Photo Tips - Quality of Light

As a professional photographer, I"m often asked questions by friends, family, clients, acquaintances, and even total strangers for photo tips, or, how to make better pictures.  Having often considered this, I thought I might offer a few tips that will make your photographs "better".  I'll try not to be too "techy", as that is easily done.  It bores those who already know the answer, and causes those without a technical background to tune out rather quickly. When it comes to creating an image, I'm not an overly technical photographer myself, although I know how to figure out photographic problems that can be solved with technical solutions.  Perhaps more importantly, if I don't know the answer, I have plenty of friends who do...and they'll usually tell me so!  Let's get started...

Many years ago, when I was a hobbyist (everybody starts out as a hobbyist!), I read as much as I could get my hands on about photography, studied the work of those whom I admired, and immersed myself into the "culture" of making pictures, especially when I decided to become a pro.  Noticed I said "making" pictures.  One of the earliest lessons I learned when I began to study commercial photography was that amateurs "take" pictures, while professionals "make" pictures.  There is a vast difference in the approach, in the final purpose of the images, and of course, in how much time, effort, and money go into producing a commercial photograph.

A medical team at the Wings Over Atlanta airshow, October, 2010. Notice the hard edge to the shadow. ©2010 John Slemp

A medical team at the Wings Over Atlanta airshow, October, 2010. Notice the hard edge to the shadow. ©2010 John Slemp

Amateurs love to take pictures.  That's how I started, and although I still love to make photos just for the sake of making a good photograph, there are many other factors that now go into my approach.  For today's discussion, let's talk about light...that being the "quality of light".

When the sun is high overhead at noon on a cloudless day, commercial photographers are usually loath to make a photograph.  Why?  Look at the light!  It is coming from straight overhead, and the shadows produced on such a day have a hard, defined edge.  The light also emphasizes the hollows of a subject's eye sockets, and unless you fill those sockets with some sort of light (reflected light, or with a flash), your subject will have "racoon" eyes.  Any skin blemishes and/or irregular textures will become pronounced, and the overall contrast of the image will be at it's most extreme.  In other words, the light is just not flattering.  This is made even more so if the subject is highly reflective (an aluminum skin airplane), or in the case of people, if they have wrinkled skin.  It becomes very difficult to make a photograph that is visually pleasing.

So if you have toshoot at that time of day, under those lighting conditions, what options do you have available to make an acceptable photograph?  Let's see...

  1. Use your flash!  I can't tell you how often I've said this...but get used to it.  It is a portable sun, built right into most cameras nowadays.  "But won't it make the light worse" is what I'm often asked?  Consider this:  Let's say the sun is putting out 10 units of light, just for the sake of discussion.  In the shadows there is virtually no light (zero units).  So if your flash puts out one unit of light (10% of the total light in the shot), it will come nowhere near overpowering the sun.  And guess what?  The shadows that formerly had zero units of light now have 1 unit!  Some strobes allow you to control how much light is put out, so study your camera manual, and do a test.  Also be aware that we aren't trying to match the sun's light output, only to augment it.  Unless you have access to some powerful studio strobe equipment, your on-camera flash will not overpower the available light.
  2. Use something to bounce light back into your subject.  It can be something as simple as a bedsheet, a piece of white foam core from the art store (one of my favorites), the side of a white vehicle, or even a white wall.  The larger the reflector, and the closer it is held to your subject, the softer the light will be.  Again, do a test with different reflectors, at different distances, under similar lighting conditions.
Portrait subject photographed just as the sun disappeared over the horizon. ©2010 John Slemp

Portrait subject photographed just as the sun disappeared over the horizon. ©2010 John Slemp

Once you understand "quality of light", it becomes much easier to tell when, and when not to make pictures.  My personal favorite time of day to make pictures (of anything) is just before the sun goes down.  It is low on the horizon (which shows texture), has a warm tone to it, and because it has been filtered by the earth's atmosphere, is usually of a much more flattering nature.  In other words, it's much softer.

You'll notice in the photo of this former WWII P-38 pilot, that it was actually shot just as the sun disappeared over the horizon.  The light is warm, soft, and very forgiving.  Shooting at this time of day also encourages the use of wider apertures, which will throw the background out of focus, especially with longer lenses.  This technique brings the viewers attention back to your subject, and also helps obscure what might otherwise be a "messy" or "busy" background.

Do some testing with your flash, and you'll be surprised how much better your images look, even when the sun is directly overhead.  Even better, wait for the sun to get low on the horizon, and you'll notice an immediate improvement in the quality of your images.