Let's slow things down just a bit now, okay? The first week was a LOT of information, but it's all information you need to have under your belt to start diving into all the fun stuff! I'm hoping at this point that no matter what kind of camera you are using, this past week you've become more familiar with it and how it works. There really are only a handful of things you need to pay attention to on your camera, and I find that when I simplified it all for myself, taking an actual photograph in manual mode seemed much more doable.
When I go out to shoot, most of what I am thinking about is aperture and ISO (we'll talk about ISO soon). Those are the two things I consider when taking a photograph, the shutter speed I simply adjust to accommodate my aperture setting, and my focus is on automatic 70% of the time, and I often use a fixed lens (also called a "prime" lens) which means it does not zoom in and out. So you see? Shooting in manual mode if you are using a DSLR is really not that intimidating when you simplify things!
At this point, you should be starting to understand what different aperture settings will do to the depth of field in your photographs. And if you're using a DSLR or 35mm film camera, you should also be noticing how the different aperture settings affect the amount of light hitting the camera sensor.
The two main things I think about when taking a photograph are:
- how much of the image do I want in crisp focus?
- how much available light is there?
From there, I know exactly what I want my aperture set at, and can adjust quickly from there to get the perfect shot.
For the purpose of this course, we will be focusing on natural light (or available light inside at night). It's what I prefer to shoot in, as I feel that artificial light (flashes, strobes, etc.) create just that...an artificial affect. It can make subjects appear harsh, and the image often feels much flatter. Sometimes there are situations where you just can't avoid using a flash, and that's okay! But if you are using a DSLR, I will teach you some tricks to shooting in low light situations without a flash.
So, before we dive into everything about lighting, make sure your flash option on your camera/phone is turned OFF.
99% of the photos I take are using natural light. Natural light is light available to you from an outside source: the sun, indoor lights, even moonlight. Your camera sensor picks up all the light that is available naturally (without use of a flash) and lets your camera meter know just what has to happen to get a proper exposure. Ambient light is a lot like natural light, but is considered as any available light source, not just ones from nature. So even the glow from an iPad or laptop would be considered ambient light and can really create some dramatic images.
If you have full control over aperture and shutter speed, you have a lot of options when it comes to shooting in many kinds of natural light. Shooting in bright sun is as tricky as shooting inside after dark, because they are both two extreme light conditions.
I get a lot of questions about how I am able to take photos inside without a flash. And if you're using a DSLR or SLR, I can say that your lens makes all the difference in the world. Most DSLRs come with a "kit lens", which is basically a starter lens. These lenses are typically zoom lenses with a smaller aperture capability (a higher f-number), meaning that it is a slower lens. The slower the lens, the harder it will be to shoot in low light, because the aperture literally just doesn't open up wide enough to let enough light in. Prime lenses (which I mentioned are lenses that have a fixed focal length) are typically faster. I shoot with prime lenses almost exclusively in low ambient or natural light situations. It is just my preference, but I also really enjoy the fact that they are much more capable of shooting in many challenging lighting situations. Prime lenses have a wider aperture (smaller f-number), which lets in more light.
So what I always tell people who find that they are having this problem, and they just bought their first DSLR, or they're using a 35mm film camera with a big telephoto zoom lens on it, I would HIGHLY suggest buying a 50mm 1.8f lens. It's wonderful for portraits, allows you to shoot in low light, AND you will get that lovely depth of field you've been looking for! It's a cheap lens too...running about $120.
I buy almost all of my photography equipment from B&H Photo and Video (I get no endorsement from them, I just have had great service!), so I am linking to their site to show you these lenses:
If you are using a kit lens right now, you will be amazed at the results you will get from this lens. It will also take your photography to the next level!
If you're using a point and shoot, typically you can turn your flash off and you just have to have your subject sit very still (and have steady hands yourself) to take photos without the flash in really low light.
So for the average amateur photographer, keeping your equipment basic and minimal is important, but you need to make sure you are equipped with what you need to handle the lighting situations you will mostly be working with.
Times of Day to Shoot
I am often amazed when shooting weddings that many couples will schedule their outdoor ceremony at noon. A lot of people assume that the more sun the better when it comes to photographs. Like having all that light available is just a super awesome thing. Well, I'm here to tell you that it's one of the hardest times of days to shoot.
Let's break down the day and what the light is like: (let's assume it's a cloudless day full of sun)
- From dawn until about 10 a.m. the light will be soft (especially as early as you can get) and will have a very neutral tone in photos. This is an okay time to take photographs.
