Light makes photography. Embrace light. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.
– George Eastman
Every photographer loves the Golden Hour, that part of the day where the light slants from the sun at just the right angle. The world changes colors. Faces soften as people exhale under the evening sky. Halos hover at the fringes of your subjects, creating a subtle glow that you just know will express the beauty you are seeing through your lens.
Everyone breathes easier when the sky is soft with shades of pink and orange, so we love to plan our sessions around sunset. The Golden Hour is the perfect setting for making our magic as photographers, but not all the hours of the day are golden, and in most of the world, a perfect sunset sky is not a daily guarantee.
You can’t always get what you want but if you try sometimes, well, you might just find you get what you need.
– The Rolling Stones
As beautiful and enchanting as the golden hour is, what about the other 23 hours of the day and the infinite possible light situations we may find ourselves in? Who wants to be limited to one type of lighting scenario? Part of the art of our work is that we will want (or need) to take incredible photos under many different kinds of light. We’ll grab our camera when we look over and see our sister tenderly feeding her baby in the dappled light of a summer day or when a client looks striking in the bright sun of midday. We find ourselves capturing performances that are harshly lit under colored, ever-changing lighting. We are invited to record the memory of a sacred ceremony under impossibly dim light, and we know that flash would be disruptive.
Life is diverse, strange and beautiful, and as ever-changing as the light that surrounds it. Let’s look at some ways to make the most of different kinds of light—particularly the kind of lighting scenarios that many of us try to avoid. Let’s continue to stretch and grow and create and express, unbound by a need for any one specific setting.
Low light is tricky for sure. We struggle with too much noise and blurry images and missed moments. Try these tricks and tools the next time you’re dealing with impossibly low light, and see what emerges. Remember that a little patience and creative perspective can open up entirely new possibilities.
- Raise your ISO by a lot! Sure, you may end up with extra photo noise, but (most of the time) the noise is preferred over a blurry shot, and most post-production tools are really good at reducing the noise caused by shooting at high ISO.
- Alternatively, let the blur be. Sometimes the emotion and movement that can come through in a low-light shot are actually incredibly beautiful and contribute to storytelling —I tend to prefer these types of images in b/w.
- Even with a higher ISO, being as still as possible will ensure the best results. Use a tripod or a stack of books to steady your camera or, if that is not an option, take a deep breath and hold it when you click your shutter in order to minimize movement.
- Let the moodiness of the dim light work for you. Find the one subject with some light, focus on them, and let the rest go dark. The result can be lovely, I promise!
Direct Or Harsh Sunlight
We say direct sunlight is harsh because of what it does to people’s faces. It is difficult to see into someone’s eyes when they’re squinting, and direct sun makes for awfully unforgiving lines. Yuck! So while I rarely go out of my way to do a full session in direct sunlight, if it feels like part of the story, I will occasionally pull my subject out into the light for a photo here and there. The result can be a striking image that adds an appealing variety to the rest of the session. Here are some ways to adjust your shoot when the sun is hot and strong and right above you.
- Play with the hard shadows and let them create a leading line or compelling shape that can enhance rather than impede your image.
- Experiment with exposing for different parts of your subject or the environment surrounding them. Choose a bright spot and then a dark spot and maybe one in the middle, and see which one you prefer. Which exposure captures the story you’re looking to tell? Go with that and trust it even if it isn’t photographically “”
- Remember that this look is not right for every person or every mood. If you find that it is not right for your subject but you’re stuck with hot, bright shooting time, look for an open shade spot (ideally with a light or white surface facing it) or find a natural filter such as trees to soften the harsh light. If we think outside of our go-to places and ways of doing things, we can always find a way to make a gorgeous image.
What happens when we land an irresistible assignment like a music group performing, but the indoor event is on a stage under constantly changing colored lights and we are a “natural light” photographer? Well, first we revel in the excitement, of course. Then panic for a minute before we pull up our camera straps and do what we do: make amazing pictures! Shooting inside under this type of lighting can be equal parts challenging, fascinating and rewarding. Hopefully, these bits will help you succeed and even grow to enjoy shooting under artificial light.
- Choose one subject (periodically) to meter and focus on, and let the rest do what it does. There are so many variables that if you attempt to get it all in every shot, you’ll likely end up chasing instead of creating.
- Tune into what’s going on not just with your camera but with your subjects and their performance. See if you can anticipate what may happen next. Big events tend to have an intuitive rhythm to them, and if we connect to that we can be half a step ahead and ready to capture a bit of the beauty unfolding in front of us.
- Use your flash! A situation like this can be a great time to start using your speedlite to support you in getting a great image. It will keep your shutter speed quick and can help keep the colors coming from the artificial light from tinting your subject in an unflattering way.
Actually, I’m not sure why dappled light gets such a bad rap. Like with harsh or low light, I probably would not want a whole session to be dappled, but a sprinkle of images in a session with mottled patterns dancing on your subjects can be a delightful addition. Shadowy light brings depth and interest to your photos, and it effectively merges your subject with her environment in a dreamy, powerful way. I. Love. That. Give these ideas a whirl the next time you find your subject showered in dappled light. Who knows, you might grow to love the way these shadows paint your subjects (and images) so much that you start to seek them out.
- Dappled light is dramatic—both in its feel and in its ranges of brightness. Choose a spot you want to expose for and adjust accordingly.
- Sometimes the brights can end up impossibly bright. We want drama and depth, but we don’t want to lose all the definition and integrity of our image. Try stopping down or lowering your ISO to slightly darken the image overall. This often works like a charm.
- Look for dappled light and let it into your shots intentionally. Leaves, branches and window blinds all make wonderful opportunities to use dappled light in fun ways. If you’re feeling spunky, you can play around with lace or other textures to intentionally “dapple” and decorate your subject.
One of the best approaches to less-than-perfect light is to give ourselves the freedom to think about the challenge differently. “Difficult” lighting situations are like many of life’s other perceived dilemmas in that they become easier when we drop our resistance and “lean into them.” Maybe instead of filling the mottled shadows or making dark places disappear, dare to invite them into your images; rather than turning on your flash the next time you’re working with impossibly dim light, try some of the tips above and maybe let that harsh sunlight cast a strong shadow on your client—see what happens. Be curious. Be brave. Be bold. This is, after all, your art, and, who knows, these experiments may end up being the best part of your visual story.
Light is enchanting, elusive, exciting, and when we can recognize all the ways it expresses as an opportunity for making beautiful photos—it is also abundant. I could go on and on about the different kinds of light we can use: side light, window light, back light, open shade, twilight, morning light. We are richly blessed with opportunities to use light to enhance and enliven our images. I think the best thing I can tell you is to spend time observing light. Make notes, pay attention, learn techniques; and then give yourself permission to experiment, break rules and make sublime pictures that tell your stories the way you want to tell them.
Danielle Cohen is a photographer based in southern California and the former publisher of AMULET magazine. She gets excited about geographic romances, magical tea blends, big, genuine smiles where your eyes crinkle up at the corners, and the messy magic of the everyday. She believes that every love story is amazing and deserves to be captured and documented. You can check out her work—and book a photo session—at: danielle-cohen.com
Gallery—More examples of Available Light
Diffused Window Light
Direct Harsh Midday Sun
Golden Magic Hour