How to Shoot with Available Light - Digital Photography School

How to Shoot with Available Light

How-to-Shoot-with-Available-Light.jpg

In this post Gary Cosby Jr. shares some great tips on shooting with available light.

Shooting available light can be both liberating and enslaving.

Sounds like a contradiction doesn’t it? In fact, shooting available light frees you from all the encumbrances of dragging strobe equipment around with its stands, modifiers, strobes and possibly even power packs. On the other hand, shooting available light chains you to whatever the light is willing to do at a given time of day. So you see now how it can free you or chain you up. There are a few tips and techniques you can use to tame available light and bend it to your will in many circumstances. Best of all, you don’t have to purchase a thing to use this technique.

First of all and most obviously, try your best to avoid shooting in straight up, high noon daylight. We all know that is the worst light of the day and there is very little you can do to modify it other than just picking a shady spot to do your photography. Having said that, if you are shooting in the forest during a high noon, it may not be such a bad thing. If you can adapt your subject to a high contrast environment then you can shoot successfully even then. If you can avoid high, overhead direct sunlight and shoot either early or late you will be doing yourself a favor because the shadows that kill you at high noon can be your friend during other hours of the day. Remember this, light illuminates your subject but shadow defines it. The direction and quality of those shadows can really make a subject sing.

Photography-Available-Light.jpg

I work for a daily newspaper so most of what I am telling you comes from having to shoot in all hours of the day with little control over the time of day I get to shoot. Just last week I had an assignment to shoot a pottery workshop which was held outside. I was very fortunate because the lady teaching the class held it in an open breezeway between two buildings. The top was roofed so they were in shade but the ends were wide open providing me with soft, directional light in the middle of the day. I was glad to see that because I would not have attempted to move the people, of course. But there is a tip in it for anyone who has a choice of where to place your subject. Look for areas where the daylight is modified by the surroundings so you can actually shoot in directional light. Buildings are great light modifiers. In towns and cities, buildings cast shadows and act as reflectors. You can have many different colors of light depending on the building doing the reflecting. You can pose your subject in an alley or a common area between buildings using one to knock down the harsh daylight and the other to provide directional fill light. A white or light colored building can make an absolutely huge light source and give you light quality every bit as good as you could have from a softbox.

Angles are very important in photography in an condition but especially so in daylight. If I have no other option I will turn my subject back to the sun and shoot backlit. I can always use Photoshop to “save” the image as a last resort. What I do in these extreme cases is expose for the shadow side of the subject and let the background go high key. That’s a nice way of saying the background burns out due to overexposure. You can tweak this a little by doing a compromise exposure to save the background a little and then using your history brush tool or your dodge tool to bring up the face tones. Like I said, this is a last resort but it does work in a pinch. If I am using fill flash in harsh light this is the technique I use all the time but then the flash does the work I would have had to do in Photoshop saving me time and making the image pop much better.

available-light-photography.jpg

You can use the sky as a huge soft light source if you have that classic high, thin overcast. The contrast of direct sunlight is knocked down without affecting the overall quantity of light very much at all. I love to shoot sports in that kind of light. Its like shooting action with a giant softbox. You can also do portraits in this light but it is difficult to include the sky in the photo until very late in the day. Just keep in mind, the sky is a fantastic light source all day but mind the color temp. In the early portion of the day the light tends toward yellow. In mid-day, the light gets really blue and in the evening the light goes more orange and eventually to an amazing shade of blue. Even the sky after all the color of sunset has faded is a tremendous source of illumination. The color of this light can be very nice and the contrast is very manageable. By adding existing available light to a post sunset environment you can get spectacular photos.

available-light-1.jpg

About the photos: The photos from the Delta Queen were shot after sunset along the river in Decatur, Alabama using a Canon EOS 5D and a 24-70mm f2.8 lens. The exposure was ISO 800 at about 1/4 second at f2.8. The same goes for the picture of my little girl “climbing” on the rocks. All these were done post sunset with nothing other than the available light. The photos from the pottery class were also shot with the 5D and 24-70 lens. There is really nothing going on but metering the image, do a quick chimp of the image to tweak what I metered and then shooting.

