available light photography

finessing photographic composition – and using off-camera flash vs. available light

With this background, I liked the way the dots were repeated in Olena‘s dress in reverse – white dots on black, instead of black dots / holds on silver. I liked the repetition, and decided to work with the composition of this photograph a bit.  For the final sequence of images – of which the image at the top is one – I asked Olena to really exaggerate the curve of her body to create an S-shaped, which in turn contrasted boldly with the rigid pattern of the background.

This article’s original title was going to be:  Off-camera flash vs the snobbery of “available light is always better”. When you look at the available light photo of Olena, you’ll see that the available light was pretty sweet – soft and flattering. But it lacked punch. It needed just that little bit of drama to it. The available light shot just looked a touch too bland. Off-camera lighting to the rescue!

I had the flash in a soft box to create flattering, yet dynamic light on her. I wanted her shadow to be more defined and become part of the composition, but that would’ve meant a harder light source. Holding the Lastolite EZYBOX 24×24″ softbox (vendor) fairly close to her was the compromise. This way her shadow added a subtle element to the composition.

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night-club photos – Modern Gypsies – mermaid

When the Modern Gypsies asked me to photograph their one performance piece in a night-club in Manhattan, I wasn’t sure what equipment to bring along. I tend to over-prepare and bring too much. You know, just in case. So I have a tendency to overload myself with gear at times. It’s a discipline thing then to strip it down to just the essentials … but still be flexible enough to accomodate a challenging situation.

The previous time I photographed them, I knew there would be a large prep room, so I could bring in extra gear such as light-stands and softboxes. It worked out quite well for the example I showed on the Tangents blog – Modern Gypsies – masked dancers, as well as other photos out on the street, where the off-camera flash helped.

This time, I suspected I might need to travel much lighter. Night clubs aren’t the placed to walk around loaded with gear. So while I did load off-camera lighting and such into my car, I left most of my gear in the car. In my shoulder bag – the Think Tank Retrospective 20 (vendor) – I kept only the one  camera, three lenses, and two speedlights.

The performer is Irene, also known as Bird Girl in other performances. (You can follow her as @violinartiste on Instagram)

The photo at the top was taken with the Nikon D4 (vendor) and Nikon AF-S 35mm f/1.4G (vendor) using only the lights there in the night-club. camera settings:  1/60 @ f/1.8 @ 3200 ISO  The available light looked great when it worked to my advantage, but I soon knew that I’d need to add a bit of fill-light from bounce flash

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available light photography: direction of light / posing into the light

A topic that I’ve given more and more attention to here on Tangents, is available light photography – but specifically the idea that in using available light, it isn’t just a random way of taking photos, but that consideration has to be given to the direction of light. When you work with someone you want to take a portrait of, it is crucial that you pose someone in flattering light. This often means posing someone into the light, with the one shoulder toward the direction of light. This idea works for even the simplest of cameras – in this case, an iPhone photo of the bride.

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taking photos in hard sunlight

Taking photographs of people in hard sunlight will always be one of the more daunting lighting situations we can find ourselves in. Without additional lighting, or the use of scrims, we have a few basic ways of dealing with the harsh sun:
– pose our subject into the light,
– pose our subject with their back to the sun, or
– just suck it up and accept that our photos will look bad.

Well, that last option isn’t really the way to go if we have any pride in our work as photographers. Which leaves us with the two other options …

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photographing in bright sunlight – find the shade!

Hard sunlight must be one of the most difficult lighting scenarios to work under. But with a bit of thought, we can work around it and still easily get photos that look great. It’s a topic that we’ve touched on a number of times on the Tangents blog, (see related articles at the end here). Where I can though, the simplest approach for me though, is where I can, is to just not deal with the hard sunlight. I find shade.

This maternity portrait session of Amy was taken on a bright day, and I wanted to avoid her squinting in the bright light, and I also wanted to avoid dealing with hard shadows and light across her face. I much more prefer clean open light. It’s more flattering.

I posed her in the shade of a tree trunk. That slender bit of shadow is enough to avoid hard light.

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bridal portrait – working with the available light

This striking portrait is of Rachel, a bride whose wedding I photographed yesterday. Yes, a Tuesday wedding! The prep was at a hotel on the Jersey shore, and when Rachel was ready, I wanted to shoot a few straight-forward portraits there in the hotel. There was a lot of light in the hotel room itself, but the decor was white – which helps for high-key portraits. But I wanted some variety.

So I scouted around, and decided to do some photographs in the passage outside her hotel room. Since it was a wedding on the Jersey shore, and we did other portraits later on, on the beach, I thought this bright wallpaper wouldn’t be too inappropriate as a backdrop. Now it was just a question of light …

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even with high ISO settings, you still need great light

Still having fun with the new Canon 5D Mark III (vendor), I met up with Elmira again in New York. Elmira is the model I used in my initial tests of the Canon 5D Mark III high-ISO performance. Being a delightful model to work with, I decided to use her again as a subject. New York was cold on this day, so shooting indoors just seemed a lot more attractive. We went to Grand Central Station – a grandiose building, but with light levels quite low. Low enough that I was glad that I brought the Canon EF 35mm f/1.4  (vendor) along.

camera settings: 1/100 @ f/2 @ 3200 ISO
Even with a high ISO like that, I had to use a fast aperture.

An approach that I strongly believe in though, is that “using the available light” is not random decision. It needs consideration of what your light is actually like, and whether it is flattering. What I did here was to pull Elmira towards a light source, so that the light would come in from an angle over her shoulder …

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exposure metering – let your background blow out!

Too often there’s the desire for us to bring the detail in our backgrounds back in by adding flash. But there are times when the image will be stronger if we just allow the background to completely blow out. It especially works in our favor if the background is cluttered, because then by letting the background completely over-expose, we can simplify our composition.

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observing & using the available light, and maybe adding a little bit of flash (model – Alex)

When working with available light or flash or video light or any kind of additional light, the most important aspect of the light is the direction of the light. We need to take a moment and observe the light. Where do the light sources come from? What is the quality of the light?

This motif of looking at the available light has been a recurring theme here with various articles on the topic. Using this simple portrait of Alex, our model with a recent individual workshop, let’s look at a sequence of photos showing some of the thought process ..

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photography: observing and using the available light (model – Anelisa)

With a few top-end point & shoot cameras to test, I met up with Anelisa on this crisp late-Fall afternoon in New York. Similar to how I often work, the idea was to walk around and explore and find interesting places and interesting light to take photographs in. So when at this particular spot in Bryant Park, and I saw the light was just incredible, I ditched the point & shoot cameras, and grabbed my Nikon D3 with the Nikon AF-S 35mm f/1.4G (vendor) on it.

Since the idea with today’s photo shoot was to *find* interesting and flattering light – as opposed to creating it with off-camera flash – I had no additional lighting with me. Not even a speedlight. It was all about observing and using the available light.  And this is how we found ourselves here in this particular spot …

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