Learn the do’s and don’ts of relying on natural light to take better photos
Whether taking happy snaps at a family party or capturing breath taking landscapes, the most important ingredient to taking a photo is light. Have you ever wondered why a photo you’ve taken simply doesn’t look how you expected it to turn out? Much like how a chef cannot prepare a soup without water, a photographer cannot take a photo without light. Keep these few easy tips with you to take not only better pictures, but memories as well!
Much like how a chef can use different ingredients to create different flavours, photographers must understand how the natural light in a scene changes the ‘flavour’ of the photograph taken. Have you ever had a dish with too much salt? That’s like taking a photo with too much light! How about a dish without enough salt? That’s like a photo without enough light!
There are very few aspects about light to keep in mind, but these few aspects are very important!
The first thing to keep in mind with natural lighting is how bright that light source is. One might say the summer sun emits a very intense light! However, a street lamp at night emits a light of very low intensity. Intensity can be a gift or a curse, depending on the photo you want to take. Shadows will be much harsher and dramatic in high intensity light.
Shooting in High Intensity Light
A summer day at the beach or at the park are common scenes with high intensity light. A great to tip to keep in mind when taking photos in these scenes is to make sure your subject is facing the source of light. If the sun is bright, it is best for the photographer to take a photo with their back to the sun.
If the subject is facing the sun, it can be almost a guarantee that his or her face will be evenly lit, and have more presence in the scene.
BAD IDEA: Have the subject with their back to the source of light.
If the subject is facing the same direction as the light source, and the photographer is shooting towards the light source (ie. the camera is pointed directly at the sun), we run into some problems. First, the subject’s face becomes lost in shadows, and is overwhelmed by the brighter surroundings. This is not what we want!
BAD IDEA: Have the subject stand in the shade
It’s also important to ensure that the subject is not in the shade! This may result in the background being brighter than the subject, and the subject will not be able to stand out in the scene. This is not what we want! In this example, the subject’s face is darkened by the shadows of the trees. It is his jeans and background water reflecting the sunlight that stand out most in the scene. Typically, it is best if the subject’s face draws the most attention in a scene. Hats and caps can also cast obscuring shadows, so… decapitate!
Shooting in Low Intensity Light
Low intensity lights can come in the form of light fixtures at a restaurant, lit candles, and even moonlight. The best thing to do in these situations is to ensure that the light source is between the photographer and the subject, and that the light source is illuminating the subject. In many situations, better photos can be taken with the automatic flash on the camera turned OFF!
GOOD IDEA: Have a source of light close to the subject, between the camera and subject
Taking photos close to the light source. Make sure that the subject is in the light source range. This helps the subject stands out in the scene. It is also a good idea to have lights in the background as well. This will provide balance in the image. In the example above, the model is holding a lighter to light a cigarette, which provides just enough light to illuminate his face. The floodlights in the background illuminate the environment, and the stars create an interesting sky.
GOOD IDEA: Have a light source behind the subject
Try to include light sources in the background to capture interesting scenes!
BAD IDEA: Have a light source for the subject, but none for the background
However, if there are no lights in the background, the subject will appear to be floating in a black empty void. This usually is not what we want!
BAD IDEA: Have a light source for the background, but not for the subject
Here is what happens when the subject is not receiving any light from a light source. See how they blend into the background? This is not what we want!
The next thing to keep in mind when shooting with natural light is the direction of the light itself. When taking photos outside on a summer day, the sunlight is very different at noon than it is at sunset. This is because the direction of the light decides how shadows are cast.
Taking photos at high noon, where the light source comes from directly above, may often result in dramatic face shadows. This can help achieve a rugged, tough guy look. However, mom or grandma may not be happy with these extra shadows!
At mid morning, or late in the afternoon, the sunlight direction can be much more direct. This makes facial shadows softer and more gentle. Often times, having less dramatic shadows is desirable, especially for portraits. To reduce shadows, position the light source so it is directly in front of the subject.
