In fairness of full disclosure, I have NOT mastered the light, but I'm finally getting closer. For some reason, it scared me. It's like a secret language which I didn't understand and didn't speak. So I stayed away from learning about the light. It took reading several books (good resources will be a later step) more than once, taking lots and lots of really bad pictures. Now that I'm seeing it, I'm getting better shots more often.
I'm not going to be talking about ambient light, soft light, direct light, etc because I don't feel qualified...yet. So one might ask oneself, then why have a step about learning to see the light? Because learning to see the light turns a good shot into an outstanding one. Because learning to see the light helps you consistently get better pictures. Because learning to see the light prevents you from taking pictures with harsh, unbecoming shadows casting over your subject's face.
Here are some basics that I've learned that have helped me out.
1. If you're outdoors and everyone is squinting, the sun is your enemy. Luckily, there are usually things you can do to still get decent shots. If there is a large enough pocket of shade, pull your subjects to the shade, facing out and as close to the edge so that there aren't any harsh shadows falling onto their faces and they aren't squinting. If that's not possible, turn them and turn yourself so that they aren't looking into the sun and the shadows aren't falling harshly upon their face. If that's not possible, try to use something to create your own shade.
The pictures below were taken at the park during the mid-day sun. The first shot was taken in the shade, but there were still enough speckles of light coming in detracting from the picture. The second shot was taken in full shade which looks much better.
2. Plan to have your shoots at the golden hour. The first couple of times I drug my kids out to the beach to take pictures we arrived at the sand around noon. We could not have been out there at a worst time (had to feed the flock first to guarantee smiles on the faces). Luckily for me, there was a cloud cast each time which worked in my favor. To prevent the need of luck on your side, if you're going out specifically to take photos, plan to take your pictures one to two hours before sunset (or one to two hours after sunrise, if you're so inclined). You'll not only be able to avoid the harsh, unbecoming shadows, but you'll also get a beautiful soft glow upon your photos.
Taking pictures at the optimal sunshine time will give your subject a nice halo effect or an all around nice glow. The two pictures below show you the effect of shooting at mid-day vs the golden hour. I know it's not always possible to only schedule trips around the golden hour (hence the first shot), but if you have that luxury, do it.
3. As you learn, don't be afraid to shoot into the sun. You'll want to have a camera in which you can control the exposure so you determine whether the subject is a silhouette or whether the background is blown out a bit.
4. If you're taking pictures inside, you're better off using available lighting instead of the camera flash unless you have off-camera flash that you know how to use. There is a reason that professional photographers don't use the on-camera flash. The flash on your camera just gives your subjects red eyes, washes the subject out and often leads to that deer in the headlight look. If you need more indoor light, you'll want to move the subject closer to light or bring another light source to the subject. If you place the light correctly (off to one side), you'll get a nice shadow that gives dimension to your subject, commonly referred to as Rembrandt lighting.
In the picture below, we were in a lovely hotel lobby protected from the heat of a July mid-day in the desert. Originally we were seated in the center of the lobby where the light was flat. When the spot near the window opened up, I asked my family to move to the sofa and I was able to capture good light (don't look at the part where I cut off Matt's hand and Max's foot, we're talking about light here).
5. If possible, bump up the ISO on your camera to get great night or indoor shots that don't lose the ambiance of the event. The higher the ISO the grainier the shot will be so a good tripod will come in handy. Regardless, a flash would have whitewashed my daughter's face and made it seem like the lights were on as we sang happy birthday.
6. Practice. Practice. Practice.