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How to Achieve Natural Lightrays in your Photos

Saturday, February 27, 2021

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As photographers, there are dreamy moments that you may attempt to plan on or they sneak up on you as a surprise.  These light rays coming through the trees at Chrissy fields next to Golden Gate Bridge were one of them.  With all the salty humid air hanging about, and some pollution, the rays of light broken up through the trees at just that right angle shone down on my subjects beautifully. 

Similarly, inside, dust, smoke, pollution, and incense are just a few things that might hang in the air similarly and catch that beautiful light.  In the all film era, it was not uncommon for smoke to linger in so many buildings and therefore often make rays of light in the photographs, anyway, just one contributing factor.  Another factor is that film has a wider dynamic range, so it tends to capture present light rays easier, as digital can blow out easier. Interestingly enough, back then it was seen as more of a flaw.  Isn't it interesting how we look at things differently now?

Naturally, there are limitations to many of the settings we work in, but here are some ideas to help catch the rays.

1. Atmosphere Aerosol

As a cleaner option for adding the haze into your setting, these cans spray a light mist that will linger long enough for you to grab a few shots.  For a successful ray effect, you have to have direct morning or afternoon sunlight coming in through the window.

2. Consider the Gaps

As you are setting up your shot, look for are arrange to have the light come through a narrower entrance.  Whether that means adjusting the drapes in a formal setting or moving your couple over to the gaps of wood in the barn where the light is coming in.  Look for the spots on the floor for quick hints.

3. Shoot directly into the Sun

This can create a beautiful image with rays of light coming down on or around your subject.  But be sure to obstruct that direct light, so you do not actually see the sun, such as with your subject, the trees etc.

4. Kick up the dust

Inside, that may just take shaking a few sheets, outside on a country dirt road.  I've run a around behind my clients (I'm sure I look insane) to bring up light, fine, dry dirt into the rays already coming down through the trees.  Or have an assistant of a friend tagging along do it as the dirt will not hang in the air for long.

5.  Clap flour

This one is obviously messier, but a budget-friendly route.  Not recommended to bring flour to a bride's hotel room getting ready.  But perhaps in a home lifestyle setting or an afternoon sitting under the trees, this is best used. 

6. Look for contrast

You can have all the aerosol and other dust in the air you want, but if you do not have the right amount of contrast with the way you angel your photo and expose it, then it will go unnoticed. Look for shadows in the room, or create them with what windows are open and which aren't.  Think of those rays as the spotlight that needs to be noticed.

7. Diffusion Filters

Try out these diffusion filters to help bring out the haze and emphasize those rays' elegance.  Mix with a Black Pro Mist filter 1/8 or 1/4.

8. Dodge and Burn

When you have played with and are not getting enough of the contrast you were hoping for naturally for your sunrays, enhance them in photoshop or the darkroom with the dodge and burn technique.

9. Strobes

Of course, most of us photographers would take natural light over the strobes, but when you want to have control and create "rays" of light coming in naturally, you can combine the aerosol, filters, and strobe light coming in from a window.

10. Harsh Light

While we may avoid this in so many instances allowing that light to come into the background of your photo, but avoiding those overly blown-out areas, it can add a beautiful contrast.

11. Fog Machine/ Haze Machine

If you shoot inside often in settings for portraits, this may very well be an ideal investment.  Maybe turn off those smoke alarms first!  I still recall the fun adventure of a wedding I shot at where they enjoyed blasting the fog machine on the dance floor and the reception was suddenly interrupted with the fire alarms going off.  Guess it added to a memorial moment of their day. I've used Chauvet DJ Haze Fluid. You can do an H2O Haze, water-based mist. Obviously, these are popular for the dance floors and band concerts to really add that atmosphere and give the lights and lasers life. Just make sure you are getting the right fluid for the machine you use.

12. Bend the Light

Similar to breaking up the light, shooting at an angle that will help the light ray bend around something before it reaches you will help create that star effect of light rays that are skinnier, rather than one bulky chunk of light.

13. Close your Aperture

You can accentuate that "particle" effect a bit by closing your aperture.  For example from f1.8 or f2.8 to f4-f5.6.  Simply play with your aperture taking pictures of that same shot to try it out and compare.

14. Angle the Light

If you are shooting indoors and there are blinds, you may be in luck! We already mentioned breaking up and narrowing the light.  Play with the blinds, or take it further and use a slab of cardboard/ tagboard and a box cutter to experiment with shapes and sizes to get the results you want.

15. Calm the air

Having a fan blowing, the AC on, or a window open will certainly disperse whatever atmosphere you attempt to create before you can frame and capture your shot! Use assistance or eliminate those unwanted breezes for the shot.

When you are done, especially inside, always clear the air!


When you are done playing and just haven't achieved the light rays you were hoping for, then it is time to play a bit in photoshop.  We will cover adding digital light rays in another post.

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