Photos copyright Gary Cosby Jr.

About Gary Cosby Jr: I am a staff photojournalist for The Decatur Daily in Decatur, Alabama where I have worked for the last fourteen years. I have been in photojournalism for eighteen years total. I have a BS from the University of North Alabama in photography with a journalism minor. I did graduate work at what was then CBN University in Virginia Beach, VA. The school was renamed Regents University several years ago. I have been writing a photojournalism blog for almost one year. It is located at http://alittlenews.wordpress.com/ The blog was started with the intention of paying back some career debts to those who have helped me along over the years by helping younger photographers in their careers. I am married and have eight children and live in Hartselle, Alabama.

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Darren Rowse is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals. He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

  • http://www.petelanglois.net/gallery/5390025_Hre5W Pete Langlois

    I love shooting with natural outdoor light. I prefer it actually. I do “most” of my shooting outdoors, balloon festivals, air shows, landscapes, seascapes, etc.

    http://www.petelanglois.net

  • http://www.shutterbugsource.com Barbara

    Most of my photos are taken when I’m traveling for my “day job”, and I often have no choice but to shoot at whatever time of day I can go sight-seeing – even at the dreaded “high noon”. Sometimes the contrast is horrific in color, but can sometimes make a powerful picture if I convert to black and white. Thanks for these tips.

  • http://www.jozefnagy.com Jozef Nagy

    I really need to practice this kind of photography some more. My low-light shots tend to get blurry quite easily. Then again, the author is shooting at an aperture of f2.8. The fastest lense at my disposal is around 4. At that aperature, the shutter speed has to be much longer, further adding blur.

  • http://www.pdaphotography.com Paul

    “Remember this, light illuminates your subject but shadow defines it.”

    Words to live by. :)

  • JP

    Great shots Gary. Hey, can I quote you… “light illuminates your subject but shadow defines it”? That says it all!

  • Rick Buch

    I also have to deal with smaller apertures so I tend to marry my camera to my tripod for near sunset shots to help eliminate blur. My favorite portrait session was done using my backdrops as artificial shade in harsh sunlight. I placed the sun above and behind the subject then used a backdrop behind and over subjects head leaving both sides open for indirect light. The results were perfect lighting. Thanks for pointing out some new ideas to add to those I already have.

  • Arun

    The ideas are great, but the ‘HOW’ part is not addressed very well. How do you really make these shots so good? Tripod? VR Lenses? Steady hand? Resting on something? You know what I mean? High ISO could help……so do the tripods. Tripods cant be used in all situations. So…..

    Thank you though….to share your experience.

  • http://www.digitalphoto-review.com diditalphoto-review

    I’m sure that all most people already know about this. That’s why Gary shoot is the best idea sources and reviews.

  • http://www.lorenzoferrara.net/ Lorenzo

    Rome is great for night photography…

  • http://www.lorenzoferrara.net/ Lorenzo

    No flickr code in comments! :)

    Rome – Castel Sant’Angelo
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lorenzoferrara/2718433415/

  • http://www.lorenzoferrara.net/ Lorenzo

    Other examples of night photography:

    Photo taken during the feast dedicated to Saint Lupo, in the town of San Lupo, Benevento, Italy:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lorenzoferrara/2488076650/

    Photo of the Church of San Lorenzo Maggiore, Benevento, Italy:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lorenzoferrara/2487758438/

  • Canonball

    My Goodness,eight children,where do you find the time to put into photography Gary :-)Nice post by the way.

  • http://www.newmediaphotographer.com Rosh

    Very enjoyable images.

    Those last fifteen minutes before the sky goes black can offer some wonderful color and effects. Below is an example of an image I took a two weeks ago for a client.

    http://www.newmediaphotographer.com/midland.jpg

    Rosh
    http://www.newmediaphotographer.com

  • http://www.anewbandaday.com Joe | A New Band A Day

    I’m a fiorm believer in shooting with real light – I think that when people look at the resulting image it’s more recognisable to the human eye than artificial light and so can be more immediately arresting.

