Photography and Using the Light

It’s All About The Light

One of the biggest steps you can take to improve your outdoor photographs is to start seeing and paying attention to what the light is doing to the scene. Just as important as the subject of your picture is the light and how it adds (or subtracts) from the environment.

Night in Forsyth Park

The light in your photograph directly affects the mood and can add drama but it can also damage your expected results. It doesn’t matter if it’s natural sunlight or an artificial light source – you need some type of light to produce an image. From the beginning, from photographic film to todays digital pixels the only thing that is being recorded is the light. It reflecting off the scene or emanates directly from it or a combination of both. Between the scene and your camera there are a number of things that can also interact with the light. Fog and mist can diffuse it, smooth surfaces, like water, can add reflections to it and environmental conditions and the time of day can alter its intensity and the lights color.

Here’s a secret. With the exception of an assignment shoot with a team managing the placement of reflectors and diffusers, most of the time, when dealing with natural light and outdoor scenes even the best photographers aren’t sure what the results will actually be. Learning what to expect under different lighting circumstances is a process that requires the taking of hundreds and hundreds of photographs and studying the resulting images. Taking notes about time of day and conditions helps with the learning process.

Early morning fog Disney World

Years ago in photography every one of those individual shutter clicks had a price attached to it and it wasn’t inexpensive. A couple of times I had jobs where the film and processing costs were paid by my employers, but even then my results were judged against those costs. Today we live in an age of miracles where those pixels have no real costs associated with them. We can now shoot hundreds of images, view the results instantly and keep only the pictures we like. Considering this there is no excuse to not shoot, experiment and play with all sorts of lighting situations. Especially when the environmental conditions are unusual – shoot those pictures.

The best natural light for outdoor photography appears during what are referred to by photographers as the golden hours, which is that hour after sunrise, and the hour before sunset. Most photographers will look to shoot during the golden hours, as it often produces the most stunning outdoor images.

Once you begin to understand the value of the golden hours, you should start planning how to often take advantage that remarkable lighting.

Fog rolls through the Misty Fjord, Alaska

Just as the day has times for the best light there are also times for the worst. Often natural light can be the photographers worst enemy. Bright midday Sun, especially in stark environments, like the beach or in snow can be a severe challenge. High contrast scenes with deep shadows next to bleached out areas in direct sunlight. If you are taking portraits in direct, midday Sun try and shade your subject and if that isn’t possible another trick is to turn your flash on and set at manual. That can help soften the scene and fill in some of those deep harsh shadows.

Direct sun at midday is a very difficult environment. Not only is there direct sunlight but there is also light reflecting off light subjects from all directions. That reflected light can negatively impact the scene and increase harshness. Probably the best trick you can put in your arsenal for just such times is a polarizing filter*.Putting on the filter and rotating it can cut the intensity of reflected and scattered light by almost half. It causes the sky to darken, enhances colors and reduces the harshness of the sunlight reflecting off the scene. Try carrying just a small sheet of polarizing film that you can just hold in front of the camera lens. I carry a small sheet in an envelope slipped in with the camera.

Night photography is actually my favorite because of the stunning effects produced by the play of illumination on buildings, lit up cityscapes, night sky’s and nighttime events like fireworks. There is often something magical about night lighting that you just won’t see in daytime. Night photography works best if you can keep the camera rock steady. Steadying the camera on a solid surface or carrying a pocket tripod will greatly improve those night pictures.

Just after Sunset

My Camera Gear – When I travel I carry a compact camera in addition to my cellphone. Considering the quality of the newer models of cameras and the capabilities of the new cellphones, I just can’t see hauling around a larger camera. While I have to admit lately that my cellphone takes incredible pictures, often handling unusual lighting situations better than my Nikon camera, I still carry the camera because it has more control of shutter speed and aperture and it has a really good zoom lens at 35X.

*Polarizing filter – Because of the small size of modern cellphone and compact camera lenses all you need is a small piece of filter. Since there is no convenient filter holder for phones and compacts available I simply carry a small sheet of filter in an envelope and simply hold it in front of the lens. You can buy a large sheet of optical grade film from Amazon (link below).

Dusk at Disney World

Nikon compacts are my favorite cameras. They’re really compact with lots of control over how you take photographs and with a 128 SD card it will store thousands of images or forty minutes of 720p video. Find it on Amazon HERE.

Polarizing film comes in a large sheet you can cut down to a number of smaller filters. To buy on Amazon click HERE.

The bottom line today with those virtually free pixels is – look, see, shoot. You can always erase the picture if it didn’t work out but if you don’t shoot you’ll never know.

Available now is our guide to Taking Better Pictures so download your free pdf copy now by clicking here.

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