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One can define photography as "the recording of light rays".
That's why taking a good picture depends so much on
choosing the lighting carefully.
"He spoke with the wisdom that can only come from experience, like a
guy who went blind because he looked at a solar eclipse without one
of those boxes with a pinhole in it and now goes around the country
speaking at high schools about the dangers of looking at a solar
eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it."
-- Joseph Romm
You can get plenty of light out of the sun, that's for sure. However,
you might have to wait a bit if you want the light to have the
quality that you need for your picture.
At high noon on a clear day, the sun is extremely strong. It generates
a hard light with deep crisp shadows. It also is coming from
Portraits in Sunlight
The hardness of the light will generate dark shadows. The direction of
the light will place those shadows in unattractive positions underneath
the subject's eyes and nose. One solution is to move the subject into
the shade where he will be lit by skylight rather than
sunlight. Skylight comes from a large source and is therefore
diffuse. Diffuse light does not cast strong shadows. Skylight is also
rather blue and, if you are using color slide film, you might have to
place a warming filter (e.g., 81D) over the lens to get natural skin tone.
If your goal is to record a subject in front of a sunlit object then you
can't move him into the shade. There is too great a difference in
illumination between shaded and sunlit objects. Photographic film and
paper cannot handle the same range of contrast as your eyes. A picture
that is correctly exposed for the sunlight object will render the shaded
portrait subject as solid black. A picture that is correctly exposed
for the shaded portrait subject will render the sunlit background object
as solid white.
The best solution is to wait for the light to be coming from a different
direction and/or for different weather. Near sunrise or sunset, you
might be able to get flattering light on both the portrait subject and
the background object. On an overcast day, light from the sun will be
sufficiently diffused that the shadows become faint.
If they couldn't wait, professionals would most often deal with this
situation by dragging out diffusers and reflectors. In the diffuser
case, an assistant holds a huge plastic-framed white cloth between the
sun and the subject. In the reflector case, an assistant holds a
silver, gold, or white reflector underneath the subject to push sunlight
back up into the subject's face, filling the shadows.
Finally, there is artificial light. If you stick a powerful flash on
the camera, pointed at the subject, then the light from the flash will
augment the light from the sun. Because the flash light is filling in
the shadows, this is known as fill flash. Electronic flash is
the same color as the sun around noontime. If you use electronic flash
closer to sunset or sunrise, when sunlight is redder, objects
illuminated by the flash will look unnaturally cold. Professionals deal
with this by carting around assistants who cart around colored filters
to paste over the flash tube.
cousin Douglas holding our 2nd cousin Julia
This picture illustrates the virtue of waiting for sunset. Note the
warm tones and even illumination.
Nikon 8008, 80-200/2.8 AF zoom lens, Fuji Reala
These two interesting women (from Travels
with Samantha, Chapter V) would have been rendered as silhouettes if I
hadn't used a touch of fill flash from my Nikon SB-24 (mounted on an 8008
body which was mounted on a tripod. Lens: 80-200/2.8; film Velvia.)
Landscape in Sunlight
It is difficult to see the shape of the landscape when the sun is
directly overhead. Our eyes rely on shadows to recognize shapes.
Nonetheless it is occasionally possible to get a good landscape photo at
midday if the subject is reasonably compelling, especially if you are
aiming at the kind of descriptive photos found in travel brochures.
Right: The same sand dunes but much more interesting earlier in the morning.
Vernal Falls, Yosemite National Park
Taken around 3 pm, the light in this image is pretty bad and casts harsh
shadows. The cloudless and therefore uninteresting blue sky might make
a Chamber of Commerce calendar but doesn't make art. Of course, the
rainbow makes it all worthwhile and it might not have been there at
sunset. Or the light might not have been falling on the waterfall.
Nikon 8008, 28mm AF lens, Fujichrome Velvia
Because of the saturated colors rendered by the then-new Fuji Velvia
slide film, I'm not sorry that I had my Nikon out in the mid-afternoon
in the Bernese Oberland (Switzerland).
Nikon 8008, 20/2.8 AF lens, Fujichrome Velvia
Joshua Tree Shadow, Joshua Tree National Park
One of the good things to do when the light is overhead and harsh is
look for interesting shadows.
