digital photography tips with Digital Photo Mentor Darlene Hildebrandt

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Understanding Available Light

Last weekend I was very pleased to be one of the instructors at a McBain Camera workshop, on location at the Alberta Railway Museum. The group of students was split into groups and each of the five instructors had just over an hour with them. My topic was Available Light, using the natural, ambient light that's readily “available”.

How to find good lighting for photography

An hour is not a lot of time so I covered as much as I could about using Available Light to create stunning portraits. We started off discussing how to look for good lighting and what that actually even means. The difference between “quantity” and “quality” of light. I showed a demonstration of putting the model into bright sunlight and how that is a “hard light” source which creates harsh shadows, makes her squint, and is generally not flattering for most people because it accentuates every flaw, bump, and wrinkle on their face.

Photography tips hard lighting
Example of hard lighting

Then by adding a translucent reflector between the sun and the model we softened the light on her face which makes the transition from the bright areas (highlights) to the dark areas (shadows) more of a gradual one as it fades slowly from dark to light. In the image below the model is standing in exactly the same spot as the one above, and the sun has not moved, nor have any clouds appeared. This is created solely with the translucent reflector.

Photography tips diffused soft lighting
Example of soft lighting

Using the sun as a back light, creating depth

Still out in the bright sun of early morning, I showed how to use the sun as a backlight instead and use a reflector to light the models face. In photography it is our job to capture a 3 dimensional scene and put it on a two dimensional one (paper or screen). Our challenge is to maintain the look of DEPTH in the image so it doesn't appear flat to the viewer.

  • One way to do that is with lighting that comes across the subject, adding texture and depth
  • The other is to make use of foreground and background and separating the two.

photography tips how to create depth in an image

Creating depth using foreground and background

By putting the model far away from the background, using a telephoto lens and a large aperture (in this case an 85mm f1.2) and letting the background go out of focus creates that depth we desire.

Inside the one of the trains, using window light and reflector, no flash

As our model was freezing in the 8c fall morning weather, we headed inside one of the trains to practice some window light techniques. For me, using available light is about looking at where the light is coming from, the quality of light (is it hard or soft) and how to position my model to best use the light that is there for the most pleasing images. Available light is simpler to start using than flash or studio strobes because it's “what you see is what you get”. By just looking you can start to learn to see the direction, color, and quality of light and how you can also manipulate it using reflectors or blocks (also called gobos).

Creating short or broad lighting by moving your subject

By watching the models face as she moves closer to and away from the window you can see how the ratio (range from highlights to shadows) increases or decreases. You can also see as she turns her face away or towards the window how the shadows fall differently on her face creating either “Broad” or “Short” lighting. Learning to know when to use each is part experience and practice and partly learning how to analyze your subject's face.

photography tips Broad Lighting example
Example of Broad Lighting
photography tips short lighting
Example of short lighting

General rules of lighting:

  • For a wide face you want to use short lighting which has more shadows than light
  • Short lighting on wide faces makes your subject appear slimmer
  • For a narrow face use broad lighting which illuminates the largest part of the face showing towards the camera
  • Broad lighting makes your subject appear wider

Using a reflector for window light portraits

You can also use a reflector for window light portraits to fill in or lessen the shadow side, in doing so making a lower ratio (less contrast from dark to light) like this example.

photography tips using reflectors and windowlight
Lowering the ratio using a reflector

If you have two reflectors (and a way to hold the both, either a special reflector arm and stand or an assistant) you can use one to fill in the shadows and one to light up the subjects hair (called a hair light or rim light) as you can see in the image below. The scene was high contrast so we used one to reflect light into the darker side of her face, lessening the shadows and a second one to bounce light onto her hair which otherwise would blend into the dark background. Notice how her hair is highlighted on the left side, or back or her head.

photography tips using two reflectors
Using two reflectors, one as a "hair light"

Full day photography class on understanding available light

This short class was part of a longer full day class on Available Light that I teach through McBain Camera about once a month. For more information on that class please go to Available Light Workshop. If you enjoyed these photography tips please come to my full program. If you can't make it to a class or you learn better in a one on one environment then Private Photography Tutoring might be a good choice for you.

HDR of antique train
HDR of antique train

More Images on Photography Portfolio

To see the rest of the images (all 52 of them) from this class please go to my Railway Museum Portfolio Page. I also did some HDR Photography at the Railway museum while I was there, just for fun. You can view those on the Portfolio site also. Any of my fine art images can be purchased from that page as well, in a variety of sizes. Just choose the image you want and select “buy” or the Featured product you would like to purchase. All purchases are billed in US$ and shipped directly to your home.

The other instructors covered different topics including macro photography, landscape, using speedlights, and studio strobes. I think a good time was had by all that participated and hopefully they each learned something from every instructor to go and practice. We look forward to see you at our next event!
Group photo Train workshop McBain Camera

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  • Great tips and beautiful work! We’d love to have you on board our photography forum at Photography Talk. If you’re interested stop on by and check it out – and keep up the great work!

    Drew

    • Darlene

      Thanks Drew I’ll check it out!

  • Fred Rushworth

    An excellent article about existing light photography and it was a workshop well worth attending. I had opportunity to practice the skills a few days later and your tips made a big difference in my images.

    I have just added a short review of the Railway Museum workshop and a link to this article and your website in the October copy of Images Alberta Camera Club’s newsletter. It should be on line later this week.

    Fred Rushworth

    • Darlene

      Awesome Fred, glad you picks up a few tips. Do please send me a link to your review when it’s available!

  • Looks like this was a great workshop. Loved your writeup here and the tips you provided. Now I’ll have to get out and try some of them. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

    • Darlene

      Thanks for the comment and for visiting Matt! Are you in Indonesia now?

  • Jim Wolff

    Hey Darlene, I like all the stuff you said, except how do I do a photo session without having to have another person hold a reflector? So, with that in mind, it makes doing all the above that you mentioned, nearly impossible for a one-person photographer. I’m playing with all sorts of ways to point light to the model, including bounce lighting, and even using LED and Halogen lighting. Please share your lighting techniques if you are completely alone and on your own trying to shoot these kinds of pictures.

    • Hi Jim – yes it does make it tricky. If you don’t have a helper or spouse that go along see if the person you are photographing can bring a friend and ask them to do and tell them you need a helper. It can also have the added benefit of helping your subject feel more relaxed having someone they know there.

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