    Interesting article, thanks!

    Joe – http://www.anewbandaday.com

  • Raabbb

    “The ideas are great, but the ‘HOW’ part is not addressed very well. How do you really make these shots so good? Tripod? VR Lenses? Steady hand? Resting on something? You know what I mean? High ISO could help……so do the tripods. Tripods cant be used in all situations. So…..”

    Agreed… ideas are great as well as your photography, but I would love for you to address “How”. As an amateur and aspiring photographer I find shooting with really low-light to be a pain without a tripod, normally I have to push my ISO incredibly high in order to compensate for camera-shake. I’ve tried all the breathing techniques and even positioning my body to act as a “tripod” but I just do not have a steady hand most of the time. Perhaps the investment into a lens with a f2.8 etc?

  • http://alittlenews.wordpress.com Gary Cosby Jr.

    Hey guys,
    I didn’t go into a lot of detail about how so here is a link that some may find helpful called The Human Monopod on my blog. I use this technique all the time and have good success hand holding the camera down to about 1/4 sec with certain lenses. I will work well for any lens and it keeps me from hauling around a tripod. I do own a rickety old Slik U212 tripod that I have mostly used as a backup light stand. The only time I use the tripod for the camera is when I do time exposures. I hope this helps for those who have some technical question about shooting in very low light.
    Gary

  • http://www.simonproudfoot.co.uk Simon P

    Great subject! Personally I’d rather die than use a flash all of the time. Naturals where its at!

  • http://www.feliciliveshere.com/ Marissa

    So I take it I should use my flash to shoot a picnic at noon? Good to know!

  • http://fredriksteffen.com Fredrik

    Take all my shots with availible light and use primes for the speed (and price ;) )

  • http://digitalphotographyblogs.com John

    You really can’t beat nice warm natural light. I’ve been taken to using my 50mm f/1.8 more and more lately to capture those smooth tones.

  • http://www.shinnphoto.com Andrew

    I like the Strobist’s definition of available light – “Any damn light that’s available.” I use light tools like some people use golf clubs – sometimes I use sunlight, sometimes I modify sunlight using a reflector or (more often) a diffuser, sometimes I use small strobes, and sometimes I use big studio lights (even on location). I think the key is knowing what end result you want and being willing to use (or abuse) any tools you have to get that result.
    Nice photos!
    Best,
    Andrew – http://www.shinnphoto.com

  • http://photoeditmagic.blogspot.com Photochick

    This was a very neat article – really got my wheels turning. And Gary, thanks for directing us your blog for even more information, including using yourself as a human monopod.

    So far, the only low-to-no light shooting I’ve tried has been night-time snow & lightning… HERE and HERE

    I suppose it takes patience & practice to achieve some of the amazing effects some of you all have – kudos!!!

  • http://www.photomakers.net zulfadhli

    yup, the best about shooting with available light is you will put the feel, the mood inside the picture. The picture will look more realistic because it is real… no flash, no strobe, no any other equipment, it’s just you, your camera and the scene. It’s a great way to find out how good you are in photography and if you can master photography using only available light, than I think other conditions will be easy.

    zulfadhli
    http://www.photomakers.net

  • Sebastian McWilliams

    I’ve been Shooting Fashion Models for years and always use natural light, sometimes I would use the Flash in the later part of the day were I can capture the clouds and trees with a nice effect.
    Will have a Web soon.

    Thanks

  • http://www.bryangreenphotography.com Bryan Green

    Thanks Gary!

    Great post and very informative. I really liked your quote “Remember this, light illuminates your subject but shadow defines it.”. In Gary’s comment, he mentioned the Human Monopod article but I couldn’t find the link. Anyway, if you’re interested I found the article here, The Human Monopod. The article is up, but images aren’t working at this time.

