Holistic Photography: If we were content with what we found in nature, we would still be living in caves. Instead of accepting the light that the scene presents us, we can control and augment it for artistic effect.
We can achieve this with many techniques, but fundamentally we have two strategies; to better use the light that we already have and to add more sources.
Photographers who use only natural light may not have or be able to use proper lighting equipment. It is entirely acceptable to use the natural light available to you; but not out of an inability to do otherwise.
More light allows us to see a better picture of the scene. It also allows us to choose lower ISO SENSITIVITIES, faster SHUTTER SPEEDs and optimum APERTUREs so the photographs can be better quality. How do we increase the brightness of our light sources?
We can move our subject closer to the light source and take advantage of the INVERSE SQUARE LAW’s affect on our lighting.
We can remove any obstructions that might diminish the brightness of the light on our subject; by moving objects out of the way, opening curtains, waiting for clouds to clear and so on.
It might be possible to move either our subject or our light sources to allow a clear line of sight. This can make a remarkable difference so is worth experimenting with.
We may be able to increase the intensity of our light source; perhaps with a dimmer switch. It is possible to focus the rays from a small light source at night using a transparent water bottle.
We can make more use of our light sources by reflecting any lost light back onto our subject. Reflectors are normally used for this and work best when they are positioned in the brightest light possible and thought of as a mirror; their effect should make the light on the subject evidently brighter.
Instead of a purpose-built reflector, several objects can be improvised. A broadsheet newspaper works well to ‘bounce’ light onto a subject, as does a white shirt, sheet or silvery surface; look for what works best.
REFLECTED LIGHT takes on the colour of the surface it’s reflected off. Mirrors and silver surfaces reflect the most light, then white objects. The larger the reflecting surface, generally the more light is reflected.
A luxury real estate photographer can take a collection of extra-bright light bulbs to temporarily replace those already installed, preserving the feel of the current lighting.
We can also add light sources. This might be as simple as turning the lights on if we’re inside. Investigate your scene to find out which potential light sources you have at your disposal.
Consider that many small light sources together may add up to produce a usable light for your subject. With a group, the light from enough mobile ‘phones or iPads can be used in a pinch.
Torches are now powerful and compact, so carrying them can be convenient. The very bright models also double as a legal defense ‘aid’ in unsavoury locations! They allow you to paint your scene with light at night with an exposure of several seconds.
These are forms of continous lighting, which has a fairly constant duration and is therefore preferable for videography; and helpful so we can see where the light is going.
Flashguns, which Nikon calls speedlights, emit large amounts of light in fractions of a second. They’re a great way to add light to a scene if used thoughtfully.
The on-board camera flash will often give unattractive results because it’s too close to the lens, causing ‘red-eye’ in portrait photos, and flat frontal lighting. It’s also small, so the lighting creates hard shadows, and falls off rapidly, increasing overall contrast.
It is useful then to get the flash off the camera. You can use cables or wireless flash triggers for this, or fire the flash manually when you use longer shutter speeds.
The intensity of the flash ranges from its full power down to about 1/128th of its full power. TTL (Through the Lens) metering systems take charge of the correct exposure, which you can choose to over-rule or use the flash’s manual mode.
Multiple flash units can be used. Hotshoe flashes are traditionally mounted on the camera (though we will use them off-camera usually). Studio flashes are brighter, and can be used on-location with a battery pack or generator.
Hard or Soft Light
OBSERVING LIGHT teaches us to notice how hard or soft the lights in our scene are. HARD LIGHT has sharp, dark shadows; SOFT LIGHT has few or even no noticeable shadows. Either changes the scene and can be controlled.
To make our light source seem harder on our subject with crisper shadows, we make it smaller relative to the subject. We can do this by physically changing the size of the light source or increasing its distance from our subject.
If we want to make the light on our subject softer, then we need to diffuse it and increase its apparent size. Studio photographers use umbrellas, softboxes or octaboxes to increase the size of their lights.
Natural light photographers can use silks, which are essentially translucent sheets, to soften sunlight. A cloud works effectively as a large softbox, so sometime waiting for nature will be the best option.
You needn’t carry equipment; a white awning may let enough sunlight through to act as a silk to soften the light. Likewise, removing a lamp shade will reduce the apparent size of a light, making it appear harder and increasing contrast.
You can also use reflected light instead of direct light as your main light source. This gives you more control over the size of your light source. If the sun is behind your subject, a large white board reflecting light back onto them will give a softer light with fewer shadows.
Light has a range of colours, and unless the light is colour-neutral, one will be dominant. We can choose to accept the colours presented to us, or we can change them.
In Hollywood, a director of photography may cover all of the windows with a precisely coloured amber gel (plastic) so that the natural light matches the incandescent lighting inside; if they didn’t, the lighting inside would appear orange, or if that was corrected for, the window light would seem blue.
The light from flashguns is easy to change colour; numerous plastic gels are available to fit. This makes adding different coloured light to your scene very straightforward.
These plastic gels can equally be used to filter the light from a torch. A coloured scrim scarf can also be used. And many LED lights now have a choice of colours to choose from.
We can change the shape of our light sources to alter their character. An object between your subject and the light is called a gobo; a go-between. With small, hard light sources, it will cast interesting shadows.
If you’ve ever worn a pair of polarised sunglasses, you’ll be aware that they can remove reflections of the sky on water and glass, allowing you to see what’s underneath.
A polarising filter is a very useful addition to your camera bag. It adds another layer of control, and its effect cannot be replicated digitally in Photoshop, unlike other filters.
Polarisers are normally seen as a good way to darken skies (they work best when the sun is directly to your left or right). But this is easily done with a computer and it isn’t what makes them useful.
Instead, they allow the photographer to reduce glare and deepen colour saturation. The SPECULAR REFLECTIONS on foliage overwhelms the colour of leaves; the polariser removes these reflections to reveal the rich colour beneath.
Because the light from the screen on your computer or tablet is polarized, you can ‘turn off’ that screen by rotating the polarizing filter and watching the effect.
Less common is pairing up two polarisers. Used together, you can make them almost opaque; a useful variable neutral density filter for controlling the amount of light entering your camera.
You can also polarise the light from your flash, then remove any glare that might otherwise result by using another polarising filter on your lens. This works well when photographing artworks.
Taking Control of the Light
There are vast resources available that will teach you how to manipulate light for better photography; chances are, you’re too busy and don’t have the time to read them all. You don’t need to; Holistic Photography gives you all of the essentials.
If you can see your subject then there is light in your scene. However, your input will help; either by optimising the available light reaching your subject or by adding new light sources. Consider carefully – photography is writing with light.