Words Steve Bavister Photos Peter Bargh
Every artist uses raw materials. Potter require clay, a stone-mason must have stone and painters need watercolours or oils. But what about photography - what's our raw material? The answer is, of course, light. You can have all the cameras, lenses, accessories and film in the world, but without light you won't get very far. And in the same way other artists fashion their raw materials, photographers have to learn to work with light to be successful. Indeed, as many readers know, the word photography derives from Greek and means painting with light, which is still an excellent way of describing what we do.
The most astonishing thing about light is its sheer diversity - sometimes harsh, sometimes soft, sometimes neutral, sometimes orange, sometimes blue, sometimes plentiful, sometimes in short supply.
Given that light is the single most important element in a photograph, it's astonishing how few photographers pay any real attention to it. Most of the time they're so eager to press the shutter release that they don't even bother to give it a second thought.
In this feature we will look at the ways daylight can vary, what subjects each lighting type is good for and how you can improve on the light that's already there.
Of all the types of natural light, the most popular has to be a bright sunny day, and it certainly has a lot going for it. It's ideal for many areas of photography, bringing subjects such as landscape, architecture, travel and sport to life. Light levels are high, giving faster shutter speeds and small apertures, and colour saturation, especially with a slow film loaded, can be stunning.
However, strong sunlight around noon is harsh, producing bleached out colours, excessive contrast and deep, downward shadows, Which is why, whenever possible, you should do what professional photographers do and shun the middle of the day - putting your film to better use before 10am and after 4pm, when the lower angle of the sun produces longer, more photogenic shadows.
In winter months, the sun sits low in the sky all through the day, producing a characteristic raking light that is ideal for bringing textures and patterns to life.
Another point to bear in mind is that the colour of light at noon, although generally neutral in tone, can sometimes suffer from an unpleasantly cool, blue tint. The nearer you are to sunrise and sunset, the more orange, and more attractive, the light will be.
But bright sunlight isn't right for every kind of subject. Pictures of people in particular can disappoint if the light's too harsh - producing dark shadows under the eyes, nose and chin which are most unflattering.
However the situation can be alleviated very easily, by softening the shadows either with a blip of fill-in flash or by bouncing light back with a reflector.
Of all the accessories available, a reflector is easily to most versatile and under-rated. You can buy one, or very easily produce one yourself. In fact, all you need to start with is a sheet of plain white paper or card. Position it close to your subject and you'll see an immediate softening.
For something more permanent, try covering a thin sheet of plywood or hardboard with white paper or, for a more reflective surface, aluminium foil.
There's a simple rule where reflectors are concerned: the bigger they are, the softer the light. Some professionals use reflectors that are 2m high and 1m wide. However these aren't very portable, which is why the collapsing types made by Lastolite are so popular.
Fill-in flash is a technique that seems to strike terror into the heart of many photographers. But with a modern camera the technique is a doddle. In fact, on many compacts and SLRs fill-in flash is now handled automatically for you - with the camera's metering system measuring the ambient light and then giving a short burst of flash to give an overall balanced exposure that looks perfectly natural.
If you have an older camera, where you need to operate the flash manually, simply read off the film speed of the flash two stops higher than it really is. So if you're using ISO100 film, refer to the ISO400 scale and use the suggested aperture for the subject distance you're shooting. This will fool the flashgun into giving a low-powered burst of flash that will lift exposure without overwhelming it.
Using a reflector or fill-in flash also allows you to experiment with the position of your subject in relation to the sun, making a wide range of creative results possible.
As a general rule, you don't want the sun behind you when shooting people, because your subject will be staring straight into the sun and squinting unpleasantly when it's too bright.
Side-lighting, with the sun hitting your subject from just one side, gives much more tone and modelling, especially if you use your reflector to bounce light back into the shaded side of the face.
For even more dramatic results, try shooting into-the-sun, or contre-jour, as it's generally known. If you leave things to the meter, you'll get a dramatic silhouette. Or if you use your reflector or flashgun you'll leave them surrounded by a golden halo of light, but with a normally exposed face. Absolutely beautiful!
A far better kind of light for portraits is the type you get on a bright sunny day with light cloud. As the clouds pass over the sun, they soften and diffuse it, producing a very pleasing light that's directional, but not harsh - very much like that produced by a studio softbox. The resulting soft shadows make the light perfect for a wide range of subjects, including landscapes and many types of nature work. It's the sort that wedding photographers long for, allowing them to retain detail in both the highlights of the bride's dress and the shadows of the groom's suit. The only real disadvantage is that it doesn't offer the same degree of colour saturation that the brightest sunlight does, but it makes up for this in terms of texture and tonality.
Days when the sun is covered by thicker cloud produce a very diffused light that can result in pictures lacking bite - because there are few shadows. This is not the weather to shoot buildings or landscapes, but used carefully and matched to the right subject it can be wonderful. This is the time to get out and shoot still-lifes and close-ups, especially of subjects such as flowers. If you're to record the maximum amount of detail in a close-up you need soft light such as this.
For other pictorial subjects, you really need bright colours to ensure the shot works. Look out for subjects with primary colours such as red, yellow or blue. You may also need to fit a warm-up filter, such as an 81A or 81B, to counteract the cool light that's prevalent on such days.
The worst light of all comes on days when it's heavily overcast. There are no shadows at all, light levels are poor, and the light is often extremely blue in tone. This is not a good time to take pictures - you might just as well toss your film straight into the bin. On such days you'd be better staying at home and editing your pictures or just take time out to enjoy the scenery looking for good locations to shoot when the light's better.