Without light, photography would not exist. Lighting is so important, in fact, that we are constantly creating new devices and equipment that will allow us to control it. Almost all modern cameras come with some sort of flash and a good number of us have a small arsenal of studio lighting. But, let’s forget about the gadgets for a moment and talk about existing light. Existing light is a term with many different definitions attached to it. This article, however, is going to focus on just one of them; existing light as in light that is already present without using speedlights, monolights, or any kind of artificial lighting. Yes, artificial lighting exists to make our lives easier and it certainly does produce great photography but, using only existing light is a great exercise to strengthen your knowledge base of lighting in general.
First, let’s look at some situations in which existing light would typically be used. The use of existing light is widespread in wildlife and travel photography. By default, street photographers rely on existing light more than just about any other style of photography. In the photograph above you see the portrait of a woman waiting for a train. The sun creates a nice broad light across the woman’s face and the ambient surroundings cast shadows in the background. This is a good example of existing light photography because the photographer was able to use the light not only as a fill, but also as a means to produce contrast and depth.You can also use existing light to give portraits an artistic flair. Since you will not always be able to move your light source, you won’t always be in control of when or where a shadow will be cast. The trick here is using the shadows to your advantage. The next photo is a prime example of implementing artistic shadowing into a portrait.
So, go ahead and liberate yourself from your studio lighting for a day. Look around you, take note of how the existing light creates mood and photograph it. Here are some things to remember when you find yourself out there with nothing but existing light:
- Avoid shooting during the midday hours if at all possible. This is when the sun is highest and when it is most likely to work against you. If it cannot be avoided, look for ways to lessen it’s intensity. This is usually accomplished by finding a natural filter such as clouds, a tree, or even tall buildings.
- The sun makes an excellent hair light. The problem is, when it’s overhead the sun can also cause unsightly shadows on a person face. This is where your resourcefulness will come into play. Do you happen to have a reflector on hand? If so, awesome. If not, try to find something that you can use to bounce the existing light onto your subject with, thus using the sun as a hair and fill light.
- Use shadows to your advantage! Shadows below one’s eyes are pretty undesirable in photography but that doesn’t mean you should avoid shadows all together. Shadows can give definition to a subject or scene. Conversely, rays of light are sometimes capable of creating the same effect. Just make sure the shadows or rays are not so bold that they overpower the rest of the image.
- Light fixtures can be the source of dramatic lighting effects. If you are indoors, look at the light fixtures and study the way they cast light and shadows. Incorporate the patterns into your photograph. Lamps, recessed lighting, and wall lights are potentially great light sources.
- Regardless of the light source, the same priniciples will always apply when dealing with light. Regardless of whether you are using artificial lighting or the sun, the light will behave the same. The difference is that you are in full control of one and the other you must learn to coexist with.
Penn Station, Baltimore, Sunday afternoon by sidewalk flying, on Flickr. Note the way the sun rays and shadows interact to create mood.
Tiffany Mueller is a professional music and fine art photographer. Published in various publications including magazines, art journals, as well as books, Tiffany has been fortunate enough to have been in a perpetual state of travel since her youth and is currently working on a 50-states project. You can also keep up with Tiffany via Twitter or on her personal blog.