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In photography light is everything. Without light, whether that be artificial or natural, there is no photography. The problem is that sometimes there is just too much or too little, and in both cases, artificial light may need to be added. But what if you don’t have any artificial light available to you? And what if all you have is literally a camera with a lens and nothing else? This article focuses on how you can leverage natural light using just one lens and working without a reflector or a speedlight.
Let’s take a look at these photos below. It was a very sunny day and I wanted to capture the blueness of the sky and the sea as well as the people in the shots. I had a D700 which has a base ISO of 200 and the 50mm 1.4 lens. I have provided the settings below for each photo.
These settings are okay on a very sunny day if you shoot with the sun positioned behind you shining towards your subject. In this case the sea and sky, which also illuminated the people that I wanted to be in the photo.
While these photos are fine, there are a few issues. First, put simply, when this is the lighting position, anyone, and any camera can take these types of photos. You can shoot in automatic mode and the photos would look the same. Mobile phones nowadays can take even more amazing photos in this situation where there is a huge amount of light hitting the subject and the background directly.
I love these types of photos for travel photography, high contrast shots and snapshots that would make me remember such scenes. But if I am after portraits, would I hire a professional photographer who would give me photos that anyone can take? Definitely not! Sure, the occasional lifestyle snapshot in this lighting is acceptable such as this one directly below shot at f/2.5 ISO 200, 1/2500th. But I would not want proper portraits of my family to be taken in this lighting situation.
The second issue is the harsh shadows. As a professional photographer, this would never be my lighting position for people or portraits. Even if the sun was coming in at a side-angle, undiffused sunlight directly hitting the subject still produces harsh shadows and hotspots. I would prefer for the sun to be behind the subjects, also known as backlighting, rather than directly in front of them.
If your intention is to take nicely lit portraits with a background that is not blown out, for backlighting to work, you would need to have a big enough flash or reflector to illuminate your subject to avoid silhouettes. Conversely, you can simply expose for your subject but you will have to blow out (overexpose) the background. Therefore, you end up with a white sky rather than a blue sky.
An example of backlighting is this sunset photo below. The houses and the boats were not illuminated. I was too far away for my pop-up flash to be of any help, and I didn’t have a tripod for a long exposure and smaller aperture. But I still wanted to capture some of the soft sky color along with the sunset. Balancing the exposure was tricky and I ended up shooting this image with the following settings; f/5, ISO 200, 1/320th. While the ambient light of the sunset was captured, the other elements in the photo were too dark and ended up almost like silhouettes.
What if you have nothing else but a camera and lens with you? You do not want all your photos to be silhouettes when shooting backlit, or too dark when shooting in the shade. So what you can do is leverage your surroundings by positioning your subject carefully in relation to the light. If you have to shoot backlit portraits in a situation similar to above, shoot an intentional silhouette or use your flash for fill light (more on this below).
If you’re doing portraits where you want to focus on well-exposed faces, avoid positioning your subject where they are facing the sun which results in harsh light and shadows. On a very sunny day, you may want to wait for the golden hour – the time shortly after sunrise or before sunset – when the sun is much lower on the horizon and the light is much softer. This yields a light that is much more flattering for portraits. If it is a bright but overcast day, the clouds act as a huge diffuser and the shadows are not as harsh so it is easier to photograph portraits in those conditions.
Ideal light is often indirect, reflected, or subtractive light. This can take various forms:
As this article does not involve any equipment other than your camera and lens, instead of blocking the light, I positioned my subject in the shade. So that instead of subtracting light from my subject, I subtracted my subject from the light and put her in the shade.
In this example below, it was a very bright day and I did not want any direct light falling on my daughter’s face. I put her completely in the shade but deliberately next to the caravan wall which was light beige. There is some reflected light from the side that helps illuminate her face and the generally shadowed area we were in.
In this photo below taken in the zoo, there was no natural light at all. A fluorescent light illuminated the box where the snake was. You can see this white light reflected on the top part of the snake’s eye (catchlight). I waited for the snake to get into this position and used the light which was bouncing from the ceiling onto him to get this shot.
In this photo below, there was no ideal light! We were in a pretty darkly shaded area and the enclosure was mottled with spots of sun and shade. I positioned myself where I knew I could catch a good close up of the tiger in complete shade and waited for it to pass by. The contrast between the light and shade was so strong that had I taken the photo of the tiger with his body in half sun and half shade, it would not have come out well at all.
Now I know that photographers are sometimes funny (and snobby) about using the camera’s built-in pop-up flash. I am one of those photographers, with good reasons. The camera’s pop-up flash blasts light directly onto your subject. It gives you a rather flat and unflattering light with a harsh shadow around the jaw and head to boot. Unless your intention is to shoot like this such as some fashion houses do (and they do it so professionally by the way), then this is a no-no in portrait photography. Ideally, you want the light bounced and angled – anything but aimed directly from the camera toward the subject.
However, I do use my pop-up flash quite a bit! In fact, I use it when I don’t have a flash gun (speedlight) and I’m shooting backlit, especially when the sun is strong. And I have no qualms using it as a direct light in this situation because the camera’s flash is not strong enough to overpower the sun anyway. So the most you get out of it is a little bit of fill light.
Take this photo of the monkeys below. Had I not used my pop-up flash, there would have been no detail captured on the monkey’s face at all. The sun was too powerful that the pop-up flash could never have flattened the face and created harsh shadows anyway, and I was also too far away from the monkeys for that to happen.
Using the pop-up flash is a fast and easy way to add light. Just be mindful of the caveats and be circumspect when using it.
Shutter speed has everything to do with ambient light regardless of whether you are doing long exposures or using on-camera, off-camera, or pop-up flash. In fact, with regards to the latter three, flash exposure is completely unaffected by shutter speed.
With long exposures, you can take photos even when very little light is available. You need a tripod, or something steady and flat to rest your camera on like a table or chair, and you’re good to go. So why would you want to slow down your shutter speed and when must you do it? Do it when you want to capture the ambient light.
Armed with just a 50mm and the camera placed on a steady surface, I slowed my shutter speed right down to a few seconds using the bulb setting. I may have captured the moon rising but the sky is pitch black and not enough ambient light was captured. My shutter speed might have been slow but not slow enough. Ambient light was very crucial here because there were stars in the sky.
In contrast to the above, the photo below is the same scene photographed with a much slower shutter speed so that the stars are visible.
Even with just the 50mm you can photograph the starry sky such as below. However, don’t go over 10 seconds as you would then start capturing the star trails.
Using shutter speed wisely and skillfully is a great tool for capturing mood, color, and ambient light, even when there is very little of it. There is some light you don’t ever want to kill such as the soft evening light just after sunset. These photos were taken simply with a camera with a 50mm lens at a slow shutter speed, a wide aperture, and a fairly high ISO (as I was on a slow moving boat). These images were shot at; f/2.5, ISO 2500, 1/100th. A faster shutter speed would have killed this light and rendered the sky pitch black. Too slow I would have run the risk of blurry photos due to the moving boat.
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