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Shoot the light

Man sitting in a house drying cheroot leaves in the Shan state, Myanmar

Shoot the light

3 Burmese monks walking among big pots in Bagan, Myanmar.

3 novices in Bagan

Here is one of my most valuable tip. Here is the tip I will offer to someone who comes to me, complaining that after 20 years of taking photos they can’t get out of their usual compositions, and want to get into a new level of creativity.

It may sound like something you have heard before. Yes, photography is all about light (see my article about composition), and if there is a good light then there is a good photo.

But no, I am talking about something more specific.

Please note that I have always focused my photography and my photo articles on travel photography focusing on people. So when reading this article, please think people photography (which also includes street photography).

Woman working in a smoking brick factory in Laos

In travel photography, most people tend to look for a good subject to photograph. Of course that means that this subject should be “sitting” in an appropriate light, with a good catchy background, something not too distracting. The problem with this approach, is that you might end up taking the same kind of compositions again and again. Framing your subject on the side, rule of thirds, looking into the photo, etc…

What I am telling you, is to completely not focus your attention on your subject. After all, your subject does not matter (unless you happen to meet the new “Afghan girl” of Steve McCurry of the girl with green eyes of David Lazaar). No, believe me, as someone living in Vietnam: an old lady with a pointy hat looks the same as another old lady with a pointy hat.



A monk looking outside a pagoda in Luang Prabang, Laos.

Lao monk

Instead of that, try an focus your entire attention on the light around you. Not the beautiful sunset light in the whole sky here, but the little spots of golden light right there, on the floor next to you. Yes, can you see them? Well, there is your next photo my friend.


Yes, I hear you already: “what do you mean shooting light?! And what is my subject, what am I telling a story about?”. Well, now your job is to patiently wait for the right subject to walk into that light. But remember? Shoot the light.

Old Burmese man's hands

In the same way as we say “fill your frame” in photography, keep things simple, only include elements which are relevant to the story you are telling us, you can fill your frame with that sumptuous golden light you found on the floor. And that is what is going to lead you to a complete new level in composition and creativity. Because you are only shooting that piece of light, you are going to crop your subjects in way you would never have dared before. You are going to break all the rules you have carefully been following until now, and create originality.


It will surely be beautiful, as your light will be stunning. You may miss a lot of photos, as you have to get used to get that close to things/people in a light that can be quite full of contrasts and colors. But with time and a bit of practice, things will start to take shape. You will get used to such and such new ways of composing your image, and your results will become sharper over time. Until you are getting comfortable with this new idea, and start re creating your “templates” that will allow you to be fast and efficient and not miss your images.

Nepalese girl in Myanmar

“Heresy!!!” I can already hear. Sorry? Which book are you talking about? Look at the results you are going to achieve with this technique, and tell me if does not make you think in a complete new way, bringing new complete new styles of images. If you don’t like it, well go and try something different. But surely you would have learned something out of it.


Last year, while running a photo workshop in Myanmar, I managed to capture this image using this exact technique. I could see the light on the floor, and the beautiful blue color next to it. I also knew that this monastery was quite busy, and if I waited long enough someone would walk into my frame.

Burmese monk's robe

Novice running in the light, monastery near Yangon

One of my student and I laid down on the floor. I switched from Aperture mode to Manual (making sure I would have the right exposure, as the situation had very strong contrasts). I did compose the photo, exactly the way I wanted to have it. And I waited. Surely, after half a minute, some novices went down the stairs. They did spot us, and feeling a little shy to be photographed, they ran through the corridor, laughing out loud.


Click – Click – Click

I did not expect them to run in the first place so my shutter speed was right enough to freeze my hand shakes, or someone walking. But it gave some blur to the novice’s robe, and I liked the shot even more like that. After all, most new things that were created on our planet are the result of accidents!


Go ahead, give it a try!


Here are some examples of photos I managed to capture over my years in South Eats Asia, inspired by this technique.


Woman selling peanuts in Myanmar

Vietnamese woman working in a steamy placeFeet of a monk in MyanmarVietnamese boyLegs of an old Vietnamese womanYoung Co Thu girl in VietnamYoung girl in a classroom in MyanmarLe Sa working the bamboo

Man working in a brick factory in Vietnam A Vietnamese woman holds her conical hat Interesting light on a driver's face in Vietnam




Founder of Pics of Asia, Etienne is a teacher with a photography habit.


  1. Mika on February 6, 2015 at 8:44 am

    Very nice photos.Every photo taken very real ,very emotional.Hope I will travel to Myanmar one day .

  2. Susan Moss on February 7, 2015 at 5:35 am

    An interesting read thank you Etienne and I will certainly be on the lookout for the light spots in the future and see what I can capture.

  3. Lisa on February 8, 2015 at 12:12 pm

    Great tip thanks Etienne. Its the luxury of having the time + the patience to sit and wait for the moment.. I did that recently in Buenos Aires.. the shadows of the light through the trees on the floor were beautiful, and the couple eventually tango danced onto them. Click!

  4. Phyllis on March 14, 2015 at 8:43 pm

    Lovely. Sometimes we just need reminding!

  5. Paul on November 24, 2015 at 3:51 am

    Great article. Actually a simple idea that Cartier-Bresson knew about, but needs time & patience. I chase the light for my Instagram photos, but often forget when I travel with my DSLR. When you hold a DSLR, you concentrate on the settings, the ISO, the lens etc…. and may miss the moment. Stop, breathe and look at the light.

    • Etienne on November 24, 2015 at 7:34 am

      exactly Paul. Camera settings can be an inconvenience is there is a lack of practice of the craft. If it is a problem for you, why not simplify your settings by using auto ISO for example?
      Forget the settings, it is all about the light.

  6. Pics of Asia – Creative portraiture on July 27, 2016 at 2:11 pm

    […] I described in this article, this is probably the best way to bring creativity and originality into your work. Shooting the […]

  7. Deb on November 7, 2016 at 10:56 am

    Hi Etienne

    Many thanks for your tutorials. I have read them all and found all most helpful. Great tips and not too much reading also with great examples. I live in Western Australia so the info on shooting with strong light is most helpful, most photographers who write tutorials seem to live in the northern hemisphere or at least where you do not have strong directional light all day every day for about 8 months of the year, but you still want to shoot pictures. I am just starting with photography and am myself finally getting to grips with the confusing numbers. Again many thanks

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