Manual Photography: Light
Light is the single most important thing you need to understand before you take a picture. Everything that you do with your camera will be in an effort to control the light coming in through your lens to your sensor (or film). And not only do you need to understand how the light you have works with your camera, you’ll need to know how to change the light you have to achieve your desired image.
There are 3 essential ways to control light in-camera. With your ISO, Aperture, and Shutter Speed. Learning to balance all three of these things is essential to becoming a good photographer. Once you understand how they work, you’ll be able to change them in conjunction with one another to achieve good exposure. Check out my blog posts on all 4 of those concepts for more information.
Today I want to talk about ambient light and what you can do with it.
The first thing I do when I get to a location is assess what kind of light is available. Where is the sun, how bright is it, and is there anything available to diffuse that light? Trees, clouds and buildings can all help diffuse the light and prevent your subject from being overexposed. You’ll also have to look out for reflective surfaces. Sidewalk and glass are both able to reflect light back to your subject. Tile and metal will reflect lots of light. It’s not always possible to see the result with your naked eye, so you have to learn to watch for reflective surfaces and use them (or not) intentionally.
The next thing I do is plan how to set up my subject in relation to the light to achieve the look I want. It used to be common for photographers to place subjects in direct sunlight. This was the easiest way to control exactly how much light they would need in the photograph and to avoid underexposing faces. Now that we have digital technology, backlighting your subject is the desired way to shoot.
Below I’ve given you 4 portraits of the same subject in different lighting, taken just moments apart. The first is taken in direct sunlight, the second has the sun to the side of the subject. The last two are my preferred way to light people, backlit and shot in shade. I like the even lighting in shaded photos, and the dramatic halo in the backlit. You must be careful when backlighting a photo not to shoot directly into the sun. When you can’t get around it, use your fingers or another object to block the sun from shining directly on your lens. If you use any editing software you can clone stamp over the top or crop the image accordingly.
You can always choose to use a flash as a fill light. There are diffusers and reflectors that will soften the light so you don’t get harsh shadows. I recommend the Gary Fong diffuser, you can find them easily on amazon. When using a diffuser, you want the top of the flash to be pointing up so the light comes out the sides of the diffuser. I honestly don’t know a single photographer that successfully uses the built in flash on entry level DLSR camera, and I’ve never liked the way it looks, so I don’t recommend it.
If you are shooting indoors, try to stay near an open window. Again, you want to avoid direct like and look for light that is diffused in some way. When I shoot indoors I try to do so in the middle of the day. The sun is normally right over the house so it isn’t streaming directly through any windows, and it’s shining its brightest. Tile and severe white walls will throw reflections on your subject, so be aware of where they are.
The best way to learn about light is just to experiment. In the age of digital cameras there is no risk and you can take as many photos as you like to achieve what you want. When you accomplish something that you like, save the photo on your computer and write yourself a note to remind yourself what the lighting conditions and camera settings were!