Thursday, November 5, 2009

Working with natural light: benifits and limitations

In Seattle we have an average of 266 overcast days of the year. Californians hear this and cringe. I'm a native though, and I have come to love the soft dispersed light of the Great Northwest as do many portrait photographers, high overcast clouds make for great natural light portraiture.  This doesn't mean you should leave all of your equipment at home just because there are a few clouds in the sky, like any good boy scout, you should always be prepared. Here is what I bring with me on every outdoor shoot.
  1. Camera (duh)
  2. Tripod or monopod depending on the time of day and the position of the sun
  3. 2-3 Nikon speed-lights
  4. Light stands and adapters to use with my speed-lights
  5. Gary Fong Lightsphere
  6. Umbrellas (in case it's not windy)
  7. Collapsable 4 in 1 diffuser/fill card
  8. 16-85mm, 50mm, 70-200mm, lenses
Now I don't carry all of this with me as I shoot, I keep whatever portion I don't need in the car and only bring with me what I feel is necessary once I am on site. In Washington the weather at my house near Everett can be great while just 12 miles south in Lynnwood it's hailing; so again, be prepared.

Once I've arrived, talked to the people I'm going to photograph, and reviewed the situation I gather the gear I feel best suited for the situation and begin the shoot. Right now it's very trendy to shoot people at wide open apertures with shallow depth of field then later manipulate the images to have greater (sometimes way to much) contrast and saturation. I'm an old fashioned photographer in the sense that I think I should be the one dictating my exposure not the Aperture Priority Mode on my camera. This is the main reason I often shoot with fill flash on location, I like to be able to control the light, exposure, and every other factor perfectly so my time spent editing in minimized. When you do the volume I do, it's necessary to get the leg work done up front instead of "fix it in Photoshop." This is part of the ethic I learned in college, and sadly I feel it's severely lacking in the work of many of my colleges. Nothing is scarier to me then to go on location and run into another "professional" photographer who says something like "So, what's this?" when they see me put my light stand up.  But I digress...

When appropriate, natural light is the best thing available, but as with anything else, it's a skill to know how to use it correctly. Here are some situations in which photographing people (and most other things too) in natural light will give you bad results.
  1. On a bright sunny day when the sun is directly overhead. (In the summer it's between 10am-2pm here  in Washington. The best light no matter the season is within 2 hours of sunrise and 2 hours of sunset.
  2. When the subject you are photographing is in shade or bright sun and you want detail in the background/foreground to establish place. For example, thousands of tourists come every year to the Pike Place Fish Market and stand on the corner of 2nd and Pike for a photo opportunity with the famous red sign behind them. After 3pm on any given day I can promise you that most of those photos have one or two problems. Either the sign is exposed correctly and the people are too dark to recognize, or the people look great and the sign is barely readable due to over exposure.
  3. Too little light. When you are in a low light situation of any kind remember your eye can see far more then any camera can comprehend. We can't expect (well at least not yet) the camera to have the wide spectrum of abilities when it comes to gathering light that our eyes have.
On the other hand natural light can be a gift from God in the following situations.
  1. On a overcast day where the clouds are high. The clouds act as a giant diffuser to a giant light source to illuminate harsh shadows, enhance vibrant colors, and provide almost limitless possibilities.
  2. When it comes in any north facing window, or most windows for that matter. Harsh sunlight redirected a few times becomes (say it with me now) diffused. Window light provides a lovely wrap around look on the face that highlights dimensionality and depth.
  3. In the evening or early morning. "Magic hour" where the light is low in the sky, colors seem to glow and shadows fall long and lean. Some of the best environmental portrait photographers in the world shoot strictly with natural light and only during these times. Oh how I wish I had that luxury! Working with the general public means working around their schedules and most of the time that is NEVER when the best light is available.
So as I mentioned before, it's best to know how to work in all circumstances, and then adjust accordingly. I live by the rule that if the light looks good as is, don't mess with it! But when it isn't just right, know what trick to pull out of my bag to make anything possible!

The image for today was shot with a combination of indoor lighting and window light. Let me set the scene for you. The bride and her bridesmaid were touching up her make up in a dimly lit conference room at the back of church. ( I won't mention which one because if the wedding coordinator for this location found out that I stood on their table to get this shot she'd never let me back in.) The room was filled with a ton of scattered clothes, other bridesmaids and a giant conference table. I do my best when shooting to minimize distractions. This often means cleaning up for people as they work to get ready for the ceremony. Nothing is more unphotogenic then a room filled with clutter when you're trying to shoot. Sadly, in this instance there wasn't room to put anything away, there was barely room to walk. So I stood on the table. This may be a minor offense anywhere else, but I've been yelled at by this coordinator before for less. Once I was up there, I could look down at the bride without distraction and capture the action. At first I did a few shots with flash to fill and get stop action but it didn't have the look I wanted. So I turned the flash off and told the bride to make sure she was holding really still. My exposure was down to 1/4 of a second at F 4.5 so I knew blur was inevitable. With my camera on a tripod I set the timer for 2 seconds to avoid camera shake and did my best not to rock the table. Handing Terice a speed-light, I told her to pretend she was the sun. She proceeded to also stand on a chair and hold the flash pointing the speed-light directly at the bride so as to follow the path of the light already streaming in the window. Set to remote, the speed-light was in TTL mode to give a similar exposure as what my camera was metering at, but due to the distance away from the camera, I knew there would be at least a whole stop difference between the power of the flash and my set exposure. This actually was a good thing since I only wanted to use the flash to provide some sharpness and stop action on the bride without overpowering the natural light.  This image is what happened. The motion blur on the bridesmaid's hand couldn't have been more perfect. It gives a sense of action while the natural light from the window (with a little flash for sharpness to contrast the blur) gently illuminates her face. Best of all, it's a great exposure with both shadow and highlight detail, great color, and perspective. Once I saw the image in the viewfinder I couldn't help but say out-loud "Yes!". I love when properly applied technique and serendipity collide. If anyone is interested in seeing this same shot with just flash so you can see the difference the natural light and long exposure made let me know and I'll dig it out of my archives.

Tomorrow: Fill flash on location part 1.


  1. What's wrong with Aperture Priority Mode? I shoot that way 90% of the time. Of course I select the aperture. With static subjects I don't care what the shutter speed is (I always shoot with a tripod).

    Nice shot, btw.

  2. @Dave

    Nothing is wrong with Aperture Priority Mode, or Shutter speed priority, or Auto for that matter, it's just a personal preference thing. If you've found a grove that works for you and you can create images that have the results you're looking for then great! Plus you're right, add a tripod and you'll almost never think about shutter speed again. My main point was that knowing all of the functionality of a camera is essential to making great images. It's easy to learn one way of shooting and never move outside the comfort zone.

    Thanks for your comments and complements on my shot. I hope you'll keep reading and share with friends.