‘Photography’ literally means ‘draw with light’. For photographers, film-makers, videographers – even people making webinars and zoom calls – it’s all about light.
Forget all your clever gizmos, apps and software – learn to understand your basic tool, that’s the light you’re working with.
Your place in the sun
Light sources come in many forms. Perhaps the most basic is the sun. Often just called natural light. You can’t move the sun around – so you’ll have to move your camera or your subject to get the best result.
Considering daylight it’s such a common light source it’s surprising that so many people use it so badly. Let’s face it if you’re looking at your subject, through a camera or a ‘phone, you can see the effect light is having!
Two most common mistakes:
1. Light behind the subject – sounds obvious, but the light needs to be shining on the subject – illuminating whatever or whoever you are shooting. You don’t want a dark silhouette (unless you’re maybe making a horror movie).
2. Light full in your subjects eyes. First, they have to squint at the camera or shield their eyes. Secondly the light can bleach out all their features. Ideally you want it a little to one side.
Light ‘models‘ the subject. If you imagine a white cube on a white background, with the sun or a strong light right behind the camera, the cube all but disappears. But move the cube (or the light) slightly to one side and the shape becomes clear. It’s the shadows cast and the highlights that ‘model’ the subject. We see the shape and textures of subjects by the shadows they cast and the highlights they reflect.
This is why holiday snaps taken in full sunlight at noon often look so disappointing – the sun is right overhead and there is little modelling.
Using what’s available
‘Available light‘ is a term that includes sunlight as discussed above, but also any other available light source, indoors or outdoors. Modern cameras and even smartphones will work with really low light levels without needing any other sources. Film makers and videographers can travel very light!
This can be a great technique for ‘real-life‘ atmosphere. You just need to keep an eye on the details. Are important things happening in under-lit corners? Are faces, for example, just too moody? These things can often be resolved with reflectors – simple pieces of white card or paper held to fill some reflected light into shadows. Take a look in the camera – it’s amazing what a difference they can make.
Watch out for unwanted reflections from shiny objects – especially make sure the camera operator is not inadvertently starring reflected in a mirror, window or polished metalwork!
Be aware of colour temperature. All light is not white. Traditional light bulbs (photographers often call them ‘tungsten’) are very warm and yellow; fluorescent lights are very blue. Every light has a different colour temperature and sometimes it can look effective – and other times weird.
Of course, if you have a bit of knowledge, you can control the white balance in the camera or in post production. It’s just something to keep in mind.
Making your own light.
Of course if you are setting up to do a shoot where you have time to prepare, you usually have the luxury to control your own lighting. You can acquire and use lights, reflectors, diffusers and all sorts of equipment and gadgets – way too many to go into here.
The important thing to remember is to look at the effect – see and understand what is happening with the light. Move your lights or your subject until you have the effect you want. If it doesn’t look good through the camera, it won’t look good on the screen.
Keep it simple – many pro’s get great results with a single light and a reflector to fill in the deep shadows.
Keep it natural – unles you have a special dramatic effect in mind, aim for a natural effect. Harsh lights can be unpleasant so consider ‘bouncing’ the light of the ceiling or walls. Or perhaps a diffuser – a simple cloth or tissue over light will soften it. (but beware! some bulbs can get very hot – don’t use anything flammable around hot lights!) Multiple lights can result in unnatural multiple shadows – another reason to keep things simple.
Make the light fantastic.