The interest in this photo comes from the different colors of the
Rollei 6008 (6x6 format), 180mm lens, Fuji Astia
A high overcast is perfect for a lot of photography. A studio
photographer would think of this as "the mother of all softboxes". If
you want to capture architectural details, an overcast day lets you do
it without shadows obscuring anything. Overcast and/or rainy days are
also the times to go into the forest and take pictures of trees. The
one bad thing that you can say about an overcast day is that a big white
sky makes a very bad photographic subject. Try to make sure that your
photos have hardly any sky in them.
Overcast skies are slightly more blue (7000 degrees Kelvin) than the
color temperature for which daylight film is designed (5500 K; a mixture
of direct sun and skylight). Officially, the Kodak Professional
Photoguide will tell you to use an 81C warming filter. I wouldn't
bother unless you are photographing clothing for a catalog. [For
comparison, open shade from a clear blue sky is 11,000 or 12,000 degrees
Kelvin and requires an 85C filter.]
If you wait long enough in New York City
... someone will probably steal your camera. So maybe it is best to
just shoot in whatever light you can find. Here I used the fill flash
on my point & shoot camera.
Below the town of Bomarzo, Italy (1.5 hours north of Rome). This was
the park of the 16th century Villa Orsini and is filled with grotesque
sculptures. Rollei 6008, Fuji Velvia, Zeiss 50mm lens, tripod.
Probably f/22 and 1 second. Note that part of the foreground is
unsharp. There wasn't quite enough depth of field. Note that the
composition completely excludes the uninteresting overcast sky.
Left: Vermont, where a little white sky pokes through.
Right: California where the weather is often
too sunny for good forest photography.
There is no reason to put the camera away after the sun goes down. In
fact, you can usually get your best pictures then. You'll often need
exposures of 30 seconds or longer, however. Here are some photos from
Chapter XV of Travels with
Samantha as examples...
Canyonlands (Utah). At left, note the unpleasant contrast shortly
before sunset. I could have driven 200 miles to get to a better spot
relative to the sun. But instead I just waited until the sun had set
and got the image at right.
Arches National Park (Utah). At left, before dark. At right, after dark.
Strictly after dark...
There isn't much to say here except make sure you have a
Street lights are not blackbody radiators so you can't even talk about
their color temperature. They discharge in various narrow spectral
bands and the color that this produces on a digital sensor or film isn't
very predictable or controllable. Usually you get an eerie green light,
which I personally find kind of interesting.
Long-tube fluorescent fixtures are designed to offer diffuse unobtrusive
light. As such, they make for reasonably good black and white
photography. In a typical office, start out at f/1.4 and
1/60th of a second at ISO 400 (note that this means you will need a
high-speed lenses, such as a 50/1.4 for a full-frame camera or a 30/1.4
for a small-sensor camera).
For color photography, fluorescent lights have some of the same
properties as street lights, i.e., they discharge in narrow spectral
bands. In the old film days you would have to place a "fluorescent
-> daylight" (FL-D) filter over the lens in an attempt to
compensate. With a digital camera, set the white balance to
"fluorescent" and/or capture in RAW format and adjust the white balance
on the computer back home.
Indoors -- Incandescent Lights
Standard light bulbs are much warmer than daylight, only about 2900 K
for a 100-watt light bulb. In the film days, you would get a very
pronounced yellow cast without a blue filter over the lens (Kodak says
80A + 82B). With a digital camera, set the white balance to the little
light bulb icon and/or capture in RAW format and adjust post-exposure.
The electronic strobe, invented by Doc Edgerton in 1931 at MIT, was a
great scientific instrument, helped win the war against Germany by
facilitating night aerial reconnaissance photography, and contributed to
the 1970s disco craze. Sadly, however, the electronic flash has
done more to ruin the average photograph than any other new technology.
In the good old days, even amateur photographers were reasonably careful
about light. You took your subject out on a high overcast day. You
placed your subject next to a large window. You stuck your camera on a
What do we do now? Point and shoot without thinking. The camera will
automatically blast the subject with light from the built-in strobe if
there isn't enough ambient light. Thus, 90% of our subjects come out
with that "deer in the headlights" look.
Remember the sentence above: "Our eyes rely on shadows to recognize
shapes." There are no useful shadow cues if all the light comes from
the same angle as the lens. You can't establish a mood with on-camera
flash. You can't emphasize a feature with on-camera flash. You can't
narrow a fat face. You can't really do anything except capture a scene
that never existed (unless you are a coal miner and walk around
with a headlamp all day).
