches – such as churches and indoor markets like this one in Tunisia. Photograph by Philip Dunn


Side light is perhaps the star of the show. With the light to one side of your subject (almost any subject), you will create the illusion of depth, texture, shape, form, substance, call it what you will, on your two-dimensional photograph. This can be powerful stuff. Side light can transform everything from portraits or landscape into strongly textured images with the illusion of that third dimension. Beware, though, it shows every imperfection of a model’s complexion, some subjects hate it as it shows the texture of their skin (wrinkles), so it’s not the way to disguise those ‘laughter lines’. It can make buildings appear as cubes, tree trunks look round, give contours to hills – and all because you have light on one side of your subject and shadow on the other.






Front light… with the light almost directly behind the camera and front-on to the subject, I have tried to accentuate the bright colours of these buildings by taking most of the shadows away. But at a cost – look how flat and two-dimensional the buildings look. Photograph by Philip Dunn


FRONT LIGHT... put the light source directly behind the camera – front-on to your subject – and you take away the shadows. This tends to ‘flatten’ the image; it loses any 3D effect. However, front light has a great trick up its sleeve… shadows often obscure colours. So if your subject is colourful and you want to see more colour – use front light. The downside is that you lose texture and form in your subject.


photo technique,back light, photo-silhouette,philip dunn
Back light – can create drama and emphasize the outline shape of your subject. Here I am shooting almost directly into a low, but partially obscured sun. The shape of the cow’s head has been accentuated because the animal is silhouetted, and the hairs on its ears have been lit from behind creating a rim light, or ‘halo’ effect that separates the animal from the background. Photograph by Philip Dunn


Learn more about light and how to use it on a one-to-one photography course with Philip Dunn

BACK LIGHT… Shoot into the light and put the light source behind your subject and, in the most extreme case, you will create a silhouette – emphasizing outline shape. Back light does not have to be quite so obvious, though, and with a little diffusion from such things as clouds or reflectors, it can create a soft, subtle ‘atmosphere’, but more about that when we talk about the ‘quality of light’ in a future article. Back light often creates a rim, or halo effect around the subject – this is much-used in studio portraiture to separate the outline of the model from the background. It happens in nature, too – look at the picture of the cow  and notice how the hairs on its head and ears stand out against the dark background. So if you intend to emphasize the outline shape of your subject, use back light.

photo technique,top light,philip dunn
Ugh! Top light. This is the one to avoid whenever you can. It’s midday and the sun is high overhead – definitely not time to take portraits like this – especially if your subject is wearing a big hat.


This is the one to avoid whenever possible. Professional travel and landscape photographers work both ends of the day – morning and evening. That’s because the light source, the sun, is low in the sky and can be used as front, side or back light. With the light directly above, portraits look horrible. Landscapes and buildings look boring and no matter in which direction you look at it, the light remains the same.

Avoid it. Come back later or ask your subject to step into a doorway where you can use sidelight – anything to avoid top light.


The full version of this article, written and photographed by Philip Dunn, first appeared in Amateur Photographer Magazine

Continue Reading

Mixed Light Photography


Ever wondered how to create those wonderful atmospheric photographs where golden light from a house window streams into the cold, blue light of the street? You must have seen them – National Geographic photographers use this technique all the time when taking pictures of villages or towns. It’s called mixed light photography, and advertising photographers use it when photographing hotels and guest houses. It’s a really old trick to make the place look cosy and inviting – the front door is often left open so that yellow light spills out onto the doorstep.

Philip Dunn’s students get to grips with the technique of  mixed light photography on location

Yellows and blues combined in mixed light photography

This technique is pretty simple – provided you understand what’s happening to create all those lovely deep yellows and blues. It’s all about colour temperature and ‘mixing’ the high temperature blue light of dusk with the low temperature yellow light of interior tungsten lighting.

