In the game of photography, lighting conditions occasionally throw your camera a curveball. In the game of baseball, the pitcher and catcher must coordinate and communicate their actions precisely through a series of gestures or signs. By learning to read the signs that a scene tells you about the existing light, you will be able to capture the light exactly the way your eyes perceive it.
Interpret light for better photography
To learn to see, read, and interpret light, let’s first take a look at some typical lighting conditions that are best captured by certain photographic settings.
When you take outdoor pictures (especially nature), try to schedule them during the golden hours, usually between 7-9 am and between 5-7 pm. This is when the lighting is at its richest intensity for photography. During morning and afternoon/evening hours, the light is warmer in color and more flattering to all colors of skin.
Conversely, try to avoid taking pictures of people when the Sun is directly overhead as the shadows it creates are very harsh and unflattering to facial features.
The light from direct sunlight is more intense than your camera’s image sensor can deal with.
Typically, your camera’s metering system caters to the brightest light in the scene. When this happens, the darkest parts of the image lose definition!
Believe it or not, it is usually a good idea to use a flash during the brightest hours of the day. Simply interpret light and keep your subjects from displaying too much contrast.
Your flash won’t affect the lightest parts of the photograph, but it will shed some much-needed light in the darkest parts of the image. Unless you take preventative measures (using either a fill flash or a carefully positioned reflective surface), these “shadow” tones will print too dark!
Lighting and people
If you are outside, try to keep the Sun behind you and off to the side. This way, the light will illuminate their faces and create good definition and shading.
But watch out for your own shadow in the picture.
If you are inside during daylight hours and want to interpret light without a flash, set the camera’s white balance (WB) to Shade and brace yourself for a longer exposure.
If there is not enough available light for a good exposure, set the WB to Daylight and let the camera’s flash take care of the lighting.
If you must take a picture of people outside with the Sun in front of you instead of behind you, remember these two things:
- Keep direct sunlight from entering the lens, and
- Manually direct your camera to use the flash.
If you set your camera flash to fire “automatically,” it may misread the overall lighting and not fire the flash at all. Unless you are looking for a good silhouette, you won’t be pleased with the result.
The use of a flash inside requires you to pay close attention to distance. Standing too close to your subject (less than four feet) may put too much light on the subject’s face and wash out the skin color.
Alternatively, standing too far away (more than 25 feet), the flash could fail to light the skin tones correctly.
Skin is very picky about the light it likes. Light that is either too strong or too weak just doesn’t look natural.
Your digital camera measures the brightest light, compares it with the darkest areas, and determines how to interpret the light and expose the picture based on an average of the two readings.
Always keep extremely bright light from entering the camera through the lens. And that includes camera flash lighting reflecting from shiny surfaces, like glass and mirrors.
Beware of specular light of any kind reflecting from any surface, as it influences these meter readings.
Cloudy and overcast lighting
Some of the very best lighting for color happens on cloudy and overcast days. Overcast days allow your camera to capture much more of the natural light and, therefore, provides a much more natural feel to your photos.
Professional photographers in the controlled setting of a photo studio use special lighting enclosures called “soft boxes” to limit the contrast created by their bright studio lights.
Direct lighting from studio flash units (called strobe lights) can be so strong and brilliant that it creates very harsh shadows.
To avoid these shadows, these lights are either enclosed in softbox tents or bounced off special photographic umbrellas to disperse the intense light.
Made from material similar to an umbrella, these enclosures are translucent and absolutely neutral white in color.
An overcast day serves the same purpose outdoors as the tents and diffusers used in studios. The clouds soften and diffuse the direct Sun’s harsh light.
On an overcast day, the light is so evenly diffused that you can position your subject in almost any direction.
Since the clouds tend to make the scene color slightly bluish, your camera’s Overcast Mode setting interprets light with a slightly warm tone that neutralizes the bluish cast.
The three major outdoor lighting modes are:
- Shade, and
- Overcast (or Cloudy).
Daylight WB allows the natural coloring of the existing light to expose the shot.
Shade provides a slightly yellow cast to the scene.
Overcast WB applies an even more intense yellow cast.
All three WB settings attempt to record whites, grays, and blacks in the scene as completely neutral in color.
If you want to capture the natural lighting mood of any daylight color temperature, leave the WB setting on Daylight.
Low-key vs. high-key lighting
Full range photos are the most common since they display a full range of tones from dark to light.
High-key photos contain more light tones than dark tones, while low-key photographs display a near absence of light tones.
Generally speaking, to properly interpret the light and record low-key pictures, set the camera’s Exposure Value (or EV) compensation to a minus setting.
Alternatively, to compensate for the lighting of high-key pictures, set this EV compensation to a plus setting. These adjustments will override the camera meter’s intent to expose all subjects as middle tones.
With shooting either high or low-key lighting, great care must be taken to preserve the minor presence of highlight tones in low-key scenes and the minimal shadow detail in high-key situations.
But as a general rule, the absolute extremes of pure black and pure white should be avoided unless the drama of the scene requires that level of contrast.