Lighting Fundamentals Beginners Tend to Forget

By Geoff Harris

Understanding Light & Exposure. ambient, flash, fundamentals, Light, Lighting, Tony Worobiec, exposure, landscape,

It doesn't matter how much expensive gear you have sitting in your bag, if the light isn't there, you won't get great photos. How you make the most of light, or adapt it for your needs, is essential for good photography, so without getting too complicated, here is a quick run down of the key things for beginners to think about...

1) Misunderstanding ambient light

ambient, flash, fundamentals, Light, Lighting, Tony Worobiec, exposure, landscape,
When photographers talk about 'ambient' light, they are usually referring to the natural light that is currently available at the time. So daylight, in other words, but the fantastic ISO performance of modern cameras now means that night-time photography is getting easier and easier.

Many photographers at the more 'documentary' end (travel or landscape for example) think that ambient light is the best and work hard to shoot their subjects in the nicest light available. This tends to be early in the morning, in the hour after sunrise, or in the hour before sunset.

As the sun isn't as high in the sky, you don't get such harsh shadows and if you pick your moment, everything is suffused in wonderful golden light – the kind of light that is hard to replicate with gear.

2) Avoiding cloudy days

ambient, flash, fundamentals, Light, Lighting, Tony Worobiec, exposure, landscape,
A common mistake is to assume that cloudy or overcast days are pretty useless for photography. Depending on your subject, this is not necessarily the case. Michael Freeman, one of our most eminent tutors, told me recently that a cloudy or rainy day is a perfect time to photograph a Japanese garden, for example, as the colours actually stand out more.

On an overcast day, the sky acts like a giant diffuser so you don't get such harsh shadows in people's faces, either. The downside is that you tend to get boring looking skies, but this is more of an issue for a landscape photographer.

3) Not appreciating the direction of light

ambient, flash, fundamentals, Light, Lighting, Tony Worobiec, exposure, landscape,
Light is one thing but how you shoot in relation to it is also really important. If you are shooting portraits, try to position your subject according to the most flattering light direction.

To gauge this, simply bend your arm and hand in front of you and see how the light quality changes on your skin according to how you are positioned. So be prepared to keep moving your subjects to find the best light angle.

Using the sun to backlight people's heads, or getting them to sit near a north facing window, are time-honoured tactics. Using a reflector to fill in hard shadows in sunlight is fine, but make sure you don't dazzle your subject, and watch out for an obvious gold or silver 'tinge.'

4) Using full-on flash

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Another common mistake is to use straight-on flash to light a subject a night. Sure, your subject will be illuminated, but they will have that 'deer in headlights' look, while the image will also suffer from hard flash shadows, underexposed backgrounds and other tell-tale signs of the amateur.

If you must use flash outside, wind the power down and consider using features like rear-curtain flash, where the flash fires at the end of the shutter sequence, for some cool creative effects (it's great for motion blur while retaining some sharpness in key areas).

When using flash indoors, angle your flashgun so the light hits a pale-coloured wall or ceiling before bouncing back down to light your subjects – the results will be much more flattering.

Even with studio lighting, which is a complex topic, the principle is usually to arrange the lights around the subject at angles, rather than hitting them full in the face.

Further Study

Low Light Landscape Photography: A 4 week online photography course with international landscape photographer Tony Worobiec

Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) - the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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