- From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. the light will be incredibly harsh. It will cast shadows on your subjects, it makes people squint, it will wash out light colors and cause darker colors to look completely saturated. Not a great time to take photographs. I typically avoid this time at all costs, although if I have to take photos during this time, I try to find some shade that isn't too spotty.
- From 2 p.m. to about 6 p.m. (depending on what time of year it is), the light will be softer. The later the better. Towards the end of the day, the shadows will become less harsh and colors will have a better balance.
- From about 6 p.m. until sunset the light is incredible. It's my absolute favorite time of the day to take photographs. It seems as if there is a soft, yellowish hue that is captured in photographs during this time that gives everything a vintage feel. Subjects look so wonderful at this time of day, but you have to move fast, because the light changes quickly and the sun will set before you know it. This time is often referred to as "the golden hour."
So, if I book a portrait session, I almost always schedule it for 4 p.m. at the earliest. That gives me 2+ hours of the best light, and if I'm lucky, I can even keep shooting during sunset, which also produces the most stunning images of the shoot.
In terms of inside during the day, the more light the better! So the rules change a bit. Obviously, if a room is almost all windows and south facing, the light might be a wee bit too intense during some parts of the day. But all the houses I've ever lived in, the more light that is let in, the better! And the light can be very diffused based on where you take your photos. I wouldn't shoot directly in a stream of sunlight pouring in, unless that's the look I was going for. I used to have a south facing big picture window in my dining room/kitchen/living room. The light was fabulous all times of day, and around 6 p.m. at night, the sun is shining quite intensely through the window. It can be harsh, but I think it can make for dramatic portraits. Below is an example of a self-portrait I took during the harshest evening light:
You can always work with whatever light you have. And the best part is, everyone's style is unique and different. I am really getting into contrast right now...darks and lights, shadows and sun. I love how dramatic the light is in this photo. How one half of my face is lit so brightly, while the other is in shadow. There is no even light, but that's exactly what I wanted.
I believe that the most important element to your photos, especially with lighting, is intention. Being totally clear with yourself what you want, what you are looking to capture, what mood you're looking to portray in your photography, and how lighting affects all that. If I needed to, I could go out and shoot at noon, on a beach, without a cloud in the sky and have an idea in mind; a mood I wanted to capture.
The following picture was taken at 2 p.m. on a bright, sunny day at the beach. I wanted to "blow out" the background to create a dream sense. To achieve that, I overexposed (and it took a couple of tries to get it just right...) just enough to preserve the details in my subject, while blowing out the background to lose all color and details.
And another example is one I took at a beach mid-day, full sun. It was incredibly tricky to try to capture any subject in bright sun without having them overexposed, or squinting, or the photo looking just plain "flat" from lack of depth of field. So I just went with it here. I decided I wanted my subject to POP! And I could do that because of his dark colors, and the washed out background. I knew that any way I took this photo, I could not properly expose it without losing all depth of field, and I didn't want to do that. So I purposely overexposed to make my subject pop, while losing some of the background detail, but while still keeping some depth to the photo.
So there are ways to work the light. It takes some practice and patience, and a lot of "test shots." But don't be intimated by different kinds of light. There's so many creative ways to work with it and playing around with different lighting conditions will really gain you a lot of knowledge and experience if you ever have to shoot a job at noon in bright sun, or with little available light in the evening.
Your Meter and Light
If you're using a DSLR or film camera, you need to first figure out where your focal point is in the viewfinder. This determines what information the sensor is taking in to get an accurate reading. Your viewfinder should look something like this:
I prefer my focal point being on a single point focus directly in the middle. From there, (and this is how my camera works) I press my shutter release halfway to get a reading and focus on my subject, then I shift my camera while keeping the shutter release halfway down to frame my subject in whatever way I choose. This not only gets an accurate exposure reading, but also allows me to choose my focus. I highly recommend doing this if you are able, otherwise your camera will choose the focal point, causing you to lose some control of the final shot.
Remember all that great information on reading your meter in the first week's lessons?! Well, if you're using a DSLR, you can kind of ignore that now. It's an interesting thing to teach people how to read meters and properly expose so that the lines on the meter are exactly at the middle "0" where nothing is apparently over or under exposed, but then to say, "Well, that really doesn't always work. So you can just ignore that now." I would say that 75% of the time, to properly expose a photograph to my liking on my camera, I have to take a test shot with a "properly" exposed meter reading, check the shot, and then I adjust to my liking. Because what I have found is that the meter is typically wrong, or because of my single point focus/meter reading it doesn't take into account everything in my frame. I'm not sure why this is with digital photography...I don't have this problem with my 35mm film cameras, or my medium format film camera.. But for some reason, my digital camera's meter isn't as accurate.
