“using the available light” is not a random decision

to use available light is not a random decision

Since I often use flash or additional light, there was some surprise in the (favorable) comments in the Facebook album when I mentioned this photo was shot without any flash. Not even fill-flash. Just the available light. But where I posed the bride, was a specific decision. It wasn’t just random.

Now, I often get the feeling that when someone boasts they only use available light, that it is meant to disguise that they don’t know how to use additional lighting. My thought here is that unless you find yourself in great light, or alternately position your subject so that the light works in your favor … you’re very likely to find that the available light just isn’t as flattering as it could be. Ultimately, this comes down to the point that using light – whether found (ambient) light, or light added by the photographer – is best as a conscious decision by the photographer.

Of course, for many genres of photography, (sport, news, theater, and so on), these choices are out of our control. We then just best deal with whatever the situation throws at us. So there are those times where we really don’t have any say in it. But when we do have control over the shooting scenario and our subject … then, how light is used, is best as a conscious choice by us as photographers.

Back to the image at the top. This was taken during the romantic portrait session of the couple after their wedding. I have photographed in this area quite often, so I knew that this photograph would work. Especially so for someone with such natural elegance as Jen, our bride here. You may remember Jen from the rainy day photo-session with her fiance, Chris. The article was also used in my book on off-camera flash. Oh, and while we’re busy with these flashbacks, Jen and Chris were also the couple in the photograph used in the article on using on-camera bounce flash outdoors at night.

But I digress … back to the image at the top. The composition is supremely simple. Uncluttered. The receding lines lead your eye right into the middle, towards Jen. (For a final edit for an album, I’d still clone out the out-of-focus people in the background.) So the composition is straight-forward.

The way I had her pose, is also straight-forward, yet elegant. The one thing to note here, is how I had her pop her front knee towards the side. This creates a slimming effect on any one … versus popping the rear knee forward, which visually creates a larger shape.

Now, where I positioned Jen, was quite specific. I had her stand right at the entrance of the row of trees, just past the first tree. This diagram might explain it better:

In positioning her here, the light is now coming from a specific direction, and very soft. The light isn’t coming from over-head like it would’ve if we’d worked elsewhere. By having her stand there, we are in a way mimicking the effect of a massive softbox in the studio, placed 45 degrees or so, above our subject. Immediately we reduce the chance of heavy shadows under the eyes. The light is now coming from a specific angle.

I could have, if there were backgrounds that would’ve complemented this, moved to the side, and had more of a directional effect to the light. Remember, if you change your position in relation to the light and your subject, the light changes completely! It is important that the connection is seen between the way that Ulorin Vex was lit by flash in that image, and how the light in this instance would’ve changed if I had changed my position. It’s all connected. It’s all about the direction of light.

So, relating all this to the topic here – I used the available light. But it wasn’t just a random thing. It was specific, but it was also a quick decision. I knew that by positioning her there, I’d control the direction most of the light would come in from. The same idea would work by posing your subject within a doorway, for example.


camera settings & photo gear (or equivalents) used during this photo session

  • 1/250 @ f3.5 @ 400 ISO


recommended 70-200mm lenses

The use of a fast telephoto zoom is essential for me with this style of wedding photography, where you can deliver clean, uncluttered portraits, with the background isolated from your subject.


related articles

27 Comments, Add Your Own

  1. 1 says

    Love the pictures as usual Neil but just wonder what type of metering was used here. You’ve often mentioned that, when using flash, you meter the background and set the camera according to what you want it to look like, and then use the flash (with compensation) for your subject. Did you use evaluative metering in this instance and render your subject (the model) as just part of the overall scene, or did you meter for background and then tweak it to correctly expose the dress? Would spot metering have been useful in this instance – for the dress?


  2. 3MikMik says

    I don’t like the term “available light”. I think that if you have lighting equipment available, “available light” includes it. When you are creating a photograph, you have to use whatever’s at your hand to get the desired result.

  3. 4Steve says


    Wanted to stop by and tell you that I see these pics in Google Reader, but didn’t see any pics in the couple of posts about the rss problem. Hope this means you fixed it.


  4. 5 says

    You have a good eye for composition.

    I’m used to seeing “ambient light,” but “available light” is the same term in the industry, from what I can tell. Just another piece of jargon to remember. :-)

  5. 8Shane says

    Neil, was this session on an overcast day? I ask only because there are no harsh traces of light coming through the leaves in the background. So either you live near the rainforest with such a rich canopy or was there no direct sunlight onto the trees either?

    Thanks Neil!

  6. 10Jonathan says

    Thanks Neil. Basically the area you’re putting her in becomes a giant softbox even if there is full sun above (with no dappled light), similar to window light correct?

  7. 12bart says

    Neil, as always the photos are beautiful. You are such a talent!!!
    I always wonder if using exposure compensation and graduated filters in light room is a cheating? Many times it is hard to get the exposure right all over the photo, so I help it a little bit with a graduated filter combined with the exposure compensation. My RAW process is simple: correct white balance, add little color, contrast , add a graduated filter if needed, clone out some stuff and crop. I always find out that all those corrections make huge difference and my photos start to pop. But without them they would be flat!!! But,I wonder, am I cheating? Should not I get that right from the camera? I justify that by saying, that the most important part is the composition and rest can be helped with a little help of light room. Am I justified?

