Home How-To Tip Of The Week Breaking Bad Lighting Habits—11/22/10
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Monday, November 22, 2010

Breaking Bad Lighting Habits—11/22/10

Challenge yourself to create better pictures with these five questions

This Article Features Photo Zoom


There’s a lot to consider every time you try to create a great picture—shutter speed, aperture, focal length... It’s easy to forget that the most important thing is the light. Instead of worrying about all those technical factors, first and foremost ask yourself this: Have I done all I can to make the most of the light? Whether it’s ambient or augmented lighting, before you take your next picture, push yourself to break out of the easy choices and bad habits to make the tough lighting decisions that lead to better pictures.

1. Is natural light enough, or should I add illumination? Many times, we approach lighting a scene out of habit. If we’re in the habit of adding flash, we add flash. If we’re in the habit of working with the natural light, we live with the natural light whether or not it’s the best solution for the scene at hand. So the next time you’re ready to shoot, ask yourself: Is the natural light enough? If it isn’t, add a flash. And if it's great as is, remove any excess lights to make the most of great ambience.

2. Is my flash off the camera or just stuck comfortably on the hot-shoe? It’s awfully easy to plunk an external flash on your camera and call it a day. But on-camera flash is rarely the ideal way to use an external flash. At the very least, connect the camera to a cable and hold it out at arm’s length. With a little more planning, you can place your light on a stand farther from the camera. Any amount of off-axis lighting will be more flattering for most scenes, adding texture, dimension and the illusion of depth.

3. Have I color balanced correctly for my light source, or am I just settling for auto? It’s awfully easy to go with automatic white balance and get close most of the time, but for great photographs, you’ll have to control white balance manually. Particularly in tricky mixed-lighting situations, setting manual white balance presets, or better yet creating a custom white balance for the specific light you’re working with, is the best way to ensure you get accurate color from interesting light.

4. Could I do this with fewer lights, or have I overdone it? If you’re lighting a scene and you’ve pulled out every light and modifier you can think of, ask yourself: Can I really justify all of those lights? Many photographers believe that to create interesting photographs, they need to use a lot of lights. But great photographers have proven time and again how less is so often more. After all, there’s only one sun and it makes marvelous light!

5. Does my light create the right mood or does it just deliver a usable exposure? No matter what story you’re trying to tell with your photo, make sure you’re not settling for a lighting style that you’re comfortable with in lieu of the style that serves the subject best. Creating the right mood requires the appropriate lighting style—be it soft light, specular light, warm tones or cool, all of these things directly impact the mood of a scene. For drama, try hard lights from extreme angles. For a soft, relaxing mood, the kind you might try with a baby photo or feminine portrait, try omnidirectional soft light to set the mood. Ultimately the right light should flatter the subject—unless the appropriate mood requires that the light look awful, in which case make sure it looks awful in exactly the right way.

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