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Finding and Working with Available Light

I don’t use a flash for my photography, it’s a personal preference. Available light, in its many forms, is both challenging and rewarding so I rarely find a need to turn to creative lighting.


Natural light, golden hour

What is ‘available light’?

Let’s be clear on definitions first. As a street photographer my preferred source of light is sunlight, more specifically, natural light. Available and ambient light refer to any and all light sources the photographer did not introduce for their photograph; light bulbs, candles, fire, neon, to name a few.

The available light around us is a great opportunity for our photography and photographers should be passionate about making best use of this light when capturing a photo.

George Eastman said, “Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.”

On a basic level we all recognise the beautiful sprawling vista before us looks wonderful bathed in the rays of the setting sun, and less so beneath an overcast grey sky. I refer to this as the quality of the light.

What are the different qualities of light?

Starting with the obvious, the sun, the qualities of its light are wildly variable.


Natural light, sunset

Direct sun

The sun is warmer and softer at each end of the day. Shadows are long and also soft. These two periods, at sunrise and sunset, are referred to as the Golden Hour and many landscape photographers won’t recognise any other part of the day. Quick tip: when the skies are a glorious combination of oranges and reds, set your white balance to Sunny. Set to auto white balance, the camera often attempts to compensate for, what it believes are, overly warm tones.

During the day when the sun is high, the light is bright and harsh and shadows will be short. The principal challenge here is how to properly expose where there is a massive range of exposure between areas of light and shadow.


Harsh direct sun

Indirect sun

This covers areas of shade, reflected sunlight, side lighting through a window and that pallid grey diffuse light from cloud cover.


Indirect sun from a side window

Artificial light

Ignoring light from the night sky, what remains to light our photography is artificial light. No less challenging to work with, artificial ambient lighting can vary in brightness from a candle to stadium lighting, and can be located on ground level to anywhere overhead. There could be multiple sources and, if all this wasn’t bad enough, some of those light sources could be moving!

What is the quality and direction of light?


Direct sun, nearly overhead casting short harsh shadows

Direct overhead sunlight

Taking a portrait in direct overhead sunlight is tough going. The light is bright and harsh, the shadows equally so. I’m a street photographer, so there’s no option to move subject(s). In this scenario I have to weigh up the contrasts between bright and dark areas, especially with faces. The subject’s clothes will affect the exposure, dark materials losing texture to the shadows more quickly. Backgrounds should be considered too. For example, a small portion of bright sky in the frame can horribly distract when the rest of the photo is a fairly balanced exposure.

If you can move your subject, the effects of the direct sun can be mitigated when you consider placing the person next to a light coloured wall, or other reflective surface. Very much along the lines of a subtle fill using the reflected light. These light and shadow areas will all be softer and your subject won’t be squinting. Moving to a wholly shaded area will result in a flat lighting with little or no shadow. Yes, exposure will be easy but your image will take on a decidedly flat look.

Open shade

Open Shade, Combination Of Sun And Shade

Open shade, combination of sun and shade

These areas are great opportunities to introduce depth into your images with portions of direct sunlight as well as shadows cast from the shaded area, all within the frame. Trees are the obvious candidates for partially shaded areas, but also consider open doorways and alleys. The example above takes advantage of the shade cast by several umbrellas.

Side light or window light

Making use of light from the side, open windows or low sun late in the day, also generates images with a real sense of depth. The side lighting will reveal the smallest textures. The dynamic range of light to dark in these scenes is much reduced. Pay attention to the contrast play now on a more horizontal plane than you would see with overhead light sources.

Diffuse light

With little or no discernible direction, diffuse light from a shaded area or overcast sky introduces problems with colour temperature and a general lack of depth in images. I don’t let this bother my street photography, however this is a challenge for a scheduled shoot.

I have generally been referencing available light from the sun. Working in environments with artificial light you are faced with the same factors, though problems can be amplified. Unnatural light frequently complicates exposures with off colour temperatures and much lower levels of light.

On one occasion, I was commissioned to photograph an event where all the lighting was eye level and against the walls! There are only so many silhouette shots you can get away with and I spent a large part of the evening against a wall to be able to shoot with the light.

How much light do you have to work with?


Indoor artificial low light

Whatever the quality and level of the light, reflective surfaces are useful to make the best of the ambient levels. For planned shoots, particularly with models, metallic reflectors are an excellent method of manipulating light onto a subject. Even nature photographers carry fold up reflector discs to reduce the silhouetting effects of shooting into the sun. No reflector, and no alternate light sources? I suggest white walls, shiny floors, glass surfaces.

Low available light situations are challenging for photographers and this is one area where the right gear will enable you to take a better photograph. Capturing a well exposed image requires as much light as the sensor can get. Static subjects will allow a longer exposure. Events, concerts, parties, weddings all rely on photographers obtaining shots quickly. This means fast glass and, where needed, increased sensor sensitivity or ISO. I recommend a lens capable of f/2 for very low lit scenes. If you are shooting hand held, you will probably still need to increase your ISO to prevent a blurred exposure.

It frustrates me terribly to see so many people constantly using their smart phone, however, the light from the screens always helps illuminate faces. It is precisely this kind of observation that will help you find light where you need it. 

Notes on exposure

Exposure is influenced by aperture, shutter speed and ISO and your camera’s metering programme will wiggle those three factors to attempt to capture an evenly exposed scene. In reality, you are the principal metering programme; your ability to see where the light falls, the points of reflection and those areas of dark shadow.

My camera is set to spot metering and I pick an area of the scene to meter against and therefore influence the exposure. In bright sunlight, I might meter on the subject’s light coloured jacket to reduce the effects of the bright sun. At an event, I am likely to meter near to the ground to elevate overall exposure. Less commonly, and for balanced light situations, I will meter against the subject’s face. You will become more practiced with reading light levels and metering to control your exposures.

Don’t be fooled into thinking Auto White Balance will save your scene. Also, shooting RAW affords you the maximum dynamic range your camera is capable of and, though White Balance is an attribute, you still need to consciously set it. Carry white balance cards and custom white balance!

One final suggestion. Shoot RAW and set your camera to Black & White. Reviewing your images in monochrome will allow you to view only the luminosity in the scene and see where the light play is. You can set your image back to its original colour at a later stage.

Where would your photography be without light?! There are so many situations to which only practise reveals the solution, so please discuss available light questions and issues in the comments and I will do my best to answer.

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Michael Walker-Toye
Michael Walker-Toye

is a professional Photographer, based in Essex and just outside of London. You can follow his photo blog, The Stormtroopers Are Coming!, on Facebook, on Twitter as @RealMichaelToye and ‘michaeltoye’ on Instagram.

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