So I take a shot, check it out on my screen, and decide if it's too under or over exposed for my liking, and quickly make the adjustments to get it just right. Everybody's taste is different, and that's what I love about creative photography. Don't be afraid to decide what you like! Two years ago I was way into over exposed images...kind of creating this soft, dream-like affect. I typically over exposed by 2 bars on the light meter. Now I am the exact opposite. Over exposing on purpose caused me to lose some details, which was the look I was going for. But now I'm into preserving all the details I can, as well as having a dramatic appearance of light differences. So I always expose 2-3 bars under the "O" on the light meter. That's just my taste. Here are some examples:
So here's where you get to experiment with what you prefer. It's all about your personal style, how you choose to see your subjects and what emotions you are trying to represent. Try everything! Try getting a "proper" exposure, then try over exposing the same image, then under exposing it. Decide which one suits your taste the most!
Have you ever noticed some images that seem a bit grainy? Like there are tiny little dots all over your image? No matter what kind of camera you're using, you probably have taken a picture where that grain is visible.
ISO or ASA used to mean how sensitive a film was to light. It's measured in numbers, and you've probably noticed 100 film, or 800 film, etc. The lower the number (100 ISO) the less sensitive the film is to light. Same goes with any camera sensor. So the higher the ISO/ASA number, the more sensitive the film or sensor is to light.
So let's simplify that a little, shall we? Adding ISO/ASA to the mix of things, if you're camera is capable of it, basically means that you have even more control over shooting in different kinds of light. Between aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, you can choose the optimum settings for any lighting situation you find yourself in.
On a super bright sunny day, you want your ISO to be as low as possible. It's kind of like using a smaller aperture...there's just so much light that you need to compensate for it somehow with your camera settings. So you want your camera to not be super sensitive to all that light. If you found yourself on the beach around noon in the bright sun, and really wanted a wide aperture for a great depth of field, sometimes the maximum shutter speed still isn't enough to properly expose your image. There's just too much light and you can get your meter where you want it. This is when ISO comes into play: you can put your ISO on the lowest number possible and that makes your camera less sensitive to all that light and will help properly expose your image with your desired aperture. In addition, the lower the ISO, the better quality the image will be. It is typically super crisp and clean with no "noise" or "grain." So my rule of thumb is always to have my ISO as low as possible, while allowing me to use the best settings for my image.
In really low light situations (think inside at night), most of the time it seems absolutely impossible to take a photo without using a flash, but here is the trick: first, locate the ISO/ASA options on your camera (if your camera has these capabilities). Most times they are found under the menu settings like this:
If you are using a film camera, sometimes the ASA settings can be sneakily hidden. Mine is located on the same dial as the shutter speed. There is a small window at the top of the dial showing my ASA film setting (you want this number to match the speed of film you are using). On my Pentax K1000, you just pop that ring up and turn to find the setting you need:
Setting the ISO number on your digital camera takes some practice, but mostly I like think of it like this:
- 200 ISO: I typically keep my camera set on 200, which is perfect for sunny daytime use. This ISO produces very clear and crisp images.
- 400-800 ISO: Overcast days, inside shots during the day when the sunlight isn't direct, towards evening. Adds a little grain to your photos, but not very noticeable.
- 800-1600 ISO: Evening shots, very dark days, interior shots with very limited light. You'll start noticing a grainy quality to your photographs.
- 1600-3200 ISO: Very darkly lit rooms, outside after sunset. Extremely grainy, especially up to 3200.
The following photo was taken at night. The only light in the room were candles. Without making my ISO higher, I would not have been able to take the picture. Basically what raising your ISO does, is it makes your sensor more sensitive to light, so you gain a few shutter speeds or f-stops. If your shutter speed dips below 60, typically hand holding your camera will result in some blur because the shutter remains open so long, even the shake of a hand can affect it.
Without putting my ISO on 1600, my shutter speed would have had to be almost a whole second. Which means that I could not have hand held the camera to take the picture (a longer shutter opening means the camera is very sensitive to movement). So by raising my ISO, I was able to use a faster shutter speed, while my aperture still remained on the widest setting.
