The Bastards Book of Photography

An open-source guide to working with light by Dan Nguyen

The Quality of Light and Shadow

Not all kinds of light are equal

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View on Flickr Taken with Canon EOS 5D Mark II / EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM on Nov 10, 2011 at 05:17 PM
Two ferries passing by on the Hudson River, as seen in the evening from Battery Park.

Light is the one resource that can be easily and cheaply exploited by any photographer with any camera to produce a beautiful photo. Before you get caught up in the infinite other details of how your camera works, it’s more important to fully appreciate the role of light.

Ignoring the fact that light is what makes photos even possible, the quality and direction of it is the great differentiator between a good and a “meh” photo. On a day that is bright and clear and beautiful to everyone else, I may not bring out my camera because the light – while great for life and other activities – is bland to me. But on a rainy day, I’ll happily trudge out with a bulky camera; the uneven light created by the layers of clouds and the sun breaking through or even the reflection of headlights against puddles is far more interesting to me.

Why does my camera’s flash make my photos look terrible?

The main reason is because it’s on your camera.

Let’s pretend the camera gets everything else right, such as calculating the proper amount of flash given the distance to your subject. But no matter how well it does, that flash unit is always at the same height and same position between you and your subject.

I don’t know if the light from your camera’s basic flash is inherently terrible; it may just be that we’ve all seen it thousands and thousands of times – because every on-camera flash has that same effect – to the point that the artistic part of our brain recognizes it like a signature and then rolls its figurative eyes.

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View on Flickr Taken with Canon PowerShot S100 / 5.2-26.0 mm on Feb 25, 2012 at 11:35 PM
Because it was nighttime, I tried to illuminate the scene atop the City Museum of St. Louis. It does its job of illuminating the subject, but the light looks too artificial and out of place to me.
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View on Flickr Taken with Canon PowerShot S100 / 5.2-26.0 mm on Feb 25, 2012 at 11:45 PM
I turned off the flash in this version. The subject may be a little underexposed, but the photo lets the ambient light of the City Museum flow through.

Pro photographers invest more on lighting equipment than the average person spends on cameras in a lifetime. This is why the Vogue cover spread will have such meticulous highlights and accents in a way that you and your camera’s humble flash will never be able to replicate.

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View on Flickr Taken with Canon PowerShot S90 / 6.0-22.5 mm on Oct 27, 2010 at 10:37 PM
If your photos don’t look as dramatic as scenes in a movie, it’s because you lack this kind of lighting power.

So that’s why the majority of this guide is focused on not using your flash. I’m going to assume that you won’t even spend $100 on a cheap, external flash unit. So you’re going to learn how to exploit all the light sources not fixed atop your camera.

The easy starting point is the sun. Except in terms of overall output and being necessary for human existence, the lighting principles that apply to sun applies to all other light sources.

How is light affected by the sun’s position?

Let’s start with the obvious case: the sun is shining directly onto your subject. The subject, if it’s a lifeform with eyes, may squint. And its shadow will be behind it, pointing away from you.

If your goal is to get a clear, descriptive image of your subject, then this is great. This is why cameras use flash; to mimic the effect of the sun’s direct light to expose the details facing you.

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View on Flickr Taken with Sony NEX-7 / E 16mm F2.8 on May 11, 2012 at 06:40 PM
Friday evening music in Fort Greene, Brooklyn

What if the sun is behind the subject?

This time, the photographer will be the one who squints. The subject’s will fall towards you.

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View on Flickr Taken with Canon EOS 5D Mark II / EF85mm f/1.2L II USM on Jul 16, 2009 at 06:50 PM
The Jersey buildings allow only a shaft of the sun’s light to fall directly on the Hudson, just as a sailboat passes by. Unfortunately, there’s a slight lens flare due to the dirtiness of my lens as it looks directly at the sun.

In fact, the entire subject itself may be just an upright shadow, or a silhouette. This is because whatever light that illuminates it is far less than the sunlight that illuminates the rest of the background.

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View on Flickr Taken with Sony NEX-7 / E 24mm F1.8 ZA on Jun 13, 2012 at 01:17 AM
There’s no sun in this picture, but the taxi headlights are so bright compared to the pedestrian that he/she is rendered as a walking shadow.

Sometimes silhouettes, which reduce a subject to an outline, can be more interesting than the details of the subject. Seeing the actual color and design of this runner’s clothing, for instance, would distract from the color palette of the sunset.

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View on Flickr Taken with Sony NEX-7 / E 16mm F2.8 on Apr 17, 2012 at 07:16 PM
Jogging along the West Side Highway

However, if you are trying to get a clear picture of the subject, this is where you have to use a flash (referred to in this context as “fill flash”) to make up for the sun’s absence.

