Before I started getting serious about digital photography, I never realized the importance and ever-changing nature of light. The difference between an average photo and a breathtaking shot, an amateur point-and-click and a delicate composition, is often simply a matter of light. Let's look at a few concrete examples:
feel of a photo. Here are a few things you can do to make light work for you to produce amazing stills:
Know your location. I can't emphasize how important it is to take at least a few minutes to study your surroundings and get an idea for how light is working in your location. One of the major reasons I decided to purchase a prime ([Sigma 28mm f/1.8 EXDG Aspherical Macro]) was so I would be forced to get up and move - try different angles, heights, and vantage points. Simply standing still and zooming in will almost never produce a picture that really stands out. Interesting angles, locations, and poses help you find the best and most interesting way to use the light at hand.
Second, know when to use the flash. Most people think that the flash should be used indoors in dim lighting. This often leads to the common blown-out faces in photos and the classic foreground bright and background dark:
The way to avoid this is pretty simple - in low light situations, tweak these settings:
- Shoot at as high of an ISO as is necessary. I recommend up to 1600 since you can now use Topaz Denoise to (almost completely) remove this noise (ref). ISO is essentially each pixel's sensitivity to light - so the more sensitive a pixel is, the less light you need for a proper exposure. Of course, the more sensitive the pixel, the more digital noise you will see. Fortunately, noise-reduction software like Topaz Denoise can really make this a non-issue.
- Use as wide of an aperture as you can while shooting in low light. Another reason I bought my Sigma prime was for the ultra-wide aperture of f/1.8. You will pay big bucks for a zoom lens (ref) with such a large aperture and often the zoom isn't necessary. The physics here are pretty simple - the larger the hole, the more light can get in.
- Underexpose your shots. This may seem counter-intuitive, but as long as you are shooting in RAW, you can always pull up the brightness later. Moreover, slightly underexposing an image won't result in as much of a loss of information as overexposing (ref). The reason to underexpose is that will mean the shutter speed can be faster - this delivering a crisper shot in low lighting.
- For faces in a small room, use a Lightscoop. This is a great little accessory that is on my wish list of things to try. It simply redirects the light onto a wall behind you before hitting the faces - this preventing the washed out look and overly bright foreground. However, this particular trick can only be used in a small room where the flash will reflect and be useful.
Your camera does NOT know best. Have you ever watched a football game or some other stadium event at night and you see [all the flashes in the crowd going off]? Those flashes are going off because the camera is in automatic mode but clearly, the flash is not going to make a difference in such a larger setting. If you know the venue you're shooting in is too large to be effective for a flash, turn it off. Conversely, flash is very useful in situations where your camera thinks flash is unnecessary - like portraits in shade or daylight. If you shoot in the conditions without a flash, you will have a lot of shadows on the face:
Using flash, however, will even out the skin tone and eliminate shadows. I usually adjust the intensity of my flash down 1 or 2 stops under these conditions:
Third, adjust your white balance. The color of light changes dramatically from place to place and time of day. Often we are unaware of this because humans don't actively notice these subtle changes. Your pictures - especially portraits, can be dramatically enhanced by adjusting the white balance:
Your camera probably offers many white balance modes - but I recommend just shooting in AWB (Auto White Balance) because as long as you're shooting in RAW, you can change the white balance later in post processing when you can compare the different settings on a large screen. Additionally, picking a specific white balance to shoot in may make things more difficult - let's say you're shooting in a park. You do some shots in the shade so you set your white balance to Shade. Then, later, you go and shoot some action shots in the sunlight but forget to set your WB to Daylight. Something like this is easy enough to do and now you've probably made more work for yourself later on since in auto some of those pictures may not have needed adjustment at all. Keep in mind that white balance is especially important with portraits - often a warmer light will make faces and skin tones look more natural (as you can see above).
I hope that this series of examples has given you a better appreciation of the importance of light in photography. The more you think about these things in your composition before shooting, the better and more professional your pictures will turn out. The most important thing, however, is to always have fun!