Here's another example:
This was a testament to my steady hands...I took this around midnight and the only light was that star candle. As you can see, even with an ISO of 1250, my shutter speed still had to be on 1/13th of a second. I held the camera VERY steady while taking it to avoid a blurred image from movement. Without the higher ISO, I would not have been able to capture this at all.
The only disadvantage to using a higher ISO/ASA is the grain it adds to your photographs. The following is an example of a shot taken at an ISO of 400:
And here is the same image taken at an ISO of 3200:
You may not notice much of a difference, but when you take a look at them close up, here's what you can see:
The one on the right is definitely grainier, the colors are a bit distorted as a result, and it is not as crisp and clear.
A point and shoot or phone camera does the same thing in low light!
Here's a photo I took very early in the morning, when the sun was just starting to rise. Not much light was available, so my iPhone had to do its magic to properly expose the image. And the grain appeared!
That's a lot of grain! So, you may not be able to adjust the ISO on a point and shoot or phone camera, but they will automatically adjust their built in sensors to compensate for lack of light.
Using Light Creatively
There are many ways to use light creatively in your images. In Week 4 we're going to dive into all kinds of ways to "break the rules" to create unique and creative images! But for this week, since it has to do with the most essential element to photography (LIGHT!), I'm going to teach you how to get that awesome "flare" that is so fun!
You can achieve flare with almost any type of camera. If you're using a DSLR or 35mm film camera, different lenses will give you different types of flare, so experiment with whatever you've got!
The main tips for achieving flare are:
1) Shoot into the sun. I often have my center focus as close to the actual sun as possible.
2) I find that using a smaller aperture (higher number!) creates a better, more dramatic flare. A wider aperture creates more of a "star burst".
3) Put your subjects back to the sun. They will look silhouetted, but you have to expose properly in order to avoid this (unless that's what you're going for!). After deciding whether or not you want a silhouetted subject, you will have to take some test shots to get the proper exposure. I find I typically have to take 3-5 in order to get the exact look I'm going for.
For silhouetting your subjects, I found that I could trust my meter a little more. It was metering for the amount of sunlight, so the final result meant my subjects would be dark:
With trying to preserve some details in your subjects (so you can actually see who they are), I found that I had to overexpose quite a bit to compensate for the amount of sunlight behind my subject. I metered off of my subject and adjusted from there:
4) Your camera's position related to the sun matters a lot. Shooting directly into the sun means you need to move your camera angle quite a bit depending on what time of day it is. Sunrise and sunset is easy, because typically you can shoot at a straight level into the sun like below:
But sometimes you literally need to crouch down and point your camera upward towards the sun, which can cause your subjects to be at an interesting angle:
For this shot, my assistant Maria had to crouch down on the ground and shoot up towards the light. She was able to capture me at a flattering angle, while still capturing some flare at the top of the image to add a creative effect!
5) And lastly, be super careful about your focus! Shooting into the sun can really freak your camera out, and the focus will likely make a weird zooming noise, because it doesn't really know where to focus. This is when I often switch to manual focus (check your manuals to find out where this option is on your camera. For DSLRs, it's on your camera lenses.)
You can also capture flare on your point and shoot or phone camera! Below are two examples of some awesome flare I captured on my iPhone:
LIGHTING TIPS AND EXAMPLES FROM WEEK 2 VIDEO
I wanted to go over the images I shot for the week 2 video on lighting. These are portrait based lighting lessons, which compliments our week 4 topic on portraits. They include both inside and outside which I think is very helpful.
This is an example of a back lit subject. The light is coming in from the rear right, through the window. There is still some ambient light hitting her face from other windows in the room (there are 2 more windows about 20 feet to her left) evident in the reflection in her eyes. The image has been edited to polish it up a bit, so you can see the final product of a back lit subject. It's not the best scenario for a portrait, as it causes the background to blow out and lose detail.
One of the things you can do if you find yourself in a situation where you can only shoot your subject back lit is to bounce some of that light back onto your subject. You can do this with a reflector like this one, or using a simple white poster board.
The following image is shot with my subject in front of the door, completely back lit. You'll notice her face looks dull, and there is little pop to her in terms of making a statement. Her hair has also lost some detail, and some of it is blown out completely. Not a great way to shoot a subject!
You can see how unflattering that lighting can be for a human subject. The background is blown out, she's lost the detail in her hair, and there's absolutely no "pop" to our actual subject. But we have that light available, so we might as well use it. When we reflect some of that light back at her, we end up with this:
It's still not the perfect setup, but the light is much better and is also more pleasing on our subject. Remember to adjust your settings accordingly when introducing a reflector. You'll have more light that way, so you have to increase your shutter or aperture to compensate.
