Photographing in natural light does not mean you have no creative control over lighting. We look at seven ways in which you can shape available light to make outstanding images.
1. The silhouette eloquence
A silhouette is a dark shape of the subject against a contrasting backdrop. Strong, eloquent and delightfully simple, silhouettes are a great way of saying a lot by showing the least. To make one, align the subject against a plain, bright background, and using matrix/evaluative metering, underexpose a touch, taking care to exclude the source of light from your frame (unless it’s larger than the subject itself).
2. The high-key highlight
Want the opposite effect? A high-key image, which is a well-exposed subject against a plain white background, is the order of the day. If this aligns well with your idea of graphic elegance, align your subject against a plain and bright background, and overexpose generously using evaluative (matrix) metering, or overexpose a little using spot metering, taking care to define the spot on the subject.
3. The spot-lit show-stealer
For sheer drama and oomph, it’s hard to beat a spot-lit or low-key image. Reminiscent of a scene from a theatre stage, this arresting visual takes advantage of only the subject or a part of a frame being lit significantly more brightly than the rest of the frame. To harness the brightness differential and make a spectacular spot-lit image, expose for the subject by underexposing generously in evaluative (matrix) metering, or underexposing a little using spot metering, with the spot on the subject.
4. The back-lit blossom
Touchingly atmospheric and refreshing, a back-lit image is like the coffee of pictures – fragrant of freshness, and eminently evocative. To craft this wondrous visual, start early in the morning (or stay late in the evening) so the light is nice and low, align your subject against the light and a darkish background, and underexpose a little using evaluative (matrix) metering. Do not use spot metering unless you are willing to underexpose a lot more (which will be like feeding yourself from around the back of your head – rather circuitous and quite pointless).
5. The rim-lit alchemy
Fancy a silhouette with a golden lining? A rim-lit image is what you’re envisaging. Simple to a fault and markedly ethereal, a rim-lit image is the very epitome of exotic minimalism. To ‘zenify’ your image thus, ensure the light is low and directly behind the subject, and underexpose generously in evaluative (matrix) metering. We can’t recommend spot metering, because the precision with which you’ll need to define the spot on the brightest part of the frame is onerous, especially for a moving subject, and more often than not, you’ll end up defining the spot on the darker part of the animal, leading to a catastrophic overexposure of the image, and a diametrical diversion from your intended result.
6. The side-lit enigma
Sometimes, the best way to enhance the charm of your subject is by choosing side lighting. Use the deep shadows that obscure some facial features to introduce a delicious yin-yang duality to the frame, and compel the viewer to seek the mystery resident in the dark crevices of the contrasty image. To weave this effect, align yourself in front of the subject and perpendicular to the light, and expose for the highlights. This works well regardless of the subject’s orientation to the light (whether looking into or away), but the impact is high when the angle of the light is low.
7. The star-burst spectacle
The sun is our closest star, and isn’t it a wonder when we see it twinkle? Having a multi-pointed star shining cheerfully in your frame is an even greater joy than sporting a three-pointed one on your car (sorry, Merc owners!). And positioned strategically, it can add a lot of meaning to your visual. To craft this spectacle, align the sun against a feature in your foreground (such as a tree or a building) so it peeks out almost completely from behind it. And, crucially, choose a small aperture, anywhere between f/18 and f/22. The quality and number of points in the star will depend on your lens: some lenses deliver better star bursts than others. So if you’re buying or hiring a lens for landscape photography, you may want to consider how good it is at the job.
If you’re not clear about the differences in metering modes, consider joining one of our Art and Science of Photography Workshops.
To explore these techniques and learn more, join one of our Photography Tours.