Photography enthusiasts are told time and time again to "study the light." This is because a good understanding of light will drastically expand a photographer’s ability to create great images in the most dire lighting conditions.
If you are an experienced photographer, the following article will help refresh your understanding of some common workarounds to the challenges of working in different lighting conditions. If you are a beginning photographer, be prepared to have fun because learning to read and manipulate light can be quite a revelation.
01. Window light
Window light is an excellent, readily available light source that’s perfect for portraits. The gentle illumination of natural light can be very flattering, and it’s absolutely possible to achieve a professional result with minimal equipment.
It’s best to start by switching off any artificial lights in the room and experiment with opening/closing the various window coverings to control the direction of the light. Some interesting effects can be achieved with shadows and patterns from curtains and other window coverings. If heavy shadows that may fall on one side of the face doesn't appeal, a simple white reflector will help.
It’s also good to play around with the distance between the model and the window. If the model is facing the light and the photographer is positioned between them and the window (without blocking the light of course), it’s possible to get a portrait of great delicacy with lovely catchlights in the eyes. A shallow depth of field is usually best to blur out the background.
Photographers are often told to keep the light behind them and avoid backlighting their image. This is because the camera will automatically focus and expose for the brightest spot in the photo, leaving the subject in shadow or out of focus. But we can’t always control the position of the subject and light.
In any case, backlighting can be used to create cool atmospheric images in the most unforgiving sunlight. It can play absolute havoc on the auto settings on the camera however, so it’s best to use a spot or manual focus, together with a manual or semi-manual exposure.
Backlighting is often used to create dreamy lifestyle images. The underexposed background is little more than a blur, and the entire image looks washed out or covered in a thin film of light that looks particularly good in the golden hour.
During the daylight hours, this gives the image a cool, whitewashed look, making for excellent dreamy photographs of transparent objects such as fine clothing, netting and drapery. It can also be used to capture the elusive and delivate trails of smoke, mist, and fine particles in the light.
Backlighting can also be used to capture lens flare. This occurs when the light hits the lens to create a sort of burst of light, producing a summery aesthetic. Remove the lens hood for the strongest results. If the light source is too strong, it can help to use the subject to block or partially filter the light too.
Another common way to use backlighting is to create silhouettes. These generally best work with strong, simple shapes, and it often helps to shoot up towards the sky to remove excess clutter.
Here is a street scene that could have looked quite ordinary if it was exposed for the middle tones. Instead, the photographer has directed the camera straight into the light and underexposed the scene. The figures are turned into silhouettes, large areas are plunged into darkness, and the misty golden light becomes the real focus.
Here’s another example of how backlighting and silhouettes work in a more typically picturesque natural location. The sharp contrasts undoubtedly add a whole lot more drama that you might see with a standard daylight exposure. This is particularly useful aesthetic choice to make if the frame looks a bit busy and lacking in focus.
03. The Blue Hour
Twilight—that half hour or so before sunrise and after sunset—is also known by photographers as the blue hour. This brief period of the day provides a shadowy, wonderfully atmospheric light. The sun is below the horizon line during the blue hour, so the subject is cast in a strong side light. This can be used to highlight the textures and form of a scene.
The blue cast of this hour also looks great with complementary shades of orange. This means that candles, fires, street lights, and lamps can be used to provide a fantastic rich image full of gentle contrasts and multiple illumination.
Of course, the lack of illumination is the key challenge. So shooting in this period will typically require a slow shutter speed and/or a tripod, which also makes it great for shooting seaside images. The slow shutter speed blurs the movement of the water, and the combination of a blue light cast on blue water can be used to create a minimalist, soothing effect.
04. The Golden Hour
The famed "golden hour" is the easiest lighting situation in which to get stunning photos, and it’s no surprise that lots of photographers specifically plan their shoots around this time of the day—it's the ultimate light for a variety of situations.
Make the most of this warm, soft, and golden light when you capture flattering portraits, magnificent landscapes, or awe-inspiring sillhouettes. Because golden hour passess quickly though, give yourself plenty of time to familiarize yourself with your location—the best places and times of day to shoot.
05. Overcast light
Many people are reluctant to shoot in overcast weather because large areas of light-grey cloud can look boring, and the light can seem quite flat. But all that cloud cover actually works as a huge light diffuser.
Because of the soft and diffused lighting, it’s perfect for portraits. The main challenge is to avoid that muddy look. A classic technique is to examine the light on your hand, then shift your position until you can detect the subtle direction of the light. The model should then be placed in position, so this light hits their eyes to create highlights—also known as catchlights. Often, it helps to position the model low and have them look up towards the sky and into the camera frame.
Overcast light also generally has a quality that tends to neutralize color, easily turning everything into washed out grey. But this means that there is lots of room to create a quietly powerful image with an extremely simple composition or a subtle color scheme. Stormy clouds, if any, are obviously much more interesting to include.
Nonetheless, it can also be overcome by introducing a bright splash of colour. This kind of light can provide a wonderfully rich illumination with a huge range of tones. If the sky looks like one flash wash of grey, it often helps to eliminate the sky from the frame entirely.
06. Strong daylight
Bright daylight provides a lot of options, but all that illumination generally needs to be carefully manipulated to achieve appealing results.
A common problem with strong daylight is the sharp contrast caused by ugly and distracting shadows. This is when it really helps to use a flash for the darker areas of the image. When shooting portraits, expose for the brighter background, then use the flash to light the subject’s face. This will help create an even, color-rich image.
Photos can also be captured in open-shaded areas, where strong daylight usually spills to create a more diffused, gentle light that is generally more workable. If the daylight is not too strong, the filtered light of a tree in shadow can be used to introduce patterns into the image.
The best thing about strong daylight is that it provides plenty of illumination, so there is lots of room to use a high shutter speed for super fast action shots.
07. Artificial light
It’s no secret that night lights can be used to create great light trails with long exposures. But these images can feel a little cliched after a while. A more interesting—and potentially subtle—way to use city lights is to layer them with other light sources.
Street lights, for example, can be combined with the dim light of twilight to create rich colorful urban images. Neon lights, on the other hand, can be used to light a subject’s face. This can definitely be tricky, so it plays to spend some time experimenting with different light courses and positions. There is also a huge range of alternative—and mobile—lighting options readily available to most people. Electronic tablets, phones and even light beads or fairy lights can be used to layer up artificial night light.
There's also the matter of capturing light trails using a tripod and long exposure. They can be lifted them beyond the ordinary by focusing on a single color value.
Challenging lighting doesn’t need to be mysterious or elusive. There are lots of opportunities to make stunning imagery in less than ideal situations. All you really need is a willingness to absorb some new techniques and the passion to explore the options. After all, the best photos come from an exploratory approach and a desire to see the world anew—that’s what makes most of us so passionate about photography anyway.