I love side lighting. It is much like Rembrandt lighting, and a lot of studio portrait photographers use strobes and reflectors to achieve this dramatic effect. It is one of my favorite ways to add some drama to a portrait. I use this a lot in my editorial images. It can be tricky to get just right, but I do like how it creates more depth than an image shot with just one consistent lighting look. I always focus on the eye closest to the light source (so the side where the light is) because it will be where the viewers eye goes first and should be crisp and sharp.
Above is a head shot I took with side lighting. This was achieved by placing my subject side to a window. The light was coming in from the right side. She is not in direct light, and if she had been, the result would have been more dramatic. The side of her face not in the light would have been very dark, while the portion in the light would have been very exposed.
Above is a photograph of the subject in the same position as the previous image, but I backed out in order to include a 3/4 crop. This way you also get more of a sense of the light from the environment.
You can also place your subject in direct light from the front. This can either be completely direct light (such as the sun would be hitting her face) which causes your subject to squint and typically isn't very attractive, or you can use indirect front light. For the following image, I placed my subject front to the door with the sun streaming through. However, I told her to back up until she was out of the direct light. This lets a lot of light still hit her front, but is softer and doesn't make her squint.
You can see that the light is even across her face and upper body. It definitely is pleasing and provides a clean look.
The next image is a mixture of front and back lighting. There is no light coming in from either side, but we have a very "front lighting" look to her face and body. It appears very even. The actual sun is on the side of the house behind her, so those windows are blown out slightly.
Sometimes you are just thrown into a situation where you can't be choosy over your lighting. You basically have to make due with what you have, and often that can be tricky. Your best bet is to make sure however bad the lighting, you can preserve the details in your subject. So that means don't under or overexpose the subject. Instead, you can let the background take the hit and try to fix it in post.
The main thing is to try to position your subject in the best spot lighting wise. The photos below are examples of mixed light.
With the above image, there were two small windows up above her on either side. Because the walls are black, there wasn't much bounce from the natural light. Overall, I think it works although it wouldn't be my top choice.
The above image was in the same place, but I had her standing and pull away from the wall. You can see the light coming in from behind her, but there is also a window to her right casting some direct light on the side of her arm. I like the pop of light and how the left side of her body fades into the background, but the window behind her is a bit distracting compared to the darkness of everything else.
OUTSIDE BACK LIGHTING
We covered back lighting and flare in the lesson above, but I wanted to show it in this same shoot that is in this week's video.
We were shooting outside midday, which is the hardest and harshest light possible. But you can indeed work with it. Below is an example of back lighting with the sun very high in the sky. This requires the photographer to get down below your subject, which isn't always the most flattering, so you should really direct your model in how best to position them without adding a couple of chins to their portrait...!
As you can tell from my aperture setting, there was a lot of light to work with. I used a narrower aperture in order to try to capture some flare instead of just a big blown out spot where the sun would be. Usually you need to take a couple of test shots to ensure your subject was exposed correctly, and often you also need to manually focus because shooting almost directly into the sun will mess up your auto focus.
If you are shooting outside midday, one advantage is that the sun is so high above you that it doesn't cause your backgrounds to be blown out. Typically everything will be pretty bright. The following image was also shot with the sun sort of behind her, although at noon it was more on top of her.
So you can see the light hitting the top of her hat but not her face. That's because it was pretty much directly above her. I do love how it is hitting the leaves on the hedge I shot against. That is one idea for shooting midday: you have to figure out a way to make it interesting and creative, because the light at that time of day is not, and typically produces a boring, flat image. Adding depth, playing with the environment, etc. really helps.
In addition, if you need to place your subject in harsh lighting and it's hitting their face in an unflattering way, you can use the same reflector set I linked to above, but take off the zip up reflector and use the gauzy material that blocks the direct light to filter it onto your subject. This is called a diffuser and is super handy! It acts like shade. Which brings me to my next topic...
Another way to avoid bad lighting outside, or achieve an even, flattering light on your subject is to find shade. This was still at midday, but I found the side of a brick building that was completely shaded. I placed my subject beside it and was very pleased with what an ease it was to find that sweet spot compared to shooting in direct sun.
In the image above, everything looks even, the subjects stands out, and the light is flattering to her skin tone. Shade is great. There's only so much you can do with it in terms of being creative, but if you don't have great light to work with, ducking into a shady spot will always help.
That concludes the lighting lesson for this week! I look forward to seeing your practice photos!