How to Fix Bad Lighting in Your Photos: 7 Tips

Photographers like certain types of lighting for photography – golden hour and blue hour are two great examples – but what do you do when the lighting is wrong? Are you giving up? Are you going home?

In my opinion, it’s totally possible to create interesting and meaningful photos in low light – you just need to know a few tricks! And that’s what I’m sharing in this article: a handful of simple techniques for getting great photos using strong sunlight, strong backlighting, boring flat light, and more.

Let’s dive into it.

1. Use fill flash

When the light is dull, Where when working in bright sunny weather, fill flash can be a big help.

For one, a little fill flash can add some much-needed life to a flat photo. It can also help eliminate harsh shadows under the chin, nose and eyes of portrait subjects.

You can carry a flash – which you can use on-camera or off-camera as needed – but if you’re in a hurry and don’t have a flash handy, your camera’s pop-up flash photo can also work.

Try to balance the power of your flash with the available light; this way you get natural results. You don’t want your flash itself to produce harsh shadows!

Off-camera fill flash used for an image of a boy at the Poi Sang Long festival in Mae Hong Son, Thailand
The light before sunrise was very flat and dull, but the action was already happening. I held my flash to the side and balanced the output with the available light.

Take a few photos and view them on your camera’s LCD screen. Adjust the power level of your flash and experiment until you get a result you like.

If your photos still seem a little too flashy, try bouncing fill light off a light-colored surface like a wall, ceiling, or reflector. This will soften and diffuse the light. A modifier cone or softbox will also help the flash output appear more natural.

how to fix bad lighting
Here I used fill flash to balance out the available light. The result is a well-lit and dynamic portrait.

2. Use reflected light (or a reflector)

If you’re shooting in the blazing sun or against strong backlight, you don’t always need a fill flash; reflected light can work just fine on its own.

Try using a portable reflector to reflect light into the shadows of your subject. If you’re capturing portraits, your subject can even hold the reflector for you (although if you have an assistant who can hold the reflector, you’ll definitely have more flexibility). Lighting setups often require a reflector placed under the subject’s chin (so that the light shines on their face). But feel free to experiment with other angles and see what you can create.

Reflectors come in different sizes and colors, but a medium-sized white reflector is a good first purchase. Over time, you will be able to expand your collection of reflectors based on your preferences.

And if you don’t have a reflector, a light colored wall, a white car, a white umbrella or even white sand can work too!

Reflected light softens dark shadows on a young Thai woman

3. Move your subject

Sometimes the light is bad in one area, but it’s far, much better just across the room (or even a few steps to the side).

That’s why, before you break out your fill flash or reflector, just consider move your subject.

For example, bright sunlight doesn’t work so well for portraits, but you can always move your subject under a tree for a nice open shadow. You may still need to use a reflector or fill flash to add life to your photo – it’s ultimately up to you – but the results will be absolutely look better than the alternative.

And if you’re working indoors, your subject may be heavily shadowed. Just ask them to take a few steps towards the window, and you’ll get a picture like this:

Portrait of buddhist nun how to fix bad lighting

So when working in poor light, slow down. Breathe deeply. Look for other areas with better lighting and see if you can improve your photos just by adjusting your location.

4. Compose creatively

Oftentimes, poor lighting will not show across the entire scene. Instead, it will cause nasty reflections in a corner, along part of the background, or along one side of the subject.

And in such situations, you can compose creatively to avoid including problem areas in your shots.

You can zoom in or get closer to your subject to omit parts of your composition where lighting is problematic. You can also try holding your camera at an unconventional angle, such as above your subject or low to the ground.

For example, I didn’t like the bright white light – produced by a blazing sun – in the background below:

Iced tea in a glass

So I simply moved closer and positioned the camera above my subjects:

Thai ice tea creative composition

Unpleasant bright areas disappeared and I got the shots I was looking for.

You might also think of ways to crop the photo later. If you’re ready to create a panorama, you can always crop a lightly lit sky, for example.

5. Think black and white

Did you know that black and white images actually look like better when shooting in “bad” light?

It’s true! In harsh, high-contrast light, or even flat light, you can get great black-and-white photos that show off shadows, highlights, or subject detail.

This next image may look harsh in color, but in black and white, the dark shadows and highlights look great:

Black and white photograph of a Kayaw girl

If you’re using a mirrorless camera with an electronic viewfinder, you can even adjust your settings so you can see in black and white while shooting. And if you don’t have an electronic viewfinder, that’s fine too. Just do your best to imagine the world in black and white, then do careful B&W conversions in Lightroom, Photoshop, or another post-processing program.

6. Use a filter

While no filter can make bad light look amazing, there are are a few filters that can make a big difference when working in less than optimal conditions.

For example, a polarizing filter will reduce glare and haze, which are common on sunny days. And this will make the blue sky dark and saturated:

Polarizing filter used to make the sky bluer behind the golden chedi

You can also use a neutral density filter to slow down your shutter speeds and take advantage of moving water or clouds. Or, if your scene has an overly bright foreground or background, you can use a Graduated Neutral Density filter to darken the offending area and balance the scene.

7. Do some post-processing

I don’t recommend that you rely entirely on post-processing when shooting. If you always plan to correct your images when editing, you’ll never learn how to do them properly in camera.

That said…

Fixing bad lighting using Lightroom or Photoshop can be incredibly effective.

If your exposure contains detail in highlights and shadows, and you are working with a high-resolution RAW file, you will benefit from a great deal of post-processing flexibility. You can brighten shadows, decrease highlights, adjust contrast, and more. You can also edit your shots to deal with washed out colors.

You can also selectively change the subject or background to create more or less contrast. For this next photo, the background was too light and distracting, so I darkened it:

Post-processed black and white portrait of a gold leaf worker in Mandalay

Again, don’t rely entirely on editing software to get the image right. Do what you can when shooting; if you can use some of the techniques I shared above, you’ll have a much better file to work with.

But if you know how to fix bad lighting with a few editing tricks, your images will look so much better.

How to Fix Bad Lighting: Final Words

Reflected light enhances a photo of a Thai woman being kissed by an elephant.

Now that you’ve finished this article, you’re well equipped to deal with poor lighting, whether it’s dull light, blazing sun, or something else entirely.

Remember the tips I shared. Don’t forget to bring a flash and a reflector (just in case). And take amazing pictures!

Do you have any additional tips for working in poor lighting? Which of these techniques is your favorite? Let us know in the comments below!

Balloons over Bagan Myanmar

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