Dramatic shadows can actually be very desirable, depending on the situation. By situating the light source to the left or right of the subject, instead of head on, some very interesting shadows can be employed to make the subject more interesting.
Color temperature of a light source in a scene is one of the most important elements of taking a photo. The temperature of light also allows photographers to have an exciting level of control and influence over the mood of the scene. The temperature of light can be described in a simplified manner by thinking of light as “cold”, “hot” or something in between.
Even though the particular scene above may be “cold” in actuality, the image captured expresses great “warmth”. This is because the color of the bonfire, the primary source of light in this scene, is reddish orange. This is a “warm” color temperature.
The moon can be an invaluable light source. However, it is important to keep in mind that the moon emits a very “cold” light. Scenes relying on moonlight will undoubtedly turn out “cold”. However there are many ways to deal with this. In addition to various post-production techniques, controlling the camera’s White Balance can alter the way the camera captures the scene.
Many professionals believe in leaving White Balance on “automatic”, taking a pure, RAW format photo, and adjusting the color temperature later in Post Production. However, it can be very useful for the photographer to adjust White Balance settings while they are out shooting. The camera captures details differently, depending on White Balance settings, which can draw the photographer’s attention to something in the scene they would not have noticed otherwise.
Playing with the White Balance setting while shooting a scene can help you find something interesting you might have otherwise missed, and may help you find new angles to shoot. In the example above, the “Warm” White Balance captures highlights more distinctly than the “Cold” White Balance, and there is great distinction between the moss and the rocks. Seeing this while out on the shoot can help photographers think differently and gives them something to think about when framing his or her next shot.
The last, but certain not least important, aspect to keep in mind is the diffusion of light. The easiest way to understand this concept is to think of a mirror. When a flashlight hits a mirror, the light bounces off the mirror! In the big exciting world, everything reflects light, though not as much as a mirror does! The idea of ‘reflection’ can be grouped together with diffusion, as when an object reflect lights, it is actually creating diffusion.
The perfect example of light diffusion can be seen by comparing a summer day with clear blue skies to a cloudy, winter day.
On a summer day, we can take photos with harsh, dramatic shadows! The best way to capture scenes in an interesting way is to express the relationship and difference between the light and the shadows it casts.
However, on a cloudy, winter day, the light and colors appear to be washed out, and the shadows are much softer. In many situations, the diminished distinction between the light and shadows is not desirable, as scenes will be less interesting to look at. It is difficult to take interesting landscape photos with diffused sunlight like this. Why does this happen? Simply put, the clouds act as a ‘diffuser’, and soften the light before it reaches our eyes. The moisture in the clouds are like millions of billions of tiny, foggy mirrors, bouncing the light back and forth against each other, until the light finally reaches us. This makes the light much softer.
If the light in the scene is too intense, and there is no diffusion, the camera may not be able to capture all the details in the scene. In some cases, the bright bits of the photo will be blown out (or just plain white with no detail), and the shadows will be too dark, also lacking detail. In the example above, the sunlight was very intense. In the over-exposed capture on the left, the, trees, and shadows on the ground have lost significant detail, but the detail on the rock wall is maintained. In the under-exposed capture on the right, we have regained the details of the sky, trees, and shadows on the ground, but have lost detail in the rock wall. This is a scene that would benefit from a cloud day, diffusing the light to make it more even.
The difficulty here is finding the balance of sunlight and shadows, to retain the most amount of detail in the scene. In scenes of high intensity light, these issues will often arise. There are many techniques a photographer can use to handle situations like these, such as taking multiple exposures from a tripod to process as an HDR image later. However, the most important thing is to understand first is what exactly is happening, and why.
Light boxes, reflectors, umbrellas, and various tools can be used to achieve diffusion.