Think what happens at sunset – you take lots of colourful pictures with lovely oranges and reds in the sky. Perhaps your pictures include the silhouettes of buildings in the foreground. Then the sun goes down below the horizon – the reds disappear from the sky as the sun sinks way down. It is now almost dark – twilight – so dark that people have to switch on the lights in those buildings so they can see what they are doing.

You can join a workshop to learn the technique of mixed light

Just take pictures right now!

Take more pictures right now. This is your opportunity to ‘mix’ different colours of light – yellow tungsten and blue twilight – it doesn’t last long, usually no more than 10 minutes, so make the most of it.

photo techique,mixed light photography,menorca,ken terry
My friend and student Ken Terry took this immaculate picture during one of our Photography Holidays in Menorca. Notice how the effect of the low-temperature street lighting has been maximised with the reflections on the wet surfaces

So what is happening? Well, it’s all about colour temperature, and this is measured by the Kelvin scale. You may even have a ‘K’ (for Kelvin) setting on the White Balance (WB) function on your camera. According to the Kelvin scale, normal daylight (the sun in a blue sky with a few small puffy clouds) measures around 5,500K. When it goes cloudy, the light gets bluer and climbs up the scale to perhaps 6,500K.

Normal people think of warm light as orange/red light and cold light as blue. However, photographers have to realise that the Kelvin scale works opposite to normal logic. You’ll just have to accept this, I’m afraid.

lord Kelvin,kelvin scale,colour temperature

Don’t worry about the Kelvin numbers

The nice thing is you don’t have to bother with these numbers if you don’t want to. Just set your WB to the ‘Sunny’ icon and shoot away. By locking it on the ‘Sunny’ icon, you will intensify both the yellows and the blues. But experiment. Every situation is different and you may find you get better results by using the Auto White Balance (AWB) setting.


If possible, put your camera on a tripod or rest it on a firm object. This is because you will need to use a slow shutter speed to capture the ‘mixed’ light of twilight. Come on – it’s going dark!

Twilight does not last long – so set up your camera beforehand and be ready.

If you’d like to put all this technique into practice, you can join me in Shrewsbury at 7.30pm on the evening of April 21st 2018 for an evening Photography Workshop covering the wonders of ‘Mixed Light’ photography.


Continue Reading

Photo Technique Articles

Photo Technique Articles

The old PhotoActive website blog had a vast store of photo technique articles. I am starting here with a clean sheet – a new website, a new base here in Shropshire – and a new plan for the photography courses and workshops.

But all those photo-technique articles are just as valid now as they were before. I know for certain that they have helped countless photographers. So my plan is to re-post them here over time. There are many new articles planned to help you improve your photography and enable you to capture on camera what you see with your eyes – they see the world in very different ways.

As the first of my evening workshops will be to explore the wonders of ‘Mixed Light’ photography, I thought I would kick of with a post about colour temperature and how it can help you create some interesting images, like the atmospheric photograph here taken for You Magazine at the dog races.

mixed-light-photography-dog-races-you-magazine,photo technique articles
Mixing the high temperature blue light of early evening with the yellow of artificial tungsten light has added considerably to the atmosphere of this photograph taken for You Magazine. Photograph by Philip Dunn


If you’d like to put all this technique into practice, you can join me in Shrewsbury at 7.30pm on the evening of April 21st 2018 for an evening Photography Workshop covering the wonders of ‘Mixed Light’ photography.

Many of these photo technique articles appeared in Amateur Photographer Magazine some while ago. Future posts will cover a very wide range of subjects such as…

  • Composition
  • Direction and Quality of Light
  • Action photography
  • Landscape
  • Portraiture

.. plus how to photograph trees, still life, fog, reflections, sparks, sunsets, waterfalls and much more.

So let’s start with that ‘Mixed Light’ Photography.

Meanwhile you can improve your photography on a 121 photography course or a photography workshop with Philip Dunn in Shropshire


Continue Reading
  • 1
  • 2
Close Menu