As a photography enthusiast, you already know that light can make all the difference in the world between a good shot and a bad shot. It can also be the deciding factor as to whether a given image is good or great. Determining whether or not the light is coming from the right direction is simple. Actually judging whether or not you’re working with solid quality light in the first place is a little trickier.
Don’t worry. You don’t have to just make your best guess, cross your fingers, and hope for the best. Learn to consider the following factors before you shoot and you’ll be a bona fide lighting quality expert in no time.
- Harsh Light vs. Diffused Light
Take a moment to picture your absolute ideal weather for spending a day working outside. If you’re like most people, you pictured a clear day completely free of clouds and rain. It’s warm. The sun’s nice and bright. However, while that might be terrific weather for a gardener or an oil painter, it gets trickier for a photographer.
Bright, sunny days definitely do the job when it comes to illuminating your subjects thoroughly, but it’s easier than you might think to wind up with light that’s way too harsh. You could easily wind up with pale, washed out images as a result. What you want is softened, diffused light that flatters your subjects and lends itself to rich, colorful shots.
Ideal days for shooting outside are sunny and bright, but also feature a modest amount of cloud cover to help diffuse the light. (Too many clouds can cause your images to come out dull and flat.) If shooting indoors, a window can be a great simple way to get that awesome diffusion effect going.
- Position of the Sun in the Sky
There’s a reason why photographers swear by taking photographs during the golden hours of the day – either the half an hour after sunrise or the half an hour before sunset. It’s because the sun is at an ideal position in the sky at those times – low in the sky. The light is rich, warm, golden, and inviting at those times. It’s light that’s so magical, it’s capable of making any subject look its best. Light like that is especially well-suited to capturing nature, skylines, or any sort of landscape though.
But what about shots where you’re looking to capture wildlife or other subjects that won’t wait patiently for the next golden hour to arrive? That’s when you want to start considering the seasons. For instance, winter is a fantastic time to capture Mother Nature’s creatures at their best, as the sun stays relatively low more of the time.
In other words, don’t obsess too much over what time it is when trying to assess the potential quality of the light outside. Just get in the habit of looking for light that’s lower rather than higher. Think just over your shoulder!
- Color and Tone
We tend to think of light as being white or colorless, but we shouldn’t. Light can and does come attached to numerous hues, tones, colors, and shades. It can be golden and warm or cool and blue. It can be intense, or soft, or otherworldly. And yes, the temperature and color of the light can absolutely affect the quality and mood of your finished images.
As you move from indoors to outdoors and back again, your eyes are adjusting constantly to changes in the light’s brightness, color, and intensity. Keep in mind that your camera doesn’t have such an easy time of things. (Cameras with auto balance white modes would be an exception.)
Get comfortable with adjusting your white balance in order to adjust for the differences in light color as you move from place to place or angle to angle. The chances are pretty good that your camera comes equipped with presets that really simplify the process. (Shade, cloudy, indoor, and so forth are all possibilities.) Remember that you can further finetune and adjust your white balance during the post-editing process as well.
Practice “Reading” the Light in Photos
Another great way to learn how to make the most of all sorts of lighting – indoor and outdoor, ideal and otherwise — is to learn to identify different types and techniques in other people’s photographs. The following are some of the main cues to look for.
If you’re checking out a portrait of a person or animal, check out the catchlights in the eyes. They’ll give you a really good idea what kind of lighting was used, what size it was, and how close it probably was to the subject when the shot was captured.
You’ll also be able to tell how dark the studio or other setting probably was by the amount of dilation in the eyes. Strobe lights and similar sources are much too quick to allow the pupils to contract properly before the capture takes place.
You can get a feel for how far open the aperture was when a shot was taken just by looking. The width of the focus plane is directly affected by the focal length and distance between the subject and the camera. Pay attention to how much of the photo is in sharp focus, as opposed to how much is not.
Fill Light vs Ambient Light
Photos that feature very dark or exaggerated shadows most likely didn’t involve the use of a fill light. (Fill lights include added lighting sources, reflected light, etc.) Also, the sharper the image is throughout the entirety of the frame, the smaller the aperture probably was when the image was captured.
Of course, you can only pick up so much understanding in regards to light by reading. Don’t be afraid to try out pointers you pick up for yourself, as well as experiment with shooting under different conditions and making a note of the results. Spotting a fantastic lighting opportunity will become second nature in no time!