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How to Shoot with Available Light


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.


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.


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.


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
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+.

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