Natural Light Techniques

Young Male Lion photographed by Dave Estment

When I first started doing professional photography about twenty years ago, one of my rather strict mentors banned me from using my flashlight in all but exceptional circumstances such as using fill-in flash with a backlit subject. I struggled with this concept until I realised how powerful using available light can be, enhancing your creativity and adding so much depth, detail and texture to images. Flash photography is a whole different science which can produce magnificent results, but for the purpose of this article, I would like to share the key considerations for shooting in natural light, namely:

1. How much light do you actually have available, which varies massively from sunrise to sunset? Most great images are achieved in what we call Golden Hour, about two hours from and after sunrise and about two hours before and into sunset.

2. The less light you have, the more you need to compensate by either using a bigger aperture (smaller number, e.g. F4) or a slower shutter speed, which might require you to use a tripod if your hands are not steady enough. A good rule of thumb is to not use a shutter speed slower than the focal length of the lens, e.g. not less than 1/200th of a second on a 200mm lens, or for those of you with huge 600mm lenses, not less than 1/600th of a second!

3. There are aids such as vibration reduction on modern lenses that help you in low light, so if you can afford it, get VR lenses.

4. Unless you specifically want silhouette-type images, always shoot with the sun behind you to achieve an equally exposed subject and background.

5. If you have a backlit subject within about five metres, it is wise to use your flash to light the subject, as the camera calculates its exposure setting using the average of the entire composition, resulting in a correctly exposed background but a dark silhouette for the subject.

6. Look for intrusive shadows that may detract from the desired result, and either light them or exclude them if possible.

7. The last little trick in your quiver is the ability to change the ISO setting on your camera to compensate for low light and too low a shutter speed, or even too large an aperture if you are wanting to achieve greater depth of field. This is a powerful tool, but bear in mind to use the lowest ISO setting the available light will permit, as the trade-off with high ISO settings is the noise and graininess they cause in your images.

8. My final bit of advice is to always ensure that you get the subject perfectly in focus regardless of the available light, so use the tools available to you like aperture, shutter speed, ISO settings, tripods and even fill-in flash for backlit compositions.

Remember that if your exact subject, be that an animal’s eye or a bee on a flower, is not perfectly in focus, you may as well throw the image away. No short cuts. Shoot Sharp!

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