When I first started photographing weddings (and for many years after that) I was always looking for ways to add more light to whatever I was shooting. More light, more light, there never seemed to be enough light. But, as the years pass and I’ve learned to have more control over my gear and my creative vision, I’ve found that it’s not always about adding more light, sometimes it’s actually better to remove some light. The trick is knowing the difference and when to do what. I found a prime example of this just last weekend as I was photographing a bride getting ready at her parents’ house. We hung her dress in the window of the dining room, backlit and flanked by the curtains her mother had sewn herself. I photographed this photo of the dress.

(SOOC, ISO 500 2.8 at 1/100 sec)

Sculpting with Light

I took a glimpse on the back of the camera (yes, I chimp) and it was okay, just missing that wow factor. There was just too much fill light hitting the dress from the front. It also had that warm tungsten-y look to it. Kinda flat, kinda boring.

So I looked up and noticed that the dining room light was on. I reached over and turned it off, shot another photo of the same dress.

(SOOC, ISO 500 2.5 1/100 sec)

Sculpting with Light

Suddenly the same dress from the same angle is full of shadows and highlights and texture and detail, as are the curtains. Suddenly the entire image is much more interesting. And all it took was the flick of a light switch.

You just have to remember that whether you’re turning lights on or turning them off or moving them around….what are you trying to accomplish? You are sculpting the light around you. It’s up to you to notice those little nuances and correct as you go along. I don’t always think of these things off the bat. Usually I need to shoot a frame, see what’s wrong with it, what I can improve upon and then shoot another frame.

Written by Justine Ungaro

photographer justine ungaro

Justine Ungaro has been photographing weddings in her own clean, classic style since 2003. A second generation photographer, Justine grew up in the Washington DC area and moved to Los Angeles in 2006 where she expanded her business to include children’s and music industry portraiture and soon after began giving workshops and speaking at photography conventions. She currently maintains studios in Los Angeles and DC.


  • Ulysses says:

    Justine, this is such a simple yet essential post. I think it’s a lesson that we rediscover at various points throughout our careers. For example, while photographing a bride in a beautiful little room and alcove, we were doing just fine with some gorgeous window light. But I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was that I wanted differently in the photos. I suddenly realized during the middle of her prep that there was an incandescent lamp positioned several feet directly above her head. My issue with it was less the cast that it gave (I’m not afraid of mixed colors), but rather the shape of the light it was imparting to her. I simply didn’t want or need it. Shutting that lamp off gave the rest of this segment more of the feeling that I wanted for those shots. I could easily have left the light on and done just fine. But in the end, it’s always about what you as the artist intend and seeing that it’s executed to taste. Again, a lovely post. 🙂

  • I do agree that the first image is kinda flat and yellowy, but I also think the second image still needs a little punch of light, especially on the top – it’s just a little too dark. Just my opinion. Thanks, Karen

  • Justine says:

    Ulysses, this is so true. I feel like every wedding season I rediscover things I already knew in different ways.

    Karen, I agree. These images are both straight out of camera for reference purposes. In general I think that most images can use at least a little dodging and burning in post, this one included.

  • Brian Harte says:

    I agree but I would take it further. Sometimes it works to add a little light just to one place. In the above photo it would have been fab to add a fraction of light from behind the dress towards the camera. This would leave the curtains dark but give a rim light and glow to the dress further bringing it away from the background. The light if done small enough would look fab but also completely natural as it would appear to come from the window behind.

    Hi Ulysses!…met you when you visited Manchester, England for a Jerry Ghionis full on weeks training!

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.