This lesson is part of the How To Photograph Life - FREE Course. To see the full list of lessons, and learn more about the course, click here for the index.
I used to be afraid of light.
Not in a “Oh the light is coming to get me!!” kind of way. That’d be weird. More in a: “Oh no, what if it’s sunny today and the clouds break and I’ll have to shoot portraits in midday direct light??"
You feel me?
Light is what makes photography possible. Above all else it makes a photo – literally. But figuratively too.
A great moment, in bad light, results in an ok photo. A great moment, in great light, is transcendent.
But here’s the big secret that I didn’t understand when I used to fear light: there is almost always great light in a scene. It’s simply a matter of learning to see it. To find it. To control it.
Now that I know what I do about light, I’m actually excited about every type of light, even midday direct. Because I know there’s so much variety to be found.
So today we’re going to talk a bit about one of the biggest ways to change the light you’re working with, and find that great light. Then we’ll discuss two of the most challenging types of light, that you, as a documenter of life, will often find yourself in. You’ll need to know how to work with it, so read on!
Generally speaking, with documentary photography, you’re trying to capture the feeling of being in the moment. The light in a scene is a huge part of what evokes that feeling. Is it soft? Is it hard? Is it low? Is it bright? Your camera can help to translate that light onto the photo, but it needs help. It doesn’t see light the same way you do, so you need to work within its limitations.
One example of this is with the color of light. Different light sources produce different color temperatures of light. Our eyes adjust for this, so we don’t notice. Our camera cannot adjust for more than one color of light, and so you can get some pretty yucky results if you have multiple light temperatures at play.
The light cast by this food stall gives our burger a distinctive green cast, while a light from behind the stall creates a reddish-gold streak beside the burger. While these colours create atmosphere, they make our tasty burger look a little less appetizing than it really was!
Photographed in open shade, these fresh fruits appear a more natural, appealing colour. Don't you just want to grab one of those oranges and go?
One way you can help your camera is to limit your scene to just one type of light.
The most common way to do this is quite simple: turn off the lights.
Window light is one of the most beautiful types of light you can find: it’s infinitely variable, soft, directional, and freely available. But when you mix it with overhead lights, you get color temperature problems.
When we shot weddings, I would walk into the room in the morning to photograph the bride getting ready, and immediately turn off all the lights, and throw open the curtains. The bridesmaids would look perplexed, because often it would feel like we were getting ready in near darkness. But not in the eyes of my camera. The room just went from being lit by unflattering, overhead orange light, to dramatic, soft, side light. As a photographer you need to learn to see light the way your camera does.
Now I’ve just thrown out a couple words that describe light: overhead and side. What they’re referring to is the direction of the light. And the direction of light is one of the most important and powerful things you can learn about. It makes an absolutely enormous difference in the look of your images – one that simply cannot be overstated.
Light can come from any direction, but we generally describe it as being front, side, overhead or back. Each one changes where the shadows and highlights fall, and changes the look and feel of the photo.
With documentary photography we’re usually working with available light – that which already exists in the scene. That means that you can’t pick up the window and move it to the other side. Drat.
Never fear – you have one of the most important photographic tools right under you. Your feet.
To change the direction of the light, you can move yourself. Walk around your subject, shooting from different angles, and see just how much the look of the image changes.
That’s not the only way to change the look though. If you have a moveable, cooperative subject, you can have them move as well. Often just having them rotate a bit in place will give you a totally different look.
With eyes open, and feet moving, you’ll find that you have so much variety to play with in every single scene. So don’t get lazy – get moving, and keep shooting!
Backlighting can provide drama, with contrast between our darker subject and the bright white sky.
We pivoted position here and ended up with a totally different lighting condition: Side lighting! As you can see, it tends to be a little softer and less dramatic than back lighting (it's also generally easier to work with, too).
Without question, one of the toughest things for me when it comes to documenting my life is working around tough lighting conditions. It basically feels like I’m only ever shooting in less-than-ideal scenarios. That can really wear on you. But over time I’ve come to learn two things:
So it’s a balance. A challenge of finding the best light you can, while still remembering what’s most important: documenting your life.
With that said, let’s look at two of the most challenging lighting conditions, and some ways to work with them.
Your camera needs light to make an image, and so situations without very much light can be a challenge. Unfortunately, that's pretty darn common.
Winter is coming here in Canada, which means soon we will have basically one glorious hour of sunlight, and 23 in miserable darkness. Ok, I’m exaggerating, but some days that's what it feels like. Even in the summer I feel like I’m very often shooting in low light conditions, especially in my house.
The first thing to do is to try to add more light to the scene. Like I said before, get into the habit of throwing open the blinds every time you walk into a room. Bonus points if you do it with flair! Maybe even an Oprah-esque “Hellooooooooo light!"
If it’s dark out, you can turn on any lamps you can find. A quick tip about light is that it is much more flattering and interesting when it comes from the side, and not from above. The lights in your ceiling are dreadfully bad for making interesting photos. Lamps are much better!
Once you’ve added all the light you can, you can adjust your subject. Bring them closer to the light sources if possible. The closer your subject gets to the light source, the more intensity the light has, making it better for lighting your image. It will often make the light softer as well, which is a lot more flattering!
Late Night Shopping
The light from this brightly-lit shop acts like a giant lamp, casting side lighting on Rob. Having him stand close to the shop means the light on his face is brighter, softer and more flattering. Looking good, Rob!
