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A Post by Mitchell Kanashkevich – author of our eBook, Natural Light: Mastering a Photographer’s Most Powerful Tool.
Natural light is the most important and powerful tool available to photographers, and it is free to everybody in the world. Understanding how natural light works and how to work with it effectively is one of the key ways in which all of us can improve our photography without spending more money on fancy photographic equipment. In this blog post I’ve outlined five tips which I believe to be most vital to improving the way we work with natural light and in turn improving our photography.
Before getting to the tips I want to draw attention to one very important fact. We take photos to communicate visually. With our photographs we aim to tell stories or to convey a mood, an atmosphere—what it was like to be at a place or with a certain person. This fact is very important to keep in mind because it helps us put everything in perspective. It helps us realize that ultimately our use of natural light is nothing more and nothing less than one of the means to communicate visually.
The characteristics of natural light change due to the time of day, because of the weather and due to various other circumstances. You can essentially say that there are different kinds of light. The different kinds of light will make the same scene will look quite different, as you can see in the photographs above, which were taken during different times of day (left – twilight, middle – sunrise, right – middle of the day).
To the photographer this means that if a scene doesn’t look the way you’d like it to look at the time of day or in the weather you initially see it, you may have a chance to capture it looking entirely different at another time, in another kind of light.
Many of us are virtually indoctrinated with the idea that light during the golden-hour is “good” or even the best kind of light to photograph in. The harsh light around midday is generally considered to be the worst kind of light. In reality, this way of looking at light can be very limiting creatively.
The golden-hour light makes everything look beautiful and magical because of its soft and golden tinting qualities. The image above is a great example of the golden-hour light beautifying a scene. But, what if we want to create an image which isn’t about the beauty of a place or a person? Golden-hour light might not be appropriate in such a situation.
The above image is a good example of when the harsh light around midday might be the preferred kind of light. With this photograph I primarily wanted to communicate what it’s like to be working in a harsh, sun-bleached environment. I wanted to say something about the hardship of manual labor. If the image were shot during the golden-hour, the scene may have been beautified and romanticized and the message may have very possibly been lost. In the harsh midday light, the hard shadows and the bleached colors helped me communicate exactly what I wanted to.
In conclusion my advice is to look at the different types of natural light as tools in a tool-set. None of the “tools” are good or bad, just right or wrong for what you’re trying to communicate.
Observe light in your everyday life—how it interacts with everything around you, with particles of dust, water, observe how is changes when you move from place to place, how it casts shadows. Observe how the photographers you respect use light in their work. The aim is to educate yourself, to train your eyes to recognize different lighting scenarios and eventually to be able to predict when some of the more elusive lighting scenarios might occur.
The photograph above came to materialize because I had observed similar lighting scenarios before. I knew that narrow light sources and smoke can create dramatic looking light-beams, when the light illuminates the smoke at a certain angle. In this situation the sun was setting, hence it was illuminating the smoke at just the right angle for the “light-beam-effect.” I had a narrow light source, the doorway, which I was able to make even more narrow by asking my friend to block most of it, hence accentuating the effect.
No matter how much you observe natural light or how many tips you read about it, to truly make the most of it photographically, you need to take photos.
Experimenting doesn’t necessarily lead to masterpieces, but it does help you understand how light works in a very practical sense. With digital cameras there is absolutely no reason to hold back frames. If you see an interesting lighting scenario and you’re wondering how it would look in an image—photograph it! That’s exactly what I did with the above frame. I saw that the scene was backlit, but at the same time light was coming from behind me. The first thought that entered my mind was “I wonder how this might turn out?” I experimented, made a few exposures and ended up with what I consider a strong image.
No matter how good our cameras are, we will not be able to capture the entire tonal range created by some of the more challenging lighting situations, without the aid of post-processing software such as Adobe Lightroom.
To make the most of such situations it’s important to expose in a way where you give yourself a chance to capture maximum detail. This might mean under- or over-exposing certain elements in a scene. Let me explain using an example.
You can see in the first image above that the faces of the men are looking dark, they are under-exposed. This is the image that came straight from the camera and my decision to under-expose was very deliberate. Exposing properly for the faces would result in extremely over-exposed clouds. In this case I would likely be unable to bring out the detail in those over-exposed clouds and they would become large, white blotches. On the other hand I knew that I could brighten the faces of the men and bring out the necessary details in Lightroom with a simple tweak of the Fill Light/Shadows slider.
Exposing with post-processing in mind is a bit of a mental battle. You constantly have to ask yourself: Which element is more important to the image? What are the details which I can afford to lose and which are those which I can’t? Ultimately there might be situations where details cannot be preserved by under- or over-exposing and until the photographic technology gets better, that is just something we have to live with.
As I already mentioned, no matter how much we read about photography, to become a better photographer—nothing beats actually making photos. The best way of improving and bettering your understanding of natural light is to keep the above mentioned tips in mind and to photograph as much as you can, in as many different lighting scenarios as possible.
Learn more about how to see and utilize Natural Light in your photography with Mitchell’s eBook Natural Light: Mastering a Photographer’s Most Powerful Tool.