Learn How to Get Better Photographs With Existing Light

Share: 

Photography owes its existence to light, hence the agreement that without light, photography wouldn't exist. New devices are constantly being developed in order to control light in a more precise way, and there is still plenty of engineering left to do. Pretty much all cameras (except some high-end expensive ones) come with a built-in flash light, even smartphones, they all come with a decent LED light that helps making better photos.

These light sources are quite awesome indeed, but they are a tricky thing to have. Artificial lighting sources could at some point be a limitation, from energy consumption to mobility. And that's why today we'll talk more about available already existing light, which is also known as “practical light” in the film industry.

Basically speaking, existing light can come from two main sources. The first is natural sources (the sun or the moon), and the other is all the existing lights around us that aren't necessary speedlights or strobes. For this article we'll be talking exclusively about the cheapest environmental light, the one that comes from natural sources.

Beyond the ease of access, relying on a limited lighting sources will push you forward into finding more creative solutions. Ergo, taking this stuff into account will eventually make you a better photographer.

Let's start with some circumstances in which this aforementioned existing light would be typically used. Wildlife and travel photography are popular examples of this since it is highly impractical to carry lights in these settings. Street photography is another genre that relies mostly on environmental available light.

Helena Lopes

In the photograph shown above, you can see a beautifully lit portrait of a woman waiting for a train. The sun is creating a nice broad light across the woman's face and the ambient surroundings cast shadows in the background. This is a very good example of existing light photography since the photographer was able to use the light not only as a filling, 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.

Now is your turn!

Go ahead and treat yourself, simply 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 Midday's Sun

Sun is mighty powerful, and when it reaches its peak during midday it gives such a harsh light that will be difficult to maneuver around it. There are of course photographers that have quite a good experience when dealing with this light, in fact, it has become quite their signature in their style, but for starting out purposes, we'll try to avoid it for now.

If you simply can't avoid midday's sun, you can always lessen its intensity by seeking shadows around you from trees or buildings. You can always rely on clouds if there is an overcast weather nearby. In fact, this is one of the most desired environmental lights of all. 

  • Start Understanding Sunlight

The sun makes an excellent hair light, but when it's overhead it can also cause unsightly shadows on a person face. This is where your skills come into play, and the best way for dealing with this without using any artificial light, is by using a circular reflector. There is no other situation in which this comes in handy.

These are pretty inexpensive and you should totally invest in one. If you can't carry one of these with you all the time, and you need to fill your subject with some light, any reflecting surface (just don't use a mirror) can do the job as a filling light.

  • Use Shadows and Light Leaks in your Advantage!

Understand how hard lights and shadows can help you intro creating beautiful patterns or interesting effects. Your creativity is the limit, and we simply can't teach you all the lighting possibilities there are when limited resources are on the table, they are quite infinite!

  • All light is Light

It doesn't matter where the light comes from, it all will respond to the same physical properties and logics. The only difference is that with studio or artificial lighting, you are the one in control of the direction and intensity.

You don't need to get out of it at first, you can simply start looking now available ambient light plays upon your surrpoidngins, and after that you can start seeking more and more light outdoors! We are entirely covered with light, and we can do many things with it. Being able to respond to harsh changes in environmental light requires practice. Please share with us your experiences while working entirely with environmental light on the comments below or at our forums!

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.

Train by DigitalArtBerlin, on Flickr

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.

About Author

Tiffany Mueller is an adventurer and photographer based in Hawaii. When she's not climbing volcanoes or swimming with sharks, you can find her writing articles and running the official blog at PhotoBlog.

Thank you for this insight! I’m curious if you have tips on photographing artwork that has reflective glass. What “tricks” are practiced so there is NO reflection (aka spotting on the final photos).

In my work I have to shoot outside in bright sunlight all the time. I try to shoot in the shade when I can. I place the subjects with the sun over my shouders at a 45 degree or shoot with the sun behind them, and use a reflected flash. Thank for the tips.
.

Leave a Reply

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