In my previous article, I mention that external flash unit and reflector are the two most important accessories for portrait shots. However, not everyone has access these two items when shooting photos. It is possible that either people can’t afford them, do not want to carry too many items around, or the circumstance does not allow them to be used. If you find yourself without a flash or reflector, you can still take great photos if you know how to work with available light. Available light, also known as ambient light, refers to the light source that is a part of the environment and not explicitly supplied by the photographer. It could be the natural light from the sun, or artificial light from the lamps, fire or any other light-emitting object.
The biggest problem when shooting outdoor is the sunlight. Although the sun provides plenty of light to illuminate everything for you, strong, direct light, also known as harsh light, tend to leave shadows with hard edge on the subjects. This is especially unappealing for portrait shots and makes editing difficult since part of the face may be too bright and part of it may be too dark. Normally this can be alleviated by using one or more reflectors to bounce sunlight from different angles, removing the shadows and brightening up the subject more evenly. But since we are trying to shoot without using any accessories, we’ll have to be a little clever and get around the harsh light the sun sets upon us.
The best way to avoid harsh light is, as simple as it may be, by not stepping into it. That is, you should shoot your photos either in the morning or in the afternoon when the sunlight comes down at an angle, which creates large areas of shade with buildings or structures where you can position your subject so he or she is not directly exposed to sunlight. While positioning your subject, you should pay attention to the surrounding and look for any objects that may bounce light at your subject’s direction and use them to brighten up your subject. You also need to adjust your camera’s setting to ensure proper exposure for the photos by adjusting aperture, shutter speed and ISO.
Another way to avoid harsh light is to wait for the cloud to block out the sun. It would be even better to shoot photos on a cloudy day since the cloud, if thick enough, would act as diffuser and turn the harsh sunlight into soft light. This trick is most useful if you are going to shoot at locations where no shades are available.
The biggest challenge at a indoor setting is the lack of sufficient lighting, which is why photographers almost always shoot with flash when indoor. If you do not have a flash, you will have to adjust your camera’s setting to the extreme to compensate for the lack of light: make your aperture as wide as you can, use the slowest shutter speed within the acceptable range, and use high enough ISO to capture as much light as needed. You should know that photos taken this way may not be as sharp or clear as those taken with flash. This is because slow shutter speed may cause very visible motion blur and camera blur, and high ISO tend to result in significant graininess in the photos. Also, if possible you should use a prime lens rather than zoom lens because prime lens typically has wider aperture, thus allows in more light than zoom lens of the same focal length.
On the other hand, if you’re lucky, the building you are in may have enough windows that allow sunlight in to sufficiently illuminate your subject. The photo below was taken at Kintetsu Mall in San Francisco during a recent visit. The mall has several large skylights on the roof that provide sufficient lighting on the subject, and because the skylights have ground glass, the light was very soft and illuminates the subject’s face very evenly even though it was very sunny outside.
Although accessories like external flash and reflectors may greatly help your photography, one must understand that the ability to improvise is also an important trait of photographers. A photographer must be able to assess the situation, draw up a plan with whatever is available, and do his or her best to get that shot. Sometimes a shot taken after overcoming so many difficulties tells a better story than a perfect one taken with all best gears available, and that is what photographers do — tell a great story with a photo.