    Bryan
    http://www.bryangreenphotography.com[eimg url='http://www.bryangreenphotography.com/images/favico.ico' title='favico.ico']

  • BobK

    The problem I have with the park-grass-boat type of pictures using available light is burnout of the light fixture when I have the boat at the proper exposure. If I reduce the light fixture burnout then the boat is severly under exposed. Suggestions?

    Recently half way through a wedding shoot using flash I decided to turn off the flash, up the ISO and shoot the rest of the wedding with these settings. Results? Love the pictures much better than those with flash. The background is exposed properly rather than getting a pix of the bride with a totally black background (nothing could be worse). Yes some grain but nothing that is objectionable and not even noticable in a slide show. Available light for the most part is a better way to take pictures in low light level conditions in my opinion. Rarely do I get a flash picture that I really like.

  • Marie Affa

    Oh please do tell me you did not have that beautiful little girl hanging off a cliff just for a shot??

  • James D

    @bobk
    sometimes flash lighting gets a bad rap when we use it in the right way at the wrong time (or vice-versa).
    I like to use both and alternate as I go. In your example of the wedding pics, consider: keep the flash on and slow down your shutter speed. If you can find a balance, the flash will only help extend the capabilities of the camera. (In a way, it’s like “using available light” to expose the background properly – and then using the flash to keep the subject sharp (lovely thing that the ETTL will handle the flash exposure for you)).
    For your first question: there is in the end only so much your camera can do with the dynamic range of lights and darks you ask your sensor (or film) to handle. When the dynamic range is too high, you get into the realm of High Dynamic Range photography. One application here is that multiple shots, at different exposures (each handling a different part of the image), can be combined post-shoot into one image that can more accurately reflect the capability of your eye. (This can also be taken to extreme and provide some very interesting, “fake” looking images. I like both for different reasons.)

  • http://www.subliminal-shop.com Shannon

    I have recently fallen in love with available light photography using a 24-70 2.8 L, and hand holding down to 1/13th of a second is consistently and possible with moderate ease, without an special support beyond a little practice with this lens and a 5D Mk II. Truly an amazing combo. Can’t wait to get my hands on a 50/1.2 L.

  • Emily Taylor

    As long as you have a Tripod, which is not hard to have around specially with manfrotto carbon fiber than your fine. (if you’re gonna make weight excuses find a new profession idiot)

    You can shoot in whatever type of light you want.

Some older comments

  • Shannon

    May 15, 2011 12:54 pm

    I have recently fallen in love with available light photography using a 24-70 2.8 L, and hand holding down to 1/13th of a second is consistently and possible with moderate ease, without an special support beyond a little practice with this lens and a 5D Mk II. Truly an amazing combo. Can't wait to get my hands on a 50/1.2 L.

  • James D

    October 7, 2010 05:17 am

    @bobk
    sometimes flash lighting gets a bad rap when we use it in the right way at the wrong time (or vice-versa).
    I like to use both and alternate as I go. In your example of the wedding pics, consider: keep the flash on and slow down your shutter speed. If you can find a balance, the flash will only help extend the capabilities of the camera. (In a way, it's like "using available light" to expose the background properly - and then using the flash to keep the subject sharp (lovely thing that the ETTL will handle the flash exposure for you)).
    For your first question: there is in the end only so much your camera can do with the dynamic range of lights and darks you ask your sensor (or film) to handle. When the dynamic range is too high, you get into the realm of High Dynamic Range photography. One application here is that multiple shots, at different exposures (each handling a different part of the image), can be combined post-shoot into one image that can more accurately reflect the capability of your eye. (This can also be taken to extreme and provide some very interesting, "fake" looking images. I like both for different reasons.)

  • Marie Affa

    July 2, 2010 03:59 am

    Oh please do tell me you did not have that beautiful little girl hanging off a cliff just for a shot??

  • BobK

    June 19, 2010 11:58 pm

    The problem I have with the park-grass-boat type of pictures using available light is burnout of the light fixture when I have the boat at the proper exposure. If I reduce the light fixture burnout then the boat is severly under exposed. Suggestions?

