Photography with natural light

Barrie Smith
18 March, 2008
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From cruising the various blogs it’s obvious that users are getting very savvy about the techy details of digicams. Quite often the comments posted indicate a surprising depth of knowledge on the consumers’ part. However, there also appears to be a surprising wad of knowledge about subtler aspects: one of these is the quality of light for superior picture taking. And that means "sans flash".

Get the most of the natural light that surrounds you. If you’re shooting a portrait or a group make sure there’s light on your subject: not speckled light that has filtered through tree leaves, not a direct full on blast from the sun — but something in between. Light from the side is ideal as it outlines the subject and allows any front light to be softer and more flattering to the human face.

Midday is probably the worst time for face shots. Not only is the light harsh on a face but, if the subject faces the sun, he or she may be squinting. Not a good look! Perhaps you should relocate your subject to stand beneath the shade of a tree, behind a building, or anywhere in shadow. This will reduce the contrast in the scene. True, you may get a bluish shot but that’s nothing you can’t fix later — better still, set your camera’s white balance to shade and let the internals fix up the mismatch.

Every heard of magic hour? Pro snappers use it to shoot cars, models, anything with a bit of shape to it. You can use it too. Ideally, the sun is softer and lower in the early and late hours of the day, so get set up to shoot your people shots in the earlier and later hours. You’ll love the look. If you can judge the time right, the later magic hour — about ten minutes after sunrise — is the ideal time to shoot night cityscapes. The sky becomes a deep blue but still allows the buildings to stand out.

Of course, shooting late in the day or in subdued light puts the squeeze on your camera’s ability to shoot reasonable pictures in low — or inadequate — light conditions. In these situations there are a few things you can do to bring home the shot. One of these is to raise the ISO setting to increase the sensitivity of your camera’s image sensor: you will find with current cameras that you can still get reasonable results with an ISO setting of 400.

Few people realise that once you start to zoom in you immediately lose a lens aperture. Many cameras promise a max aperture of f2.8 at the full wide zoom setting; but once you zoom in, even to 2x or 3x, the aperture can fall to f4.5 or even less — that’s half the max, half the light. If you’re scratching for light, it’s better to stay at full wide zoom and walk in closer to your subject to get a tele effect.

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