Pretty light brings out the beauty in even the most mundane things and moments in our lives. For every beautiful golden hour sunset, there’s a morning of getting ready before sunrise, field trips in bright, full sun, grocery shopping in giant fluorescent boxes, and family dinners in mixed lighting.
Many of life’s most memorable moments happen in challenging light; learning to work with all light will ensure you capture every memory. Light in daily life isn’t always dreamy golden hour sunsets or natural light streaming through large windows, but that shouldn’t stop you from capturing memories in any light.
There is no bad light; it’s how you use the light available to you that makes it great.
1. Full Sun
Some of my favorite times with my children happen under a full sun. As a full-time working mom, I take advantage of our family time together on weekends. On our days of adventuring, I’m usually dealing with full sun for a better portion of the day.
Now, if your goal is perfect portraits, full sun isn’t the right choice; there are harsh shadows and squinted eyes. But if you refocus your intentions on capturing the story of the day, you can embrace full sun and all of its contrasty goodness.
Color and composition shine in full sun. Capture that bold blue sky and embrace the full spectrum of vivid color. Preserve your highlights and let the shadows fall where they may.
Digital cameras improve every year, but the tonal range of full sun is still beyond most. Worry about keeping those highlights in check; shadows may have some black clipping, but it won’t affect the overall image.
Follow the action. Let your kids lead the way and not only will they have a blast determining what comes next, but you’ll capture wonderful faceless shots, no deep eye shadows or squinting.
When in doubt, seek shade. If you’re not confident shooting out in the open, find a shaded area to work your magic. Shaded areas on bright, sunny days are a wonderful opportunity to use directional light for an impromptu headshot or portrait.
2. Overhead light
Overhead light is ever-present in our modern world. Almost every public venue is filled with overhead, usually fluorescent, light. One key to great photography in fluorescent light is nailing the white balance; use the fluorescent preset on your camera or in the Adobe Lightroom/Camera Raw white balance presets to get the best color out of your indoor images.
Much as in full sun, overhead light can create dark shadows around the eyes, though usually less intense, but there are some workarounds. Have your subject look up slightly toward the light or take faceless shots to capture the story and details of the moment.
Change your perspective; shoot from overhead to capture a unique composition. The subject will automatically look up, and the light will shine on her face.
Stores are full of leading lines and interesting compositional elements. Use a strong composition to make up for weaker light. In a room filled with light, seek darkness. Dark walls and shelves serve as light absorbers and light blocks to reduce light on one side of your subject, creating dimensional light. The light may be overhead, but it’s plentiful, diffuse, and abundant. Take advantage of the soft, even light, crank up that ISO, and capture the moment.
3. Mixed light
Shooting lifestyle moments at home, I turn off all lights and rely solely on natural window light whenever I can. When you visit friends or host events in your home, not everyone will be OK with walking around in dim light, so you’ll find yourself faced with shooting in mixed light. Warm tungsten light from inside competing with cooler, natural light streaming in through a window makes for a challenging situation.
Try to isolate a single light source by moving faraway from the competing sources. If you want to use natural light as well, place the subject as close to the window as possible. There will still be some warmth on the shadow side of the skin from the artificial light, but it can be corrected in editing. If you intend to use a tungsten light, move the subject as far from the window as possible to prevent the cool light from hitting the subject’s face.
If the colors of the light are particularly saturated for effect or mood, embrace those crazy colors — stores and museums use colored light for a special effect in displays. Removing the color completely and making the image “correct” diminishes the intended mood of the location or event.
4. Indoors with flash
In particularly challenging lighting, added artificial light, whether constant or flash, can both conquer the darkness and correct unflattering tones. Used on camera with a diffuser, a single flash directed on the subjects’ faces illuminates them in dark rooms and cancels mixed light. (Though diffused, on-camera flash provides mostly flat light.)
Bounced flash offers a bit more creativity. Aim the flash head at a wall to bounce the light onto your subjects and provide side light. If you can flag your flash, you can create even greater directional light that mimics natural window light. Flag your flash with a dedicated flag or black craft foam to block the light from spilling forward and direct it toward a wall. With no light spilling forward, the only light hitting the subject will be the bounced light. Be mindful of the color of the wall, as the color cast will also bounce onto your subject.
If you’re able to take the flash off your camera, you can achieve beautiful, dimensional light without worrying about color casts from bounced light. It’s also useful in large rooms where the walls aren’t close enough for the bounce effect. Of course, off-camera flash isn’t practical for, say, shooting images during daily errands (Target wouldn’t approve of your carrying a light setup around the store!), but it can create beautiful light in your home for events like Christmas morning and birthday parties in otherwise dim spaces.
Editing mixed light photos: before and after
Whether or not you can isolate a single light source in a mixed light situation, there will almost always be some amount of editing needed to remove the color from the secondary light source. Shooting raw greatly increases the amount of editing flexibility, especially in white balance, which will need to be selectively adjusted in mixed light situations.
Using gradients or adjustment brushes in Adobe Lightroom/Camera Raw as well as the HSL panels, you can often neutralize or remove the color casts.