Photography Tips – Lighting your Subject

By B.L. Hill

Lighting your subject is, obviously, very important for the successful capture of the “perfect” image. The type and intensity of the light can dramatically change the mood of the photograph. Sometimes the effect is not obvious until the picture is developed. Even with the digital camera, although you can see an image immediately, the size of the view screen makes it difficult to notice some of the differences.

The best way to learn how light affects the final image is to experiment – ah the joy of the digital camera – you don’t have to wait to get the film developed to see the results! Try taking pictures with and without the flash. Try using alternate sources of light. Try using settings other than the camera default settings.1. Taking pictures with/without a flash

Many cameras have an automatic flash setting that I find most people used 99% of the time. This may not always get you the result you want. For example, on a very bright day your flash will not fire as your camera senses enough light. However, you may find that the shadows cast are very strong and detract from the photo. Most digital cameras today have a setting called “fill flash”. You can use this setting to “fill” in the shadows created by the strong sunlight.

The opposite of this is to not use the flash when the camera wants to use it. Each year at Halloween I love to carve pumpkins. I try to create a new design every year and take photos of them. I take them out to the front step (in the dark), light the candles and position my self so that the flame is hidden behind the design but the light comes shining through. If I were to use a flash, all I would see would be an orange pumpkin with stuff carved out – not what I want. If I turn off the flash, I can then take a great photo that shows the design as glowing against the dark pumpkin.

2. Alternate source of additional light (other than your flash)

Instead of using the flash to illuminate your subject, try reflected light. Aluminum foil is a great reflector of light and is cheap, lightweight and easy to carry. During a walk in the woods, I found a small group of delicate pink flowers growing on a moss-covered stump. There was no direct light on the flowers and a flash would have completely washed out the colour. I used my trusty piece of aluminum foil to reflect the light falling to the ground a few feet away towards the flowers. You can adjust the amount of light by moving or crumpling the foil.

3. Different settings

The default settings are not always the best. If you are taking a photo of people with dark skin (not a portrait but a photo including most if not all the body) and you use the automatic settings, you may find that there is little detail in their faces. Opening the shutter by one f-stop (maybe more if they are really dark) should give you the light you need to show their faces. On the other hand, let’s say you have a scene where you have some brightly colored leaves against a dark background. If there is a fair amount of the dark background showing, using the automatic settings will most likely overexpose the leaves, losing the vibrancy of the colour. In this instance, closing the shutter by one f-stop (or so) will bring capture the bright colours. Remember that your light meter sets your camera to give you a “mid-gray” exposure. If your subject and background are quite different in value, then the default settings are probably not going to give you the best results.

For your experiments to have lasting value, record them. I carry a small coil notebook that I can use to note anything different I do. Some of the things I note include:

Identify your photos – In addition to numbering them, for the first photo of a group of experiments, I describe it so I will know which one it is when I get around to looking at them. For me, this is the most reliable way to know to which photos my notes belong as the camera date is usually set off and I may take photos for days before downloading.

Note the ambient light conditions – indicate the type of light (direct sunlight, full shade, light overcast, 60 watt bulb etc) and the direction of the light in relation to your subject (from right to left, front to back, etc). If you have an SLR camera, note any variations in f-stop or shutter speed you make from those derived from using your light meter.

When you have developed your photos (or downloaded them) look at the results and draw your conclusions about what worked and did not, what effects you liked and what you did not. Think about what you were trying to capture in the photo and whether the lighting you used enhanced or detracted from it.

Use your imagination and try these techniques – you have nothing to loose and you may just have more fun with your camera!

About the author

B.L Hill has been taking photographs for over forty years using a variety of equipment and media. For more articles and some great ebooks visit the Photography Tips website.

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