Photo tip: See the Light
Light can do some funny things to your pictures, especially if you don’t think about how it behaves. Unlike a petulant child or a playful puppy, you can be sure that it’s behaviour will at least be consistent given a circumstance!
Here’s a few questions I like to ask myself about what is going on with the light before I click that shutter:
Where is the light coming from?
Is there one light source I need to consider (the sun), or are there other things going on (reflection off a wet surface, etc)? Is it coming from behind me onto the subject, or is it behind the subject? Can I move it to a better spot?
Do I want more or less light?
Sometimes it’s handy to carry a strobe or three and a remote trigger just in case you want more light, particularly if the sun is in the wrong spot and you want to get the detail of an area that would be otherwise obscured by shadow. Other times it can be handy to hide the sun behind a building or tree, or perhaps wait for a cloud to pass between your subject and the sun. There’s more options for modifying light than you can poke a stick at, and that’s before you get to the in-camera stuff!
Is the light hard or soft?
Hard light (bright sunny day) can be a pain if you’re shooting a portrait, but can be great for contrasty pictures or if you’re messing about with HDR. Soft light (cloudy day) can be super flattering for portraits, but can make landscapes seem flat and drab in my opinion. That said, I’ve taken some great portraits in hard light and some interesting landscapes on cloudy days. It all comes down to how you use what you’ve been given.
Will the light warm, cool or turn my subject green?
Light comes in all sorts of colours and temperatures. Shooting around sunset you get to see an awesome spectrum of light, that will change the way different tones are captured by your digital sensor or film. Man-made light sources (tungsten, fluoro, LED, etc) will all do different things to an image, so be prepared to make sure you have an appropriate white balance if there’s a particular look you’re after. The green hue of a fluorescent bulb is generally not one of my favourite things to take a picture under, but when I’m stuck in that situation I’ll make sure if I’m using a strobe it is gelled accordingly and the white balance is set to compensate.
Once I’ve asked these questions and come up with some answers, then I can think about how I will compose my image and how to best take advantage of the lighting situation. In natural light shoots, sometimes the original plan will have to be thrown away simply because the light might not be doing what I wanted it to do. That doesn’t mean you should pack up your camera and go home though, it just means doing something different!
Light is fun to play with, and you have more control over it than you would imagine!