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The Ins and Outs of Working With Available Light

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Read Time: 6 min

In this article we'll be taking a look at how you can work with available light, making the most of the natural illumination around you. We'll consider direction and colour, as well as how you can make the most of overcast days.

What is Available Light?

Available light is the natural light that is available to make an exposure. Flash lights, strobes, or other lighting systems are not called available light. These are called artificial light. Natural light varies from one time of day to another and from one place to another, and it also varies throughout the seasons and different weather. These changing light qualities drastically alter the mood of a picture, giving it a warm feeling, a cool feeling, casting soft shadows, or casting hard shadows.

Light mainly has 3 important characteristics: brightness, color, and direction. Or as some like to think of it as quality, quantity, and color.

Light Direction

Available light can hit a scene in many directions. If the sun is low in the sky, either early in the morning or in the late afternoon, your subject can be frontlit, backlit, or sidelit. On an overcast day, light can be diffused through the clouds in the sky. At midday, light is vertical.

In general the best time to shoot is early morning shortly after sunrise, or late afternoon shortly before sunset. Try to avoid shooting at midday for the vertical light casts hard shadows on your scenes, eliminating subject characteristics and details.

Front lighting is achieved when the sun is positioned to your back, in front of your subject. This will cause your subject to be lit from the front, and in most cases to be evenly illuminated. And that is why many photographers feel it is the easiest kind of lighting to shoot with, in terms of metering. The best time for frontlit photographs in terms of light quality and color, is during the first hour after sunrise, and during the last few hours of day light.

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Backlighting occurs when you place the sun in front of you, to the back of your subject. This way your subject is lit from the back, and can often yield interesting results since your subject is often captured as stark, dark shapes in your images, and can often be represented as amazing silhouettes.

However, if you want to shoot your subject against a backlit background but you still want it represented with clear details rather than as a silhouette, all you need to do is move in close to your subject and take a reading of the light falling on it, hold that reading, and then move back to your desired position, adjust the composition, and then make your exposure.

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Side lighting occurs when the sun is to the side of both you and your subject. Some say this is the most interesting and dramatic type of lighting, since it casts nice shadows bringing more volume and depth to the scene, and adding striking emphasis on texture and details.

But photographers also claim this could be the most challenging type of lighting, because of the combination of light and shadows. The shadows in an underexposed sidelit photograph become excessively dark, producing a wonderful illusion of three-dimensionality. So make it a habit while capturing sidelit shots to make an exposure at the correct indicated reading, plus an additional exposure at a -1 underexposed reading as this can yield compelling results many times.

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Light Color

Light color varies according to the time of day, and the weather. Midday time offers harsh, white colorless light. The overhead position, and the colorless quality of light at this time of day yields emotion and drama lacking shots, which is why many experienced photographers prefer to shoot early morning and late in the day.

Just before dawn in good weather, the light available offers cool blue and magenta hues, or rosy pinks and vivid reds. Right at sunrise, this light changes to warm orange, overlaying scenes and subjects with lovely hues of orange and golden tint. About one hour prior to sunset and lasting up to sunset, this color change occurs in reverse. Meaning, color changes from warm golden orange hues, to blue magenta hues, rosy pinks, or vivid reds.

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It's a good practice to familiarize yourself with the color of light. For, as I've mentioned earlier, both early morning and late evening light casts warm golden orange hues on scapes. But if you observe light regularly, you will get to notice that early morning light is a bit cooler than the warmer orange-golden light that covers scapes in the early evening.

Furthermore, snow and fog are monochromatic, thus they tend to often call attention to photographed subjects, such as pedestrians with bright colored umbrellas for instance. It also makes a good practice to learn to observe the changes in light color throughout the changing seasons. For example, the vertical, harsh high summer midday sun differs a great deal from the low angled winter sun. The clear light on a spring or autumn day offers lovely delicate tones and hues.

Light color is significantly affected by temperature, and is measured in degrees on the Kelvin scale which is a scale that describes the hues of each color temperature and the light source that is commonly known to produce such a light color.

Higher color temperatures starting at 5,000K or more are commonly called cool colors, and are known to have blueish white tones. Lower color temperatures varying between 2,700K and 3,000K are called warm colors and are known to have yellowish white through red tones.

Here are some typical color temperatures, along with their associated sources, and a preview of each light color for your reference:

  1500K Candlelight
  2680K 40W incandescent lamp
  3000K 200W incandescent lamp
  3200K Sunrise/sunset
  3400K Tungsten lamp
  3400K 1 hour from dusk/dawn
  4500-5000K Xenon lamp/light arc
  5500K Sunny daylight around noon
  5500-5600K Electronic photo flash
  6500-7500K Overcast sky
  9000-12000K Blue sky

Overcast Days

As I've mentioned earlier, midday is a pretty bad time of day to go out shooting, but if it's an overcast day with cloudy skies you can work wonders with your camera. The softer diffused light from the clouds helps to richen colors, bring out contrast, and create great exposures.

Overcast rainy days are also wonderful for capturing people, since you need not worry about harsh under-eye shadows. One thing you need to stay away from during overcast days though is woods and landscape shooting, for the inclusion of huge dull white grey skies won't do you much good against the soft, green vivid trees and plants.

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In photography, available light refers to any source of light that is not set by the photographer. This includes the sun, the moon, lightning, etc. Use of available light may pose a challenge for a photographer since it cannot be directly manipulated. It is heavily influenced by the time, location, or even orientation of a photo shoot, and it can also produce a color cast with color photography.

Despite the challenges, if you familiarize yourself with available light, what it's all about, and how it works, you're well on the way towards taking stunning photographs. So keep your eyes and your mind open and be ready to create magic, natural images!

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