Hello, my name is Garrett and I am a light snob.
(This is the part where everyone says “hello Garrett” in a monotone chorus)
I start with a confession because sometimes it seems like the light controls me. Have you ever heard a photographer say “that light was awesome” or “I’m waiting until the light is better” or possibly “let’s shoot it at golden hour”? Well, if you’ve ever hung out with me then the answer is a resounding YES! I am always thinking about light. Whether that be while I am telling a wedding story or if I’m out on a walk with my wife and want to grab a quick photo. Why are we as photographers so fixated on light? Well, because this art is ALL about it. The word “photography” in the Greek comes from photo which means light, and graphy which means draw. So when we take photos we are literally drawing with light. Or as I prefer to say, “writing with light.” If you’re at all like me, you want to tell stories with your photographs. Light is one of the most important tools to tell these stories.
I’ll bet you can guess which time of day this photo of Jeremy and Meghan was taken. If you said “sunset” then you’d be close, if you said “sunrise” then you’d be correct. Surprised that it can be difficult to tell the difference?
Believe it or not there are six qualities of light that define the way light appears to your eye. I’m not going to bore you with all of them but I do want to focus in on one today and that is “direction.” The direction means exactly what you would expect it to mean. What is the angle of the light source as it hits the subject. The shadows can be the bread crumbs that lead you back toward the light source. Is the light coming from above? Think 2 p.m. on a sunny day. Is it coming from the side? Think sunrise or sunset. Is it coming from the camera? Think on-camera flash. Is the light coming from everywhere? Think overcast day. Is it coming from below? Think, well, I’m not sure about that one. But it could and has happened! In the studio at least.
One direction is not inherently better than the other because each one says something different. However, light coming from the side is generally much more pleasing, like during a sunset (there are a few other qualities of light in play here, but I’ll save that for another time). This is precisely why you will almost never see me photograph outside in the middle of the day. If it were up to me, I would do my sunny day outdoor shooting on the following schedule.
30 minutes before sunrise to 90-minutes afterward.
Look at my photos and see what else I want to capture
90-minutes before sunset to the 30-minutes afterward
When the sun is low on the horizon during sunrise and sunset you can choose to illuminate the whole face, part of a face (see Jeremy & Meghan’s photo above), or use shadows to create a silhouette. Here are a few examples of me taking advantage of the direction of the almost horizontal light while shooting during sunrise and sunset.
Nate shortly before he gets married in Cabo San Lucas. This is about 90 minutes before sunset. I utilized this sideways light and caught him in a shaft of light which is why everything else behind him is dark.
TIP: If you don’t have manual control, you’ll need to know how to adjust your exposure compensation on your camera for this. You’ll want to adjust it -1 or maybe even -1 2/3.
TIP EXPLAINED: Otherwise your camera will be fooled by all the dark area and brighten the exposure. Overexposure is a bad thing! Shooting digital is a lot like shooting Provia or Velvia. Errr, slide film. You shoot for the highlights. This means you don’t want to overexpose and you let the shadows fall where they will. Whether they be dark or completely black, often I don’t care because keeping the whites to have detail is so important for digital images.
Early morning light with Jeremy and Meghan. Notice how Meghan’s face is completely illuminated and Jeremy has some nice Rembrandt lighting.
TIP: When shooting during sunrise or sunset and set your digital camera’s white balance to “daylight.” Which is usually a shining sun icon. This will force your camera to capture the colors as they truly are. I’ll have to discuss “COLOR” later. It is also one of this six qualities of light.
TIP EXPLAINED: Most digital camera’s default to Auto White Balance or “AWB” and adjust the color of the light for you. The problem with most camera’s auto white balance calculations is that they suck the life out of your photo. The camera senses that warmness, and golden goodness, and freaks out (Yes. Panic in your camera. It’s a terrible thing for your camera’s computer to go through. OK, that whole last section was a joke) because there is so much yellow. It then compensates and usually adds some blue so the light is nice and white. So stop letting your camera determine the color for you in this situation because it’s tired of panicking and you want the warm color!
The light kissing just the top part of Samantha’s face moments before sunset. Now that is sideways light!
Start paying attention to the direction of your light and watch your photos improve. In the second installment of the “It’s ALL about the light DIRECTION” we’ll look at the potentially terrifying “back-lit” situation and how to avoid it and then overcome it.
Be careful though. If you stick with me on these lighting tips you could become like me and be a slave to the light! Case in point: I’ve become such a light snob that I don’t even like talking to someone when they is extremely back-lit or the incandescent canister lights above them are creating deep shadows over their eyes. I just can’t shut it off! Help!