Thursday, August 26, 2010

Finding the Light

One of the most common issues people face in getting good pictures is the problem of lighting.  When I was first learning how to capture good images I was convinced that the best light was when the sun was the strongest.  To me, that meant early afternoon.  I could not have been more wrong. 

Here are the issues I faced:
1.  Squinting - a baby can't help but squint when the sun is that bright.  It's not his fault, and he doesn't understand what you're saying when you tell him to open those eye-peepers. 
2.  Shadows - yeah, you get those harsh and dramatic shadows that leave dark splotches all over your picture.
3.  Shade Issues - finding shade for open eyes meant under a tree, which meant that sunlight still peeked through the leaves.  And wasn't the sun why I was out there in the first place?

This is truth - "Well lit" doesn't mean light abundant!!  It means perfect light.  Huge difference.  Enormous!

I'm going to share some pictures of the very first time I attempted a photo-shoot.  I knew enough then to understand that I shouldn't attempt this with a client, so I owned up to my learning experience and allowed my children (through coersion of course) to be my guinnea pigs. 
Notice, the baby won't even look up, and you can't even see Evan's eyes for the shadows.  Now I want you to see a couple of other things.  First, the colors are horribly flat, and this is AFTER I added some color saturation to the image.  There's just no strength of color in the image.  Even the green is less vibrant than reality.  This is because the strength of the sun is so harsh that the colors drone out in the image.  Evan's shirt had blue stripes, and Ethan was wearing blue shorts.  You can sort of see these but they are certainly not as present as they're supposed to be.  I give myself props for trying to see a good background, but it competes with the subjects.  The building in the corner, while it actually is a nice staircase, it takes away from my boys.  Not awesome. 

If I were shooting this exact image again, I would have had my boys facing either north or south, and then I would have gotten in much closer.  Eliminate the distraction.  Afterall, the picture isn't about the scenery.  But this is about light so - MOVING ON....

Next example:

So, this image violates so many of my strongly urged notions of good composition.  Let's forget the fact that my camera didn't really know where it was focussing (yes, I let it auto-focus here).  And why, on God's green earth, did I shoot this at a portrait angle instead of landscape???  I don't know.  I can't figure that one out.  Did I really want those windows in a picture of my kids?  And yes, the line of their faces cuts straight through the middle of the picture, violating the law of thirds. 

But what about the light? - ah yes, moving on yet again.  Do you see the spots?  Light spots.  Splotches - I call them.  Basically, that harsh sun was coming through the tree, leaving shadows and highlights in very VERY strange places - like the stripe of light across my son's pants.  Or the circle of light on the crown of the baby's head.  Again - not awesome.

What is one to do?  Shoot in the shade. 

Here are some FANTASTIC principles that, when adhered to, will make your images and subjects so much happier. 

  • Understand that not all light is created equal.  This goes for sun and flash.  Afternoon sun is very VERY different from early morning or evening light.  And flash that is bounced off a white wall is very VERY different from the direct on-camera flash.

  • Harsh direct light is RARELY flattering!  Can you keep harsh light away all the time.  No way.  My kids play soccer in the middle of the day and I still shoot a gazillion pictures.  I just do the best I can to keep it off their face.

  • Shade or diffused light is always best.  Strong shade, not shade through the leaves.  If you're under a tree, get as close to the trunk as possible. 

  • Cloudy days are your best friend!!!  Great light from the sun as it's filtered through the clouds.  It's absolutely lovely.
The truth is, when the sun is at an angle from the earth (evening or early morning sun), the sun's rays are less harsh because it has to travel through more atmosphere to get to you.  This is also why the colors of your surroundings are so much more alive at these times.  Have you ever notices how golden a field can look at sunset? 

I know this is a long post, but check out this blog post about shooting in the sun.  It gives a great explanation if you're looking for one.

Here are some other images that demonstrate exactly what happens when you use the best light - diffused light. 

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