  8. 13 says

    Bart … as much as I think it is a good thing to strive for – getting it right in camera – I’m not a purist. My only real criteria is … does it make the image look better?

    Also, we’re shooting in the real world. It isn’t possible to get it perfect in camera all the time. It’s an ideal. But it should never be the only method. (Unless of course, you’re a photo-journalist, and it would be unethical to manipulate the image.) So I say run with it!

    Neil vN

  9. 14Trev says


    You are not *cheating*, simply because the RAW file is by itself a flat, lifeless, useless file until it’s been ‘cheated’ on, the reason RAW is used is so it retains ALL the information in a file where jpeg throws out lots of information.

    You cannot compare RAW to a jpeg in getting the best information possible. Just isn’t any. Like film days, comparing a Medium format neg to a 35mm neg for details, ain’t no comparison, especially the 6x7s I used to use, wow.

    Remember, we are talking digital and I bet 95% of people in here have never seen a darkroom let alone worked in one, and since when we used film, people thought they were “brilliant” photographers, but, the darkroom/lab guys did all the magic in-house, not you [apart from composition and very near close exposure], film negatives retained all the information and had lots of latitude to work with, like a RAW and it was processed as such.

    Processing film still required ‘white balance’ [enriching colours or taking out certain colours], density [exposure – highlights/shadows] and if in a darkroom manually doing dodging and burning with their hands or bits of black paper, lots of work, so being in Lightroom/ACR is very similar but with loads more features and oh soooo simple.

    Like comparing the cars of today as opposed to 50 years ago, you would only use an old car for nostalga or its ‘classic’ style, but I bet you would miss power steering, ABS braking, air-cond, etc. etc.

    Obviously these days digital RAWs have fantastic resolution/detail retaining qualities hence getting the best out of them.

    I would love to be around in 30-40 years, but I won’t be, cannot imagine the techy stuff then, even in 5-10 years it will be awesome.

    Cheating. Nope! As Neil says, “run with it!”


  10. 15Jon Davila says

    I the macro shot of the rings to be impressive (in the link to the external photoset of the wedding pictures). Was that the 105mm 2.8 VR or the 70-180 4.5-5.6 for that shot Neil?

  11. 16Jon Davila says

    I know you proclaim your fathers steady hands but that photo is particularly sharp, any tripod or monopod involved in the rings macro photo?

  12. 18 says

    This was shot with the Nikon 105mm f2.8 VR (vendor), but the Canon 100mm f/2.8 IS (vendor) was just as fantastic an optic when I tested the Canon 100mm f/2.8 macro lens for review.

    The Nikon 70-180 macro zoom is a great lens, but the 105mm VR optic is more compact, and has vibration reduction, which is a great help since I never use a tripod when I photograph wedding details.

    This image was shot at 1/125 @ f11 @ 1250 ISO … and was lit by TTL flash which I bounced off the wall directly ahead of me as I was leaning down to take this shot. The infamous black foamie thing blocked direct flash.

    Neil vN

  13. 19fotografii aniversari says

    Stunning. Simple… stunning. And the diagram, even a blind man could understand it perfectly. Thank you.

  14. 20Jon Davila says

    That is quite the sharp image for handheld. I’ve never tried using my 105mm 2.8 hand held, always use tripod for detail shots. But your hands are likely far more steady than my own. Maybe at next weekends wedding I’ll try some handheld detail shots with it to test out just how good the VR is, but still take the tripod ones too.

  15. 21 says

    You have to keep in mind, that at 1/125 @ f11 in that dark reception room, there is NO available light that will register. Camera shake isn’t going to be a factor at all.

    Neil vN

  16. 22Bogdan says

    Clients often don’t know what it is like to shoot something like this. We’re in the sunny side shooting into the shaded area. If one goes for a full set of formals (like I did two weeks ago), at the end of the session you’re done even if you wear effective sunblock.
    Kudos to you Neil, these pictures are not easy to take.



  17. 23George says

    You’re right – most people who try and assert the chauvinism of “available light” are usually masking the fact that they don’t know how to light, or how it works, in my experience. If anything, I like to take pride in the idea that people can’t tell that my shots are “lit” with a bounced flash – they look “natural” in terms of how people remember the scene, not understanding that the camera sees it differently and requires additional light. It’s the irony of shooting well with the strobe – it looks so natural that people have no idea that it actually required some thought to execute.

  18. 26 says

    Hi Neil,

    I was shooting a wedding at the weekend (in fact I shot two in two days!) but this one in particular my 2nd photographer and I were sat about waiting for the couple to come back from a river cruise (it was a small boat so I couldn’t get on it) and the time of day was getting on to early evening (about 7pm) and the light was magical.

    The question I would like to ask (assuming you still get notification of an old post being commented on) is do you explain to your couples about the quality of light late in the day, and then schedule part of the wedding shoot to include that time of day? Or are you like me and don’t want to infringe on their enjoyment and socialising too much?

    Best wishes,

  19. 27 says

    As an experienced wedding photographer, I do discuss the day’s flow and time-line with them at the original consultation and during the engagement photo session.

    So if I have concerns like that, such as time of day, and the light, I would mention it to them.

    I also like to get as much time as possible for the photos with the couple and the bridal party, on their wedding day. Their decision is their decision and I will work within whatever constraints there are in terms of time and location.

    All that said, as photographers we need to remain flexible in our lighting so that we can always give the best possible results.

    Neil vN

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *