Golden hour is a great time to create stunning photos. The light is soft and warm, shadows are longer and more gentle. But it only happens twice a day, sometimes not at all, and it doesn’t always last an hour. But what do you do when the light is not right? How can you create interesting, meaningful photographs when there is bad lighting?
Photography means; writing or drawing with light. When you want to produce a gentle portrait outdoors at noon in the sun it is like having to sign your name on a get well soon card with a piece of charcoal.
Full sun, strong backlighting, or just plain, flat, dull light can be challenging to work with. Managing to light your photos well, whatever the available light is like, is an invaluable skill to learn.
Here are seven tips to help you overcome bad lighting situations.
1. Fill Flash
Adding an external light source can bring a photo to life when the light is flat and dull. It can also help eradicate harsh shadows when the light is strong and contrast is high.
Aiming to balance the output of your flash with the available light will produce a more natural looking result. If your flash emits too much light you run the risk of it creating hard shadows.
The TTL function on most flashes is very useful. Sometimes the TTL output calculation is wrong and too much or too little light falls on your subject. In these situations switch to manual control. Take a few photos and review them on your camera’s LCD screen. Adjust the level of your flash output and experiment until you have the setting how you like it.
Bounce your flash off a light colored surface. A wall, ceiling, or reflector, etc. This will soften and spread the light. A modifying cone or softbox will also help the flash output look more natural.
2. Use Reflected Light
Having a portable reflector with you, (and someone to hold it) can be of great assistance when the light is bad. For portraits, if your subject is backlit, reflecting some light into their face will provide a softness and add catchlights in their eyes.
Using a reflector well can also return good results in direct sun. Bouncing light back into your subject can help soften and reduce dark shadows.
If you don’t have a reflector and assistant, look for locations where light is reflecting naturally. Light may be bouncing off a wall or fence, a light colored car, water, a window or the ground. Once you start looking for the direction from which the light is reflecting on sunny days you may be surprised at how you can use it.
On sunny days I often place a person just inside the shade of a building or tree. This way they are right at the edge of the sunshine, but it is not falling on them. The light bouncing up at them from the ground produces a soft, gentle glow.
3. Move Your Subject
If you are photographing a subject that can move to a spot where the light is more favorable, do it. Lighting is so vital to good photographs and bad lighting can ruin a picture. If you have a wonderful subject to photograph but the lighting is bad, your results will be lacking.
Take time to choose a better location where the light is going to provide the mood and feel for the photo you want to create. Take your time, don’t rush the process. Look around you and consider other locations for improved light.
4. Compose Creatively
Creative composition to remedy bad lighting can at times produce very pleasing results.
Zooming or moving closer to your subject can help omit parts of your composition where the lighting is problematic. Try a vertical framing rather than horizontal. Or hold your camera at an unconventional angle if it helps hide troublesome lighting.
This technique is most helpful in avoiding bright lights which are behind your main subject. Changing your point of view, even slightly, can hide a distracting bright light or window.
Think about ways you could crop the photo later also. Thinking of a composition as a very wide image (a panoramic) cropped top and bottom can help with difficult light in the sky.
5. Think Black and White
When the light is strong or very flat these conditions can be conducive to creating black and white photographs.
Use dull lighting to create images with a full, rich tonal range. Work with full sunshine to expose for the highlights and have the shadow regions turn black. Manipulate your exposures to bring mood and atmosphere to life in black and white.
Photographing in color can be far more restrictive if the light is difficult. By thinking in black and white and choosing to expose alternatively you may find that you get much more interesting results.
Filter the light. Attaching a filter to your lens can alter bad lighting conditions considerably. Polarizers and neutral graduated filters are two of the more popular filters.
A polarizer will reduce glare. When light is harsh and you are experiencing unsightly glare, it’s time to attach a polarizing filter. This filter can also darken the sky and minimize reflections.
A graduated neutral filter will help with very bright skies, a reflection of snow or water in the foreground, and in many other situations.
Finally, I will suggest post-processing. Fixing bad lighting in a photo with your computer can be incredibly effective.
I started learning photography when post-processing was not possible unless you had a darkroom. I prefer to get as much right in the camera as I can rather than fixing in post-production. However, I do enjoy enhancing an image that’s lacking as a result of bad lighting.
So much can be done if your exposure is good and you are working with a high-resolution RAW file. You can use sliders to alter highlights, shadows, contrast, and more. Filters and actions are abundantly available and can be used to great effect.
Having knowledge of how you can manipulate an image in post-production will help you when you are taking photos. It is particularly useful when the light is bad and you know you will have to tweak the photo later.
When the light is less than ideal, experiment more. Tweak your exposures beyond what your camera is telling you is correct. Move around and find alternative points of view to photograph your subject.
Use your flash and/or a reflector. Consider converting to black and white. You may produce a far more appealing series of photos in monochrome when the light is difficult for color.
So much of photography depends on your state of mind. You are the creative component, your camera is just a tool. Use it to achieve what you want. Think positively.
When the light is difficult, pick up the challenge to dig deeper into your creative self and produce some more beautiful photographs.