Tuesday, May 3, 2011

FAQ: Outdoor Lighting

Recently I've been getting a few questions regarding one of the most important aspects in photography...lighting. And I'm going to try to address it the best way I know how here.  I still struggle with natural light and always have to remind myself to think about the use of light and light reflectors.  I'm going to go out on a limb to say that as soon as you start thinking about effectively using light when you're taking photos, you've elevated to the next level of photography...whatever that level might be.

I like to keep things simple, so lets just start by talking about THE one thing you should avoid when taking outdoor photos.  Yes...and that's right people...one thing to avoid is direct sunlight.  What???  I know...it's totally counter intuitive to what we've all been doing this whole time.  But I'm sure everyone's had that situation when using a point and shoot with friends...you have them stand...take the shot and find that your friends are totally black.  So...what do we do?  We instinctively tell them to turn around towards the sun while you run around them to take the shot.  They, naturally, squint because they're now facing the sun...but you've got them in the photo...nice and clear.  Right?

Well, if you really studied the photo, you'll not only notice that they're squinting, but you'll notice harsh shadows from their noses, eye sockets and lips on their faces caused from the sun beaming on them.  This is really something a lot of people struggle with and if you take away only one thing from this blog, let it be to always face your subjects away from the sun.  To avoid them becoming dark, do what is also counter intuitive to you.  And that is to use your flash...even though it's bright daylight.  On a point and shoot this is an easy way to avoid harsh lighting.    On a DSLR, you can also use your on camera pop-up flash but for serious photographers, consider a higher end hot shoe flash.

The optimal lighting, in my opinion, is a slightly overcast day, which is not a problem here at all in Seattle.  When the sun is behind clouds, the light from it is perfectly diffused, creating a HUGE shadowed area everywhere you go.  On these days, regardless of how you pose your subjects, there won't be any harsh shadows on their faces.
On a sunny day, if you can control your environment and subject, try to find a shaded area to position your subject.  Below Jill was standing in between two sculptures that created a nice area of shade but I made sure I positioned her close to the end of the sculptures, near where the sunlight would appear, so she gets enough light reflected back onto her.

This photo below is a perfect example of harsher sun.  If you look closely, you'll see that Josh is squinting just a little bit and there are some shadows on both of their faces.  Not only that, their skin is a little over exposed, washing both of them out slightly.
To solve this, we simply went on the other side of them and had them turn around towards us slightly.  During this time of day, the light was to our camera right, which is why Josh's forehead is still a little bit over exposed due to the sun since he was looking towards the right a little more than Karen was.  But Karen's face is perfectly shadow free and beautiful.  Also, the sunlight gave her hair a wonderful shine to it.
In the below photo, again, the sunlight was hitting us on our camera right.  We wanted to include the water in our picture, so we made sure we faced Karen away from the sun and Josh slightly side lit.  To help a bit more with lighting bouncing back onto them, we also used a reflector which I was holding while Chris took this shot.
Now with all that said, I do have to say one of the best times to shoot IN the sun would be an hour or two before sunset.  When the sun is back lit behind your subjects at this time creates such a romantic setting, it's much too hard to describe in this entry.  I'll do a separate special post about it at a later time.

I understand you can't always be in the shade or have it be an overcast day when you're taking photos.  But learning how to position your subjects in a strategic way can help take your photos up another level.  The next time you're out with friends, try incorporating the use of light and play around positioning and hopefully you'll see a difference in your pics!


  1. Thanks for these tips Cindi. My friend recently got me to play photographer at her birthday. I couldn't get the lighting right for indoors - some came out dark, and when i turned on the flash, it looked unnatural. Is it best to use "auto" settings?
    I think i may need to go back to photographer basics 101!

  2. Jen - Are you using a point and shoot or SLR? Regardless, if you're indoors with low lighting, what needs to happen is your ISO setting needs to be set higher than if you're outside and your shutter speed needs to be set slower to compensate for the lack of ISO (if still not high enough) and fast enough that it won't blur with the slightest movement.

    The key thing to play with in low lighting a higher ISO and lower shutter speed. And yes, shooting in manual mode will allow you to do that. I hope this helps!!!

  3. great tutorial, thanks for the tips. I think sometimes my white balance is off in the natural light. The skin color comes out with this strange blueish tone. Any remedy for that?

  4. thanks for the tips! btw, I just gave you a bloggie award, come check it out sista!

  5. Inkmark - Are you using a SLR or a point and shoot? I have no idea how to adjust the white balance in a PS but with my SLR, I always set my settings to auto and adjust it, if needed, in my post editing process. Sorry I can't help you there but I hardly ever adjust in camera WB.

    Lisa - Many thanks!!! I will definitely check it out!

  6. Thanks so much Cindi! This is super helpful. I have never thought about using a flash in bright daylight, like you describe. This gives me a lot to think about and play around with.