Letting the Light Guide You

Light is the most important element in photography

It can make the biggest difference in the quality of the image, and with that it also holds the most influence on the artistic elements when used creatively.  Sure there are many other factors that come into play in any shot, subject placement, relations, composition of the shot, etc., but without effective light it's all for not.  I personally think that most of what we see on a day-to-day basis is relatively mundane; So for me that means when opportunity strikes and we see something that speaks to us, or we notice something with the potential to truly connect with, it's important to take note and capture the moment.  In photography that means speaking the language of light, as just how well we can speak that language reflects how well the final images will turn out. 

Today's post is a short one on things to focus on light-wise to capture some of those most important moments.  It's not a list in any order of importance, but rather just a number of things you can use to inspire or direct your focuses when you're in a number of situations.  Something to keep you inspired to create, and to show you that most situations have an opportunity if you read the light well and experiment.  Some of these will push you to break some of the traditional rules, but I hope to show you how it works in your favour to do so.  I hope you find something that connects with you!


Shoot into the sun

So many camera manufacturers,  books and blog posts talk about not shooting into the sun, and with a good reason: it can damage your sensor or your eyes.  I've looked into it, and found that it's mostly people who don't know better than to stare directly into it for a prolonged time, or to expose the sensor for a long exposure.  Pointing your camera into the sun and firing for 1/200 of a second does not wreck your camera.

Not only does it not wreck your camera, it sometimes creates the most amazing silhouettes and camera flares.  Take a look at the following shot I took a couple of weeks back, it's pointed directly into the sun and it creates a nice subtle halo around the couple that really draws the viewer's attention into the subjects.

 
 

Experiment with low light

For the purposes of this blog post we'll define Dynamic Range as, "the measure of shades between black and white." As camera technology has developed, so has their ability to manage low light situations.  Some cameras have a much broader Dynamic Range than others, meaning some of them will have a much wider range of shades between the shadows and the highlights.  In application that means you have more ability in your post processing to edit and manage your photos.  Things like shooting in RAW allow you to effectively recover much of your dynamic range, and really open up the opportunity to shoot in darker situations than older cameras ever could.  Don't be afraid of experimenting on shooting in dark areas, you can really achieve some fantastic shots.  Take for instance this photo I took a couple weeks ago of a black dog in a dark room lit by a single window.


Supplement the Light

Lots of people (myself included) get into photography and learn about Speedlights (camera strobes/flashes) and run out to grab one so that they can take charge of the light in a photo.  I spent years trying to make the Speedlight the dominant source of light in most of my photos, even using high-speed sync to effectively overpower the sun!  It can definitely be a good thing, and does have its uses, but I'll get to that in the next point. 

Here's the thing though, most of the time I was too consumed with the Speedlight being the primary light.  I missed out on opportunities for fantastic photos that I'll never get again because I demanded that the strobe be too dominant and strong.  Now I personally like to sometimes experiment with using my Speedlights as a secondary light source.  Just a subtle bump of light to fill in the shadows in a scene.  Take a look at the two shots below, they both use flash, but they use them to make the scene look nicely and evenly lit.  In both of the shots my approach is to use the flash so that the image doesn't look like I used flash at all.


Overpower the light

Just like I mentioned in the last point, it can be beneficial to completely take charge of the light in a situation and create a dramatic effect.  The contrast possibilities and outlining of light can create some surreal final images that send very powerful messages to the viewer.  Generally when I'm trying to do something like that I use Pocketwizards to get the flash (or flashes) off of the camera to create directional light and give the image more depth. Sometimes it benefits you try thinking outside of the box on this, putting the flash directly behind the subjects, or to a very hard side angle.  The two shots below show how this can be used very powerfully to create pretty unique and cool images:

 
 

Use Windows to your advantage

This one ties directly into the "Experiment with Low Light" point.  Many times, particularly with wedding photography, I grab the subject(s) and place them directly next to a window with a translucent curtain pulled across, and I'll keep the rest of the room's lights turned off.  This does two things: 1. It tends to give very soft light that gently wraps around the subjects with no harsh shadows; and 2. it again gives very directional light.  It leads to images that really speak loudly because of their dramatic contrasts.  Sometimes I'll even use a window without curtains and bring the subject(s) closer to the window still creating a similar effect with a bit more of a dramatic fall-off/hard light. 

Here are three such photos from different situations and events which show you what I mean.  You might notice that the black and white image doesn't look like it's next to a window at all, but the white backdrop is actually the curtains themselves.  I exposed the image so that the background would look like a solid white studio backdrop.  It's just another of many options you can explore and practice to create some really interesting effects for isolating your subjects.


Shoot during the Golden Hours

In the hour or so just after sunrise and just before sunset, the sky tends to throw some beautiful, colourful hues of oranges, pinks, and reds.  Shooting then can lead to some gorgeous light and warm colours that compliment your subjects very well.  This is a perfect time to shoot for subjects that may have strong emotional connections, like engagement shoots for couples and photos of kids like this one of two flower girls stopping in the middle of the aisle to fix a sandal at a wedding I shot a month ago.


These are just a few suggestions to get you started on your way, but by no means are they your only options to play with light.  Get out and shoot, experiment, try something different and new, and feel free to let me know how it goes!

 
 Signature block.
 

-Wes.