A Cowgirls Guide to Getting Great Photos: Week 4

PART 4: LET THERE BE LIGHT

Light is the most essential ingredient for taking photos. The word photography actually derives from the Greek ‘painting with light”. Light comes into your camera through the aperture passes through various elements where it gets focussed on the recording media. If enough of it falls on it over the time the shutter is open, an image results. No light, no photograph.

Understanding light ranges from very simple premises to the very complicated, often involving all sorts of lighting gear. I often get asked, “Should I take a photography course” and my answer usually is, “Forget the photography course and take one on lighting techniques”.

One can either use natural light or create your own artificially. While there are overlaps in each situation generally speaking, the former is usually used for outdoor photography and the latter for a studio set up. As these blogs are all about getting the best pictures during your ranch stay I’m going to focus on how to understand and use natural light in your photographs. Luckily for you there is plenty of natural light to work with at the ranch.

There are three basic premises to understand about natural light: light direction, time of day and light diffusion.

Light Direction This refers to where your source of light (the sun) is coming from and there are essentially three aspects:

a)  Frontal Lighting. This is where the light source is positioned behind you. Traditionally the way we were all told to take our photos. This is because the light is distributed evenly on the subject matter and exposure settings (how much light you let into your camera) are more constant. This is often good for getting blue skies and bright colours and showing detail by eliminating shadows. But if used during the middle of the day can be have the tendency to wash things out and without shadows make things look quite flat. Plus if you have human subjects they will squint uncomfortably and you risk having your shadow enter the foreground of the shot.

front gates at black mountain ranch

black mountain ranch cattle drive

b) Sidelighting: This is where the light source is positioned at the side of your subject. (Though it doesn’t have to be exactly at 90 degrees). This will cast some shadows on the object and sometimes some highlights on the edges which is great for getting texture and a sense of three dimension. But you have to be very aware of what you are photographing and how these shadows may enhance or spoil the subject. The closer to 90 degrees the light is to your subject the more texture is revealed. I probably shoot most of my photos with some degree of sidelighting.

dude ranch pup

learning to rope at a colorado dude ranch

c)   Backlighting. This is where your light source is positioned behind your subject. Who amongst hasn’t been told, don’t shoot into the sun. Well you can forget that. Some of my most memorable photos have been taken by shooting into the the light source. But getting the exposure right can be quite tricky. Most cameras cannot cope with the extreme amounts of light and shadow. So you have to choose whether you want the subject exposed correctly (and the background overexposed) or the background exposed correctly (and the subject as silhouette). If you want the former and you don’t have a camera where you can manually control the exposure point the middle of your camera on the subject so that it fills up most of the frame and automatically exposes for that low light then half press the shutter button to ‘hold’ that exposure, quickly reposition your shot and take the picture. Alternatively if the subject is 10ft or less away you can use your on camera flash to ‘fill in’ with light. If you want the opposite just do the same but this time fill the frame with the sky first and your subject will be dark and underexposed, often creating a silhouette with halo effect edges.

dude ranch corral

wrangler

Time of Day

The middle of the day when the sun is directly above provides the brightest amount of light. This can be good for getting crisp sharp shots, but this intense light can be quite harsh and creates the most severe shadows (a recurring problem with photos of cowboy hat wearers). Usually we are chowing down on Bob’s delicious cooking for lunch during the sun’s zenith, but it doesn’t mean you can’t get a good shot during bright overhead sunshine. At this time of the day, trees can be your best friend. Use the shade that they create to your advantage and put your subjects in the even light there. Alternatively embrace the dappled textures the leaves can provide to scatter across your subjects.

dans cabin

early afternoon frontal light with dapples from the tree leaves

You may have hear the term ‘The Golden Hour’. This refers to the hour just after sunrise and just before sunset. It’s when the suns rays are the longest and at the lowest angle. This means the light has to travel through more of the earth’s atmosphere and the refraction of the light through more particles creates a warm rich look that many photographers swear by. It also means that the consequences of your light direction (front, side, back) are more relevant, though the shadows are much softer and the light more even on your subjects than in the middle of the day. The Golden Hour(s) will deliver some interesting options for your photos but you have to be ready as at this time of the day the light changes very quickly.

early morning fog

early morning fog

sunset light makes the corral wood give off a rosy glow

sunset light makes the corral wood give off a rosy glow

Light Diffusion

Diffusion scatters light, essentially making the light source broader and therefore softer. When clouds drift in front of the sun shadows get less distinct. Add fog and the shadows disappear. On overcast or foggy days the entire sky in effect becomes a single very broad source of light – nature’s softbox. So don’t think it’s only the sunny days when you should get your camera out. Many outdoor scenes look their best if you can find a halfway house. Strong direct sunlight can create too much contrast and heavy diffused light often means there is too little and your shot could be flat and dull. So if you are in no rush, try waiting for a break in the the sun or cloud when the light looks just perfect for what you want.

frontal light with cloud diffusion

frontal light with cloud diffusion

black mountain ranch

back lighting with dust diffusion

Shooting in low light

I usually get asked this most when it comes to taking pictures of fun times in the saloon. “How come my pictures look blurry” or “Why does the flash make everything look so bad” are the usual complaints. Well, unless you want to start adding studio type lights and losing the impromptu moment the best advice I can give is understand your cameras limitations and work within those.

Very simply what happens in low light is your camera tries to compensate for the lack of light by opening up the aperture (like the iris in your eye) and/or slowing the shutter speed (like the blink of your eye). Most basic cameras can’t open up that wide or shoot with a high speed shutter. This means the best shots will be the ones where you;

a)  put your subject next to the most amount of light. (Tip the right side of the saloon bar as you enter is brighter than the left)

b) focus on one subject in your shot (the more open the aperture is the less the ‘depth of field’ you get)

c) wait for your subjects to have a ‘freeze’ moment (i.e. are more still than at other times)

If you do have a camera where you can adjust the ISO setting manually ramp that up quite a bit (about 800 ISO or so) which will help the camera process the low light better. (More on apertures, shutters and ISO’s next week).

As for the on camera flash, well I never use it. The position of the flash on the camera just above your lens delivers the worst kind of direct harsh light. Unless you have a separate flash gun and can add light less directly or bounce it off the ceiling, turn the camera flash off and get yourself a beer.

Shallow depth of field, just the drinks in focus

Shallow depth of field, just the drinks in focus

dude ranch activities

Anna very still apart from her strumming hand

 

saloon

Try blending natural low light with emerging artificial light

And there can’t be a section on low light without a mention of sunsets. We all love ‘em but please remember this. It isn’t enough to get a great sky, you have to have an element in the shot that will provide both interest and a sense of place.

And there can’t be a section on low light without a mention of sunsets. We all love ‘em but please remember this. It isn’t enough to get a great sky, you have to have an element in the shot that will provide both interest and a sense of place.

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There are no hard and fast rules. So play with light. Think about where it’s coming from and what it will do to your scene or subject. If you’ve got strong shadows think about how your will incorporate or even make a feature of them. If you’ve got direct bright light think about what will benefit from that. Approaching storm clouds look great and more dramatic with bright front light on them. Educate yourself about light by simply observing it at different times of the day and in different situations. It’ll help you start to anticipate when the light may be good for what you want to photograph.

dude ranch activities

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Happy snapping!

Nicola

The Pikey Project

 

Next week – Understanding your camera better