Monday, 24 March 2014

INSIDER TIPS: Controlling Natural Light

Lots has been written about natural light and artificial light. I believe there is a time and place for each of them. My initial Frozen Berry Smoothie was taken with a big beautiful soft box. Artificial lighting gives me absolute control, any time of the day, in any weather AND it is much brighter than indoor lighting, which allows me to use the lowest ISO and if I want to I can still hand-hold. It's great!

But there's something magical about using the real thing. Natural light has a beautiful lively quality.

AND then there are those days, when you think you've done your shot, packed away your lighting, you're eating your frozen berry smoothie, it's melting in your hands, when suddenly you realise: THIS is the shot I want! NOW! QUICK! Grab the camera! And then? Then, natural lighting is the only way!

What I'm realising is, that when you choose to use natural light, controlling it just a little bit, can make the difference between a good shot and a blagh shot!

A lot of it comes down to choosing your window.

Lets start at the beginning. You know if you give kids too many sweets and they end up with so much energy that they're bouncing off the walls? Well that's light for you! Light is energy that moves in a straight line and bounces, or reflects off everything that's in it's way!

Have you ever played snooker/pool/billiards or even squash? Seen the ball bounce off the sides in different angles? Light bounces off surfaces in the same way. Imagine millions of white ping pong balls bouncing around you at high speed and all those ping pong balls are coming from one place - your window... Now you get the picture!

A problem with the light bouncing everywhere is that light picks up colour along the way, so if it's bouncing off a blue curtain, you might be photographing blue yoghurt. Pull back those curtains and try to choose a window in a relatively neutrally painted room. If you don't want green in your eggs, or in your baby's face don't photograph near a green wall, some of the evil little light particles WILL fetch you some green from that wall. Also remember that if the light is making it's way through some leafy trees to get to your window, you'll be sitting with leafy green images. Chop down the tree, or simply choose a new window.

Choose one window to work at and make sure all the other windows in the room are blackened out. Don't let any extra stray light balls in!

The bigger the window the more space for more light "balls" to come bouncing into your shot and bouncing up and down and around and everywhere and the more difficult it is to control the lighting in your shot. The smaller the window, the more directional the light is.

That said, sometimes you want that extra light - the bigger your window, the more the light will have the possibility of creeping around your object and lighting it from all sides. This is a soft light, with soft shadows and makes for a slightly flatter, but subtler shot.

If you're wanting a moodier, more contrasty shot, cover up part of your window with black card, so that you make a narrow passage for the light to pass through. There'll be less bouncing all over the place, with stronger more defined shadows.

It's only by playing around that you can get a feel for how you would like to control the light. I recently realised that I don't like the window to go all the way to the ground, but prefer my windowsill to be at the same level or slightly above my table. I find that too much light coming from below is affects my shots. Fussy, I know!

Sunlight coming in directly through the window, is just too bright and harsh (Those ping pong balls will sting you!).

You have 3 options: weather, time, or diffuser.

So either you need to choose a cloudy day, a time of day where the sunlight is not bouncing directly in, or you need to "diffuse" the light. This entails sticking a piece of white cloth or some tracing paper over the window, to soften the blow of the light. (Do it properly, no short cuts, you don't want it to come falling down in the middle of your shot - I speak from experience!)  I emphasise white cloth because I've made the mistake of grabbing a slightly off-white cloth before and it does show in the colour of the photo!


Because of the light bounce, placing a white card on the opposite side to the light will reflect softer white light back into your shot, beautifully. This way you control the light. You can softly, subtly add some definition into your dark shadows. You can capture the light and aim it in different directions. Use different sized card for different purposes - bigger card - more light. Placing the card at different angles will cause the light to reflect differently. Straight up isn't always what you need! Try different angles. Move the card closer or further away. Try using a piece of card covered in gold foil for some warm light. Or a small mirror to add a zing of a highlight just where you want it.

Natural light is constantly changing and varying in intensity - There comes a heavy cloud, change all your settings, ready? Aim... Oops, now it's light. - Remember to constantly check your light reading and adjust it accordingly. I like to find something in my shot that's the same tone (lightness or darkness) as a mid-grey card would be. I keep aiming the camera there, to check whether the light has changed, between every shot. Subtle differences can make all the difference.

One final check: If the room is quite dark - are your house lights still on? Quickly switch them off! Otherwise you'll have mixed lighting - yellow or green casts that you just can't fix. Yuck yuck yuck!

Now you're ready.

Let me know in the comments below if you found this post useful. Do you have other ways of controlling light?


Anonymous said...

Very interesting! I love the ping pong ball explanation... it all makes sense now!

Anonymous said...

You have a lovely, relaxed style of writing. Humourous.

Karené said...

I'm glad you found it useful!

Karené said...

Thank you!