Outdoor Photography Tips: Lighting, Flash, And Other Issues

Tips to help improve your photographs using light in skillful and creative ways.

The prefix photo- means "light, or radiant energy." Photography is all about light. How light is used in making a photograph can make all the difference in the resulting image. Light defines space, place, time of day, and mood. Creative use of light can be used for dramatic impact, to lend extra depth, and to add to the general composition of the photograph. The following tips can help you to use light to your advantage for improving your photography, no matter what type of camera you use.

What is the time of day?

Bright sunlight, midday, is not the best time for photography. In fact, it may be the worst, if you think of light in terms of its interaction with shadow. Light and shadow form compositional elements that continuously change as the light changes. At midday, there is very little shadow; existing shadows are harsh and contrasty. Sharply contrasted elements can sometimes lend themselves to an interesting composition, but in most cases, hard bright light washes away interesting elements in landscapes, and creates unflattering shadows across people's faces. In landscape photography, there is no "magic hour." However, every scene has its moment of prime light, and with patience you may be able to capture it. Long after high noon, for example, the light steadily begins to improve. During late afternoon, shadows become part of the composition, evoking drama and emotion. Light later in the evening takes on a golden or reddish glow. Take the time to continue shooting a scene as the light fades into the evening. You may be amazed at the results.

What direction is the light coming from?

When shooting outdoors, frontlighting (sun behind the photographer) is most commonly used and the least interesting direction of light for your images. It works well for showing great detail on the surface of your subject, such as flowers blossoms, but sidelighting is a much better light to use whenever feasible. Sidelighting adds depth impact to your photos, whether your subject is a pinecone, sand dune ripples, a vast forested landscape, or a bustling cityscape. The most dramatic is backlighting, or shooting "against the light." This technique is difficult to master, but worth it. Backlighting can be used to create silhouettes of the subjects in the foreground (often people) with wonderful results. Think backlighting when photographing anything translucent such as misty spider webs, delicate blooms, or wispy blond hair. When using backlight to photograph a person, use your flash or a reflector to lighten the face and avoid an unintentional silhouette.

What's going on in the sky?

A clear blue sky is almost never as interesting or as dramatic as low lying mist, a distant storm, or the intensely orange and pink clouds at sunset. Remember that light and shadow in the sky can create beauty, drama, and endless photographic possibilities.

How's the weather?

Contrary to what most people may think, bad weather may be the best time to get out the camera. Rainy, overcast days can provide unusual opportunities for some great photos. Foggy or misty weather can evoke moody, even surreal images. Overcast days are perfect for photographing people. Absent are harsh shadows and squinty eyes, and the necessity of positioning your subject according to the location of the sun. Facial features are softer, and sometimes more animated, such as during a downpour, or in the faces of children splashing in a puddle or huddled under an umbrella. On a gray day, look for bright colors, remembering that rain intensifies them. Conversely, light on a gloomy day can be soft and muted. Look for subtle shades of color in landscapes that may not be apparent on bright sunny days. Use a tripod in low light conditions where slower shutter speeds may be necessary. If you can't control the shutter speed on your camera, use a faster film on less than perfect-weather days, such as 200 or even 400 ISO.

When to use a flash?

Beyond after-dark snap shots, flash photography can be extremely useful when taking photographs out-of-doors. Use a fill-flash to lighten unflattering midday shadows on the face of your subject. Better yet, turn the subject into the shade for backlight, then use a fill-flash to lighten the face. Use the flash to lighten overall dark scenes, or to add sparkle in dreary weather. Your flash can be used to highlight interesting areas within the image frame, which is especially effective if you are able to adjust the output of your flash and preserve the ambient light of the scene. Fill-flash can even be used to emphasize movement. This can be done by combining existing light exposure with flash and a slow shutter speed. The resulting image, called "flash ghosting," will be slightly blurred, emphasizing motion.

How about a reflector?

This is a tool that every photographer should have. A reflector can often provide just enough "fill" without using any flash at all by bouncing light from behind your subject back to the subject. You can see the effect immediately, prior to snapping the picture. A large piece of white poster board works well, but is not very handy. You can purchase collapsible reflectors in various sizes and colors. Gold, for example, can transform cool facial shadows into warm pleasing skin tones.

Taking pictures outdoors can be challenging, stimulating, and full of exciting possibilities. Experiment with light, as well as composition, subject matter, color, and theme. Learn everything you can about your equipment and how to use it.

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