Diffusion can be both wanted, and very unwanted. For portraits, depending on the nature of the image, diffusion may be desirable. For “glamour shots” and “professional portraits”, it is best to make use of diffusion to soften shadows and distribute light evenly. In the example above, two different types of diffusion are used. On the left, soft diffusion is used to make the light more gentle and reduce shadows. On the right, a harsh diffuser is used to make the subject look more dynamic and aggressive.
In other situations, it is best to have dramatic shadows. To achieve this, shoot with direct light without making use of diffusion. Combine this concept with Direction to create some truly interesting scenes!
Time of Day
Here’s a top tip that can serve as a valuable tool for any photographer. The Time of Day affects all four aspects previously mentioned. By keeping this in mind, photographers are able to plan their photo shoots to capture award winning photographs.
This time of day can be ideal for capturing gentle, serene scenes of tranquility and grace. The light is not very intense, and the temperature tends to be a on the cooler side of warm. There tends to be a high amount of diffusion. Direction tends to be difficult to identify. Due to the lack of definition between light and shadow, it can be difficult to create truly interest scenes. However, this time of day is vital for photographers, as it allows them the opportunity to examine their environment and set up to take photos for the upcoming time of day.
Often sought after by photographers is the magic moment when the sun just rises. If conditions are ideal and weather is just right, truly breathtaking scenes can be captured. Intensity is at a mid point between strong and weak, and direction of light is a low angle, which creates delicate shadows. Due to the way sunlight travels through the earth’s atmosphere, we have a light amount of diffusion, which also makes the temperature quite warm.
Late Morning – Early Afternoon
Many scenes benefit from this time of day, due to even light distribution. Intensity tends to be a bit high, but direction can make certain scenes difficult to capture, if there is a big difference between light and dark. The temperature tends to be a bit cool in late morning, and warms gradually into the afternoon. On a clear day with minimal clouds, there will be a minute amount of diffusion.
Mid Afternoon – Late Afternoon
This time of day can make many scenes easier to capture, and other scenes more difficult! Intensity is at its highest at this time, and the overhead direction of light can make capturing faces and other features difficult to capture. Depending on the time of year and weather, the temperature can be quite cool, which can make capturing landscapes with that “golden” atmosphere rather difficult. If there are minimal clouds in the sky, diffusion will be at its lowest at this time.
Widely considered a magical moment for photographers, looking to capture glowing, bittersweet scenes that seem to tug at the heart strings. A scene that could be considered rather plain during the afternoon could look absolutely amazing during the evening sunset. Intensity is at a seemingly perfect point between strong and weak, and direction comes in at a low angle. The temperature at this time is wonderfully unique, providing a gentle, golden glow. There tends to be a high amount of diffusion, resulting in gentle shadows. Depending on the time of year, Intensity, Temperature, and Diffusion can change drastically. Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter all have unique attributes at this time of day.
This can be the most difficult time of day to capture scenes in an interesting way. Just after the sun has set, there is a high amount of diffusion, but intensity is quite low, and diffusion is high. Temperature is luke-warm.
Both technically and physically, this is a very challenging time of day to shoot. However, with a bit of effort, night can produce surprising and rewarding scenes. Depending on the size and position of the moon, time of year, and cloud coverage, Intensity, Direction, and Diffusion can be frustratingly unpredictable. Temperature is at its coldest at this time, however, experimenting with the White Balance settings on the camera can help photographers see things they normally might miss. With a bright moon, intense shadows with definite direction can be expressed. Even without cloud coverage, diffusion is quite high, but in a very pleasant way. Having misty and moderate cloud coverage can create truly fascinating scenes. For an in-depth guide on how to improve your photography at night, check out our article here.
Intensity, Direction, Temperature and Diffusion! They may seem like strange, alien words, but are actually quite simple to understand! Try practicing and really comprehending one at a time, and you’ll see a great improvement in your photos!
For more tips, techniques, and hands on time with cool camera gear, check out the upcoming The Digital Show Expo in Melbourne, VIC!