When is the best time for daylight?

The window of a couple hours after sunrise and before sunset is often considered the most useful time for daylight. A good rule of thumb is to hold your fist out toward the sun but just below it. How many fists between the sun and the horizon is a rough estimate to how many hours of usable daylight you have.

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View on Flickr Taken with Canon EOS 5D Mark II / EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM on Jan 16, 2011 at 12:14 PM
The famous Flatiron building in Manhattan. The sun is shining right at me, casting the pedestrians’ shadows in my direction. But notice that the sun is so low that the right side of the Flatiron is in total shadow.

What happens during noon then?

The sun’s light is at is strongest, creating the most contrast between shadow and light, usually to the point of being too harsh.

Very few photographers will elect to schedule a photoshoot at noon because the light is difficult to work with and generally unflattering for portraiture.

If you are shooting in full automatic, your camera will have problems finding the right balance between the extreme lights and shadows, and it’ll often leave your colors and details washed out. It may seem counterintuitive, but this is another time to use your camera’s flash, so that your subject isn’t in sharp contrast to the sun.

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View on Flickr Taken with Canon EOS 5D Mark II / EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM on Feb 5, 2012 at 05:16 PM
The brightest light in a dark room can have the same effect as direct noon light, as far as the camera is concerned. In either situation, the camera can’t capture both the intensity of the spotlight and the dark details in the rest of the scene. This leaves areas, like the model’s face here, washed out.

How do clouds affect daylight?

Immensely. On an overcast day, the harsh light of the sun is effectively broken up into a light source that envelopes the earth, providing a soft, pleasing light. There’s less light overall, but what’s there is generally even and pleasing and soft. Photographers who invest in powerful lighting systems also spend a great deal of money to buy a variety of fabrics and material to place over those lights, in order to capture this diffused effect.

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View on Flickr Taken with Canon EOS 5D Mark II / EF35mm f/2 on Sep 29, 2011 at 02:49 PM
Whatever this young woman was writing in her journal, she was intent on writing it as long as she could before this massive storm hit. Minutes after she finally got up and left, the downpour fell on me and my camera stopped working for awhile.

On a partially cloudy day, no matter if I have nothing at all in mind to shoot, I’ll keep my camera out and powered on because so many random objects and scenes – otherwise dull during a clear day – take on unexpectedly new dimension.

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View on Flickr Taken with Canon EOS 5D / EF35mm f/2 on Sep 27, 2011 at 03:30 PM
I remember this day as having particularly beautiful light from the partial cloud cover. It so happened that hundreds of pilots had planned a protest on Wall Street during the time when Occupy Wall Street was gaining momentum. This is so far my most viewed photo on Flickr ever.

What about when there is no sun?

Everything I’ve written so far also applies to indoors and nighttime photography, there’s just much less of it to work with.

This requires being creative about light. In many situations, you may not have the option of using flash or of moving the existing light sources around.

So position your subject. If the bar has only one nearby wall lamp, put yourself in between your subject and that lamp. If there’s a nearby TV screen, jukebox, use that light as another source.

If you can’t move either your subject or the light sources, then you might just have to turn on your flash. Or look for better opportunities to shoot.

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View on Flickr Taken with Canon EOS 5D / on Nov 9, 2008 at 07:56 PM
Musician Kaki King at Webster Hall. Most decent venues spend a fortune on lighting equipment, so why would you try to light the stage with a flash unit that probably cost $5 to assemble? Learn to use what’s there (and save fellow concert-goers some annoyance).

You may take a lot of bland photos early on. Some of them will be out of inexperience, and so for the rest of this book, we’ll learn how to use your camera to get the most out of the available light. But many bland photos will be a result of a simple fact of physics and life: the right light was never there to begin with. So rather than kick yourself – or blow your lifesavings on a new camera – just be ready for the next time the sun shows up.

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View on Flickr Taken with Canon EOS 5D Mark II / EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM on May 12, 2012 at 09:00 AM
Shadows can help obscure the irrelevant parts of a photo. Here, in this product shot for Proof NY, I got lucky in capturing a moment in which the model’s leg is highlighted.
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View on Flickr Taken with Canon EOS 5D Mark II / EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM on Dec 27, 2010 at 12:04 AM
The ambient light from the streetlights isn’t enough to light this blizzard scene. Luckily, another (working) car came by.
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View on Flickr Taken with Sony NEX-7 / E 24mm F1.8 ZA on Jun 10, 2012 at 01:50 AM
It’s 2AM on a weekend, the best time to get work done on the Brooklyn Bridge, apparently. The reflected flashlights are enough to properly expose the construction workers against the city backdrop.

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