May 24, 2013

Knowing Light. Natural light. How to use it in photography

Natural light is the most powerful and highest quality light we have to photograph yet it is the less controllable. It is normally divided into good light and bad light; this division is normally made by bad or inexpert photographers. There`s no such thing as bad light: light is always good, it's up to you to make the best use of it. Light has two functions: making possible the chemical or electronic process of recording an image on a film or a digital sensor and, which is most important, creating a mood to communicate something. So we should talk about adequate or not adequate light (for example, don't shoot a very romantic scene at noon in summer).

As the sun moves throughout the day the light changes its characteristics as its qualities depends on more factors: the quality of the air, the presence of clouds, the pollution and the soil. The early morning offers a very good bright light because the air is neat and clear, there`s lot of contrast and pronounced shadows. The afternoon light is similar but the air is not that clean so light isn't as bright as it is in the morning. As the sunset is approaching the light will turn in a very short period of time from white to pinky end then to a varieties of orange and red tones. This is the golden light

First minutes of sunset (Kodak Portra)
On the other side of the sun the sky will be deep blue and when the sun disappear the blue tone of the light will take over. You have to bear this in mind if you are a film camera user or you are photographing a subject lit from the orange tones of the dusking sun on one side and the blue cast of the sky from the opposite. 

Last minutes of sunset (KodalPortra)
At midday the sun is at its highest point: the colours are more saturated, the skin tone is brighter and shadows are very visible and defined (think about the ugly shadow below the nose or the eyes). Solutions? The sun will be always positioned in the south (in the northern hemisphere) so it is as easy as changing the relative positions with it, for example having the model with the back at the sun if you are doing portraits. Of course you could fill the shadows with artificial light like a flash, or bouncing the light into the subject with a reflector. Another solution would be finding some shadows and positioning there the model thus the image will result flat and less dramatic. 
Same subject at sunrise (KodakPortra)

It is the same situation of an overcast day: the clouds are like a huge soft-box, diffusing  light, lowering contrast, flatting  colours but eliminating shadows and enhancing details. But natural light is not the one which comes directly from the sun, it can be reflected from the sky for example. This is what they call the north light (or the south light, depending on in which part of the globe you are reading this blog), a soft and delicate shadow free light.   

Land can work as a reflector too: think of the snow in a mountain or the wet sand of a beach in low tide.   
Other things to remember when shooting with natural light are haze and rain. The first one  makes lines and forms fade out; you need a skyline filter or polarize to get rid of it or, if you are shooting on black and white, a yellow filter. The rain will help with the saturation: it clears the atmosphere so, after raining, colours will look brighter.

You now have all what you need to master natural light so go out there and start practising!

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