There’s no denying that photography and lighting are virtually inseparable. You don’t have to be a pro photographer to see this.
Even before the advent of high-res digital cameras, the 1970s and 1980s old school cameras still had the provision of xenon or LED flashes – for the sake of taking photos at night or in poor lighting conditions.
In short, the quality of your photos at any given time is directly dependent on the prevailing lighting conditions. Which, of course, brings us to the following quick primer on some of the lighting tips any serious photographer ought to be aware of.
1. The broader your light source, the softer the ambient light
It might seem obvious, but you would be surprised to know how many photographers (budding and seasoned alike) ignore or overlook this.
With a narrower source of light, for instance, a flashlight or your camera’s flash, expect a harder light, which is more likely to result in an unattractive glare. On the other hand, a broader light source reduces the shadows, sometimes to the extent of creating a fluorescence effect. And this is mainly because with such a light source, light rays will hit your subject unidirectionally as opposed to bi or mono-directionally.
In effect, this tends to fill in the unwanted shadows resulting in better illumination of the subject or the scene. Other than that, a broader source of light also reduces the contrast and suppresses undesirable textures.
2. The farther your light source, the harder the ambient light
In case you’re wondering how this one comes about, then think of it this way: When you move your source of light closer to the subject, in the process, you make it appear bigger (broader) from the subject’s perspective.
The same way moving it farther away makes it smaller (narrower) and, therefore, harder.
So, when photographing people or things indoors, be sure to move the lamps closer or vice-versa to achieve the desired flattering effect.
3. Remember diffusion scatters light.
Have you ever noticed how the sun’s rays scatter away on a cloudy day and shadows disappear discreetly?
The clouds, in this case, (sometimes even smog or fog) acts as diffuser resulting to softer ambient light by scattering the sun’s hard rays in a million directions. The same way, instead of illuminating your subject directly or taking photos in direct sunlight, why not try using a tent/screen to soften the light a bit? If not that, make it a habit of using a translucent material such as a white fabric over the light source whenever shooting indoors.
4. Bouncing light can also act as diffusion.
Try this: Turn on your flashlight and aim the rays directly a broad hard surface, for instance, a wall or ceiling with a smooth matte finishing. You will notice that it will not only reflect the light but will also diffuse it by scattering/splitting it all over a wide area.
However, if you repeat the same with a shiny surface (mirror) the rays remain as narrow after bouncing off. Which also explains why it is not advisable to take pictures next to mirrors.
So, if you’re looking for a soft light reflector to add that soft sparkle all photographers clamour for, then try crumpling and re-straightening a piece of aluminium foil and wrap it around a big piece/screen of cardboard with the shiny side out. It might not be as expensive or functional as a proper matte finishing, but it still gets the job done. In fact, it’s a good alternative for those of us who are just starting out in this trade on a budget.
5. Light distance
The farther your source of light, the more it deteriorates before hitting the subject (the dimmer your photos).
How many times have you been tempted to turn on your camera’s xenon or LED flash when photographing distant subjects? I’m very sure it is not once or twice. It’s something that even the best photographers tend to forget or assume. The rule of the thumb here is that the light rays fall off as much as the distance between you and the subject increases. Quite a mouthful, but it makes much sense when you consider that light naturally gets dimmer as you move further from the source. So, meaning that if you move your subject twice as far from a light source, you will end up with only a quarter of the original quantity of light.
Therefore, it is always advisable to set your cam’s flash (hot shoe or pop-up) to fill flash when taking outdoor portraits in sunny (harshly lit) days. Doing this will lighten possible shadows on your subject’s face but it won’t affect the effective background exposure- it will have fallen off (deteriorated) by then.
6. Of front lighting and your subject’s background texture
When it comes to front lighting, your photography style determines the best approach towards it.
Consider this: Any decent portraitists knows that keeping the light source close to the lens’ axis suppresses wrinkles and fine lines which makes the subject look younger ( even without editing the raw photo). The same way, a landscapist, will prefer side lighting for the purposes of emphasising the physical texture of the rocks, foliage or sand.
Additionally, for that fluffy/scraggy look when taking a selfie with your pet, position the source of light more sideways than straight ahead.
In other words, the bigger the angle at which the source of light to the subject, the more the texture revealed
7. Turning the tables: Using shadows to your advantage
Contrary to what most budding photographers think, shadows are not always undesirable. In fact, shadows can add an attractive volume effect to your subject in as much as they can mar your photos. If anything, when harnessed correctly, a subtle hue of deep and light shadows results in a three-dimensional effect and the subject assumes that rare ‘suspended in space’ gait. You know, the kind you will only see in billboards or premium advertising campaigns.
Angular lighting (from the side, above or below) can cast deeper or longer shadows and in the process make your subject appear ‘live’ and more ‘real’.
You don’t have to be a master photographer to apply the above-outlined basics of photography lighting. However, be ready to take more than your fair share of practice shots before finally landing a lighting design you can work with comfortably.