Friday, April 2, 2010

On the Subject of Light

Light coming from a low angle

What I learned in my Digital Photography Class, Part 4

Everyone raves about the quality of light in New Mexico. Everyone, that is, except my photography instructor and, indeed, anyone who has ever tried to take photos in the middle of the day here. Yes, we have lots and lots of sunlight. No, it isn't easy to take photos that don't look flat and overexposed when you are trying to shoot outdoors.

There are several things you can do to improve the lighting of your subjects. The instructor told us to find one of our rare overcast days, then get out there and shoot. Too bad for us (lol) but those overcast days are few and far between. So we do what we can with our relentless sun. The best photos taken outdoors in this part of the world are taken at either end of the day--early in the morning, or just before the sun sets. The reason? The light will be coming at a low angle and there will be interesting shadows and better colors--far better than at midday, when the sun is blazing and everything is washed out.

Regarding another issue with light: I have been frustrated for a long time by my unruly automatic flash. There is nothing worse than trying to take a photo of a beautiful sunset, then having the flash go off and light up the cactus in the foreground, making the sky hard to see. I couldn't seem to control that darned flash and I know that I am not the only one. I actually know of someone who duct-taped his flash down so it would never go off!

The answer? Not so hard, it turns out. Simply look in the index of your manual under "flash off," or something similar. Because I never found this entry before, I guess I've been looking in the quick start guide all this time. So, you simply turn the mode dial to whichever little icon stands for "no flash" on your particular camera, and the auto flash feature will be turned off. The manual for my camera notes that you might have to use a tripod when you have chosen the "flash off" mode, in order to avoid camera shake.

Have the opposite problem? Want a bit of flash to fill in some shadows on a subject's face, for example? Locate the button that turns the flash on for the next photo--mine is on the front of the camera with a little squiggly arrow pointing to it.

A few further notes on lighting: You can "bounce" light into a subject's face. For example, have the person you are photographing hold a book and focus some artificial or real light source onto the book's pages. The light will reflect up into the person's face, helping to fill in shadows. Now that you've read about this, you will start noticing this technique in photos.

Skylights are a great light source for interior shots, as are windows.

And, of course, you can do as the pros do--set up lamps to light your scene, either directly or bounced off the interior of a carefully placed umbrella, which is outside of the frame of your photo, of course.

As a matter of fact, in our class we sat and looked at many, many photos with the instructor asking us, time and time again, where is the light source? It was good practice, and helped me to train my eye so that now I ask myself that same question when looking a photo or at potential subjects--where is the light source?

For a wonderful article on light, with lots of photographs for examples, see Light, by Philip Greenspun on

Next: Tips we learned about taking the best portrait shot


Mar-Bear said...

Thanks Clairz great info, i thought it was just me, or my camera. Looking foward to all your pics.
Happy Easter!

jabblog said...

Surely you're not wishing for overcast days??
Your photo is very atmospheric - quite lovely with the light just touching the tops of the trees.

Kate said...

Wonderful of you to share all the information you are learning from your class. Has inspired me to try to find a good digital camera class when I return to St. Paul, which, unfortunately, is creeping up on us. Have a happy day!

Beth said...

Wow, that class sounds wonderful. Thanks for sharing some of the great stuff you're learning, Clair. Reading of your experience has made me think about taking my own class. Or at least made me consider reading my camera manual for the first time (in the four years I've had it).

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