Often you can’t move your subject, and you can’t add more light. This is especially true when you’re out shooting at night, or shooting while you’re traveling. Now it’s time to adjust your settings.
Each one of the three parts of the exposure triangle (remember those from Lesson 1?) can add more light into your image.
You can lower your aperture value, to get more light in. (But remember that will make less of the image in focus. Make sure you’re ready for that.)
You can lower your shutter speed, to give light more time to come in. (But remember, if you go too low you can introduce motion blur. Make sure you’re ready for that, too.)
And finally, you can increase your ISO, to make your sensor more sensitive to light. It will add more noise to your image, that’s for sure. But here’s a big tip: It is much easier to correct a noisy photo than a blurry one. Post-processing software can do amazing things with noise reduction, so always err on the side of high ISO. Don’t be shy.
The Boat Ride
To get enough light to make this exposure, we dropped our aperture to f/2.5. The result: The tip of the boat is in focus, but the water in the background is not.
To expose this late-night scene after a World Cup soccer match, we set a super-slow shutter speed: 10 seconds! The result: Moving cars appear as long streaks of bright light.
The Soccer Match
To freeze the action on the TV screen and sharply capture the scene out the window, we relied on a higher ISO.
Finally, in low light, you can add your very own light in the form of a flash. But, to be honest, this is something we generally avoid. When shooting documentary, we want to be as subtle as possible and avoid intruding on the moment and changing it. Now, obviously, standing there with a big camera will do that anyway, but it’s always a goal to keep in mind! A bright flash going off every few seconds will definitely be disruptive, so be careful if you do choose to go this route.
One tip: if you’re going to use a flash, try to get an external flash that will allow you to change the direction of the light. The flash that is attached to your camera will give you pretty much the worst looking light - direct, front light. A flash that can be turned will let you bounce it, providing something much more natural and flattering.
Now let’s hop over to the other challenging light situation. It’s pretty much the opposite of this one: too much light.
The flash on top of your camera produces these results – hard, direct, front light. The shadows are prominent, skin is shiny, and it's just not very flattering.
By using an external flash that can be turned, we can "bounce" the light off of the ceiling, and end up with softer, directional light that is a lot more flattering.
A lot of life happens during the day. The problem? This is generally when the light outside is at its most challenging. When the sun is high in the sky, we get direct, hard, overhead light, which is pretty tough to work with.
First, remember that we’re not shooting for an art gallery here. We’re working to preserve memories. The light isn’t ideal, but something special is going down? Shoot anyway. You’ll thank yourself down the road.
But, as always, there are some ways to try to find a better way to use that midday light.
1. Shoot in the shade: When you move out of the direct sun, and into the shade, you’ll find soft light, often with better direction. Much more flattering, especially for faces.
2. Shoot backlit: When you move around so that the sun is behind your subject, you change the direction to backlit. The means that the hard light won’t be on your subjects faces (because when it is, it makes for shiny skin, squinty eyes, and unflattering shadows). If the sun is super bright, it can be helpful to find something to put between the backlighting and your subject, like some trees. Stand in front of trees and it will filter that sunlight through, making it look pretty amazing.
3. Move yourself: Above all, move around. Change the direction of light by changing where you stand. You’ll likely find that one angle makes for a much better image than another!
Adventure is Out There!
Clear skies and bright sun could have left harsh shadows on this airport portrait of me, Rob and Max. But step into the open shade and voila! No harsh shadows to be seen. Next stop: Brazil!
Max's expression says it all: Midday on Copa Cabana beach is bright! By shooting backlight, we kept the harsh midday shadows at bay and captured the great details of Max's outfit and expression.
Rob adopts a bit of an unusual perspective here to take advantage of the bold shadows that midday sun can create.
As a photographer, you'll have a lifelong relationship with light. It's something that is present for every image you capture, and the more you get to know it, the better your photos will be.
But it's not always smooth sailing in any partnership – light can be tricky, and there's a lot to learn about it!
With a bit of patience, some understanding, and the willingness to be flexible, you'll find that you and light can get along just fine. So keep your eyes open, learn about light, and move those feet. Then keep on shooting, and enjoy!
Light is a big, amazing, nuanced element of photography. There are four main characteristics: quality, direction, intensity and color. We’ve touched on them a bit here, but really digging into them will be one of the best things you ever do for your photography. For that reason we made an eBook that will teach you everything you need to know about light, in the easiest way possible. It’ll take you from being nervous and unsure about light, to having confidence. You’ll also learn how light behaves, how it affects the look of your images, and everything you can do to control it!
If you’d like to feel totally confident with light, and learn it quickly and easily, check out our newest tutorial, Fantastic Fundamental Light Skills. It covers everything you need to know, in a fast and fun format, with illustrations and lots of sample photos to make learning easy!
Click here to check it out and get it with an instant download!
"This tutorial is exactly what I needed. After shooting blindly (so it seems) I've finally got to a point where I'm ready to understand the different types of light, how light behaves and how I can manipulate it to create the image I see in my mind."
Next up we’re going to dive into composition - how you frame your photos for maximum impact. It’s a big topic, and I’m going to give you some super fast ways to take your photos from everyday snapshots, to images that grab attention and have people saying “Wow!”. Don’t miss it!
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