    Recently half way through a wedding shoot using flash I decided to turn off the flash, up the ISO and shoot the rest of the wedding with these settings. Results? Love the pictures much better than those with flash. The background is exposed properly rather than getting a pix of the bride with a totally black background (nothing could be worse). Yes some grain but nothing that is objectionable and not even noticable in a slide show. Available light for the most part is a better way to take pictures in low light level conditions in my opinion. Rarely do I get a flash picture that I really like.

  • Bryan Green

    March 19, 2010 05:06 am

    Thanks Gary!

    Great post and very informative. I really liked your quote “Remember this, light illuminates your subject but shadow defines it.”. In Gary's comment, he mentioned the Human Monopod article but I couldn't find the link. Anyway, if you're interested I found the article here, The Human Monopod. The article is up, but images aren't working at this time.

    Bryan
    http://www.bryangreenphotography.com[eimg url='http://www.bryangreenphotography.com/images/favico.ico' title='favico.ico']

  • Sebastian McWilliams

    August 21, 2008 06:08 am

    I've been Shooting Fashion Models for years and always use natural light, sometimes I would use the Flash in the later part of the day were I can capture the clouds and trees with a nice effect.
    Will have a Web soon.

    Thanks

  • zulfadhli

    August 4, 2008 03:37 pm

    yup, the best about shooting with available light is you will put the feel, the mood inside the picture. The picture will look more realistic because it is real... no flash, no strobe, no any other equipment, it's just you, your camera and the scene. It's a great way to find out how good you are in photography and if you can master photography using only available light, than I think other conditions will be easy.

    zulfadhli
    http://www.photomakers.net

  • Photochick

    August 1, 2008 02:44 pm

    This was a very neat article - really got my wheels turning. And Gary, thanks for directing us your blog for even more information, including using yourself as a human monopod.

    So far, the only low-to-no light shooting I've tried has been night-time snow & lightning... HERE and HERE

    I suppose it takes patience & practice to achieve some of the amazing effects some of you all have - kudos!!!

  • Andrew

    August 1, 2008 08:30 am

    I like the Strobist's definition of available light - "Any damn light that's available." I use light tools like some people use golf clubs - sometimes I use sunlight, sometimes I modify sunlight using a reflector or (more often) a diffuser, sometimes I use small strobes, and sometimes I use big studio lights (even on location). I think the key is knowing what end result you want and being willing to use (or abuse) any tools you have to get that result.
    Nice photos!
    Best,
    Andrew - www.shinnphoto.com

  • John

    August 1, 2008 06:14 am

    You really can't beat nice warm natural light. I've been taken to using my 50mm f/1.8 more and more lately to capture those smooth tones.

  • Fredrik

    August 1, 2008 04:46 am

    Take all my shots with availible light and use primes for the speed (and price ;) )

  • Marissa

    August 1, 2008 04:08 am

    So I take it I should use my flash to shoot a picnic at noon? Good to know!

  • Simon P

    August 1, 2008 03:44 am

    Great subject! Personally I'd rather die than use a flash all of the time. Naturals where its at!

  • Gary Cosby Jr.

    August 1, 2008 01:37 am

    Hey guys,
    I didn't go into a lot of detail about how so here is a link that some may find helpful called The Human Monopod on my blog. I use this technique all the time and have good success hand holding the camera down to about 1/4 sec with certain lenses. I will work well for any lens and it keeps me from hauling around a tripod. I do own a rickety old Slik U212 tripod that I have mostly used as a backup light stand. The only time I use the tripod for the camera is when I do time exposures. I hope this helps for those who have some technical question about shooting in very low light.
    Gary

  • Raabbb

    August 1, 2008 12:13 am

    "The ideas are great, but the ‘HOW’ part is not addressed very well. How do you really make these shots so good? Tripod? VR Lenses? Steady hand? Resting on something? You know what I mean? High ISO could help……so do the tripods. Tripods cant be used in all situations. So….."