Does that mean that you should throw out your electronic flash? No. A
built-in flash that fires straight ahead is useful for filling harsh
shadows in bright sunlight. An accessory flash designed to slide on top
of the camera can be a great tool when used properly.
Accessory Flash Strategy 1: Get the flash off the camera. Most
modern digital SLRs let you control an off-camera flash wirelessly,
usually with an accessory that slides into the hot shoe on top of the
camera. A more bomb-proof alternative is to use an "off camera" cord
that has a bundle of wires to repeat all of the little contacts on the
hot shoe. These cord cost roughly $50. Separating the light from the
lens by just an arm's length makes a huge difference. If you can't
afford to devote one hand to holding the flash and don't have an
assistant, use a flash bracket, e.g., those made by Stroboframe. These
are what wedding photographers use.
Accessory Flash Strategy 2: Bounce the light off the ceiling. We
expect light to come from above, either because that's where the sun is
or because a lot of buildings and houses have overhead lights. If you
are in a room with a reasonably low, reasonably white ceiling, then you
need only tilt the flash head up and direct the light towards the
ceiling. The problem with this approach is that it sometimes mimics
noon sunlight too well. You get harsh shadows under the eyes and
pronounced shadows. Metz makes a couple of handheld flashes that have
two tubes, one that always fires straight ahead and one that can tilt
up. This is probably the best technology, but most people are stuck
with a one-tube flash. See Strategy 3 below.
Accessory Flash Strategy 3: Attach a Diffuser. There are a
variety of diffusers that will send some of the light up to the ceiling
and some straight out toward the subject. My personal favorite is the
This is a translucent plastic cube
that snaps on to the front of the flash in about 2 seconds. It costs
less than $20 and is made in different sizes to fit many brands of
flashes. Usually, I stick it over a big Canon flash and tilt the
flash head up 45 degrees. This seems to send about one-quarter of the
light forward, one-half up to the ceiling, and one-quarter off in
various other directions. LumiQuest makes a bunch of similar products
but I have found them a bit too cumbersome. Finally, you can get small
softboxes (see the studio flash section) to cover your flash. The
disadvantage of any diffuser is that it wastes a lot of light, thus
reducing your flash range and increasing recycle time.
Accessory Flash Strategy 4: Get Another Flash. If you are
willing to invest in a second flash and a rat's nest of custom cables
(Canon and Nikon) or some air (Minolta with its brilliant wireless
system), then you can light the background and the subject separately,
fill shadows, and otherwise play most of the tricks available to studio
photographers. The custom cables will ensure that your camera body
shuts off the flashes when there is sufficient exposure, but it would
probably be better to use manual flashes and a flashmeter if you are
very concerned about lighting ratios. The cabling doesn't solve the
problem of supporting the second or third flash. You might need light
stands in which case it would have been almost as easy to drag along a
couple of studio monolights.
For color photography, the electronic flash has one nice feature:
it is designed to have roughly the same color temperature as daylight.
So you don't need any filters to work with standard daylight-balanced
Electronic Flash Examples
Canon EOS-5, 20-35/2.8L, 540EZ flash tilted up 45 degrees, +2/3 stop flash exposure compensation, Stofen Omni-bounce, Kodak E100 slide film
We wanted a boring flat illustrative light and we got it. This photo
would have been ruined by standard on-camera flash. Standard bounce
flash off the white ceiling would have been better, but probably it
would have left unpleasant shadows under eyes and chin. The Omni-bounce
worked beautifully here, casting light all around the room. Canon's
auto flash exposure worked great too, though because of all the white in
the image, it was a good thing that we dialed in +2/3 stop compensation.
On-camera flash at its most horrifying: as the primary light. But if
you've got a standard point and shoot camera in
your pocket and you are in a dark theater, this might be the best you
can do. Note how the background has become 100% black, due in part to the ISO
50 film used, Fuji Velvia, which also contributed the
ruddy flesh tones. (from Travels with Samantha, Chapter
Another success for the Sto-Fen diffuser. Note that this was done in a
bathroom with white tile and white walls.
A door just opened on a street--
I, lost, was passing by--
An instant's width of warmth disclosed,
And wealth, and company.
The door as sudden shut, and I,
I, lost, was passing by,--
Lost doubly, but by contrast most,