A great moment in a great location with a great subject might make for a great photo. But for it to be one of those really special “best of the best” photographs, it absolutely has to have great light. In fact, I would argue that great light can be enough to turn an otherwise humdrum moment into a photograph that’s pretty special—just on the strength of the light alone.
So how do you find great light on demand, assuming you’re not making it yourself with artificial lighting? When I’m working with ambient light, the first thing I like to do is look for the edges of light, the transition areas between bright and dark. It’s in these places that great lighting can often be found. Here’s what to look for, and what to do with it when you find it.
Look for shadows. In a place where a row of trees might be casting a series of patterned shadows on the ground, for instance, you can utilize those shadows in a number of ways. First, the pattern becomes a graphically interesting image element itself. Second, you can place that patterned light deliberately around or even on the subject to draw special attention to them. With a bold pattern over the subject’s face it’s certainly going to be attention grabbing and it just may be the perfect graphic addition to the image. Lastly, you can use that shadow to put your subject in bright open shade, removing them from the otherwise harsh, direct sunlight and creating a softer illumination that works great for portraits in particular. Even a small shadow can work well for this; the sunlit background will simply be overexposed and bright, while the subject in the shadow is exposed correctly with soft, indirect illumination. It makes for a nice, high-key lighting effect.
Position yourself where the background is dark and shadowed. Look for places where a structure is making a shadowed background in an otherwise bright scene, and position the sunlit subject in front of the dark, shadowed background. The contrast between a dark background and a bright subject makes for a dynamic composition every time.
Look for backlighting. In the scenario above, where a dark background and a bright subject create a strong contrast, one way to make it even more interesting is when the subject is backlit. This occurs any time you’re aiming your camera generally in the direction of the light source—in this case, the sun. So even if the sun isn’t in the shot, it’s still coming from behind the subject and creating bright edge lighting to further separate the subject from the background. If that subject is transparent or translucent, even better. Leaves, hair, glass, grass and water are all ideal subjects for backlighting, as light from behind will make them sparkle with strong separation from the background.
The edges of the day count too. Sunrise and sunset also count as “edges” simply because these “edges of the day” offer low-angle lighting that’s strongly directional, warm and vibrant, giving even the most mundane portrait a dramatic, more interesting feel. When in doubt, no matter what you’re shooting, you’re bound to find beautiful light at the edges of the day.