    Agreed... ideas are great as well as your photography, but I would love for you to address "How". As an amateur and aspiring photographer I find shooting with really low-light to be a pain without a tripod, normally I have to push my ISO incredibly high in order to compensate for camera-shake. I've tried all the breathing techniques and even positioning my body to act as a "tripod" but I just do not have a steady hand most of the time. Perhaps the investment into a lens with a f2.8 etc?

  • Joe | A New Band A Day

    July 31, 2008 11:39 pm

    I'm a fiorm believer in shooting with real light - I think that when people look at the resulting image it's more recognisable to the human eye than artificial light and so can be more immediately arresting.

    Interesting article, thanks!

    Joe - www.anewbandaday.com

  • Rosh

    July 31, 2008 11:09 pm

    Very enjoyable images.

    Those last fifteen minutes before the sky goes black can offer some wonderful color and effects. Below is an example of an image I took a two weeks ago for a client.

    http://www.newmediaphotographer.com/midland.jpg

    Rosh
    http://www.newmediaphotographer.com

  • Canonball

    July 31, 2008 07:32 pm

    My Goodness,eight children,where do you find the time to put into photography Gary :-)Nice post by the way.

  • Lorenzo

    July 31, 2008 06:05 pm

    Other examples of night photography:

    Photo taken during the feast dedicated to Saint Lupo, in the town of San Lupo, Benevento, Italy:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lorenzoferrara/2488076650/

    Photo of the Church of San Lorenzo Maggiore, Benevento, Italy:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lorenzoferrara/2487758438/

  • Lorenzo

    July 31, 2008 06:01 pm

    No flickr code in comments! :)

    Rome - Castel Sant'Angelo
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/lorenzoferrara/2718433415/

  • Lorenzo

    July 31, 2008 05:59 pm

    Rome is great for night photography...

  • diditalphoto-review

    July 31, 2008 04:05 pm

    I'm sure that all most people already know about this. That's why Gary shoot is the best idea sources and reviews.

  • Arun

    July 31, 2008 07:59 am

    The ideas are great, but the 'HOW' part is not addressed very well. How do you really make these shots so good? Tripod? VR Lenses? Steady hand? Resting on something? You know what I mean? High ISO could help......so do the tripods. Tripods cant be used in all situations. So.....

    Thank you though....to share your experience.

  • Rick Buch

    July 31, 2008 06:57 am

    I also have to deal with smaller apertures so I tend to marry my camera to my tripod for near sunset shots to help eliminate blur. My favorite portrait session was done using my backdrops as artificial shade in harsh sunlight. I placed the sun above and behind the subject then used a backdrop behind and over subjects head leaving both sides open for indirect light. The results were perfect lighting. Thanks for pointing out some new ideas to add to those I already have.

  • JP

    July 31, 2008 06:06 am

    Great shots Gary. Hey, can I quote you... "light illuminates your subject but shadow defines it"? That says it all!

  • Paul

    July 31, 2008 05:10 am

    "Remember this, light illuminates your subject but shadow defines it."

    Words to live by. :)

  • Jozef Nagy

    July 31, 2008 03:08 am

    I really need to practice this kind of photography some more. My low-light shots tend to get blurry quite easily. Then again, the author is shooting at an aperture of f2.8. The fastest lense at my disposal is around 4. At that aperature, the shutter speed has to be much longer, further adding blur.

  • Barbara

    July 31, 2008 02:48 am

    Most of my photos are taken when I'm traveling for my "day job", and I often have no choice but to shoot at whatever time of day I can go sight-seeing - even at the dreaded "high noon". Sometimes the contrast is horrific in color, but can sometimes make a powerful picture if I convert to black and white. Thanks for these tips.

  • Pete Langlois

    July 31, 2008 02:42 am

    I love shooting with natural outdoor light. I prefer it actually. I do "most" of my shooting outdoors, balloon festivals, air shows, landscapes, seascapes, etc.

    http://www.petelanglois.net

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