Fixing Bad Light

We’re all faced with bad ambient light from time to time. Sometimes it’s too flat, or too dark, or just too plain boring. Well, here’s a look at a few types of bad light and what you can do to fix them.

Midday Sun

A professional photographer with a beautiful portfolio once told me that the secret to his success was simply that he refused to photograph during the middle of the day. When the light is directly above it looks fairly bland, non-direction, and it kind of flattens everything. This photographer figured there was just no point in wasting his time. Unfortunately, that means you miss a lot of shooting opportunities between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. when the light comes from above. So, instead, what I try to do is use that big flat overhead light not as a frontal key, but as a hair light positioned behind my subject. I can then open up and expose for the inevitable shadow into which my subject is now facing. If the light’s especially harsh, I seek out open shade—the area of bright, but indirect light under a tall tree or other shade-producing structure. It’s not going to turn midday lighting into a warm, glowing sunset, but it will definitely make something nice and usable out of otherwise bad light.

Overcast Day

Gray days are not the best circumstances in which to shoot. Now, don’t get me wrong: a little bit of cloud cover on a light overcast day…that’s something special. That might, in fact, be the best kind of general-purpose daylight there is. But, if that light overcast turns into a dreary gray day, well, you might be in trouble. To rescue your shoot on a dreary day, try overexposing slightly to turn those dark skies into an all-encompassing non-directional soft light. It’s like shooting your subject with a giant softbox! Warm up the color balance a bit (either manually in the camera by choosing the shade or cloudy setting, or by warming the color temperature—which can also be done in the computer after capturing RAW files) to eliminate the blue-gray tone that’s sure to prevail on days like this. Now, the one thing you’ll never get on a gray day is a blue sky, but you can get a pleasant enough bright white one with the proper adjustments to exposure and color balance. The nice thing about shooting on an overcast day is that you’ll never have to worry about losing shadow details, as the general level of illumination will keep the darkest tones in your scene nicely filled in.

Low Light

When working in low light you’ve got several options. Let’s say the sun is dropping faster than you expected, and now you’re stuck trying to make pictures without enough light. You can certainly add a flash to provide enough illumination, but if you’re not careful this can dramatically change the look of the shot. And after all, just because the light is low doesn’t mean you want to totally reinvent it. Thankfully we’re fortunate to have cameras that can produce beautifully low-noise images even at amazingly high ISOs. That’s why we now have so many beautiful, sharp photos of the Milky Way at night, floating there in the sky high above the landscape. And why National Geographic photographers can now better show us, for instance, what life might really be like for indigenous people living far off the grid without aid of electronic flash. The point is, these days we can crank the ISO farther than our photographic ancestors ever dared wish for, and so we shouldn’t be afraid to rescue a super low-light situation with a super-high ISO.

Mixed Light

To be clear, mixed light isn’t necessarily bad. In fact, it might even be considered just fine, good or even downright beautiful. One thing is for sure: mixed light can be extremely tricky. The problem with mixed lighting is choosing the right color balance. Let’s say you’re photographing an interior room with a large window (flooding the space with daylight) and bright overhead lights (filling the space with tungsten light). What white balance setting will provide the ideal neutral rendering of the scene? It might be a Tungsten setting, which could make just the window itself look blue, or it might be Daylight, which makes the tungsten-lit areas of the scene look extra warm. Or, it could be somewhere in between—which is more than likely. It’s impossible to know the right answer for every mixed lighting scenario, but my favorite way to address it is to use a gray card to make a custom white balance for the scene. If this doesn’t do the trick, I’ll try to correct for one of the sources by gelling it to make it appear more like the other—for instance, adding an orange gel over the window, or blue gels over tungsten lights in the scene. Lastly, when in doubt, just make sure any humans in the scene look ideal, and let the other tones do what they will. You can always fine tune white balance in post, especially if you shoot RAW.

Fix It In Post

Relish this, because it’s one of the only times I’ll ever advocate the “fix-it-in-post” approach to photography. When all else fails, try to rescue bad light by improving it in post. The reality is, even if you do everything possible to make the most of the bad light you’re faced with, sometimes your pictures still need help. I recently made a portrait of my daughter, taking some of the principles above to turn midday flat light into more interesting backlighting, but I still I missed the exposure and color balance, and the RAW image file was too dark, too blue and too bland. So, I took to the computer to warm it, and lighten the exposure, and increase the contrast to generally spiffy things up. And boy, did it help. The other elements were there—a great moment with a great expression, the directional light from behind created nice separation with the background—and in general the photo had what it needed to be a success. Doing a little bit of “fixing it in post” really did take a bland photo and make it something special. You can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear, but you can improve bad light with a bit of diligent retouching.

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