Available Light

Today's post comes from the book Available Light: Photographic Techniques for Using Existing Light Sources by Don Marr. It is available from Amazon.com and other fine retailers.

These shots were created in an alcove near the parking lot at a all—glamorous, I know. The sun bounced off the pavement to the right of the camera. To the left of the camera was a dark doorway. The light on her face was coming strongly from the side and below. This is the first type of open-shade light: open shade side lighting. You really can’t lose with this kind of light. It’s soft and directional and provides flattering results for most subjects. There is a nice light ratio (difference in exposure) from the light side of her face to the shadow side.

Here, we see open-shade side lighting. The warm-colored walls helped maintain a nice skin color on the shadow side of her face.

Here is an important aspect to keep in mind: The open-shade area you choose to shoot in will have an effect on the color temperature of the shot, especially in the shadow areas. By setting your white balance to the shade setting on your digital camera, you will be able to correct the cool color temperature of open shade to a more neutral color. The camera will correct for the light, but it won’t correct for the environment that your subject is standing in. In this shot, the warm-colored walls helped to keep the shadow side of her face warmly colored. If these walls had been blue, however, the shadow side of her face would have had a definite cool color cast.

For the next shot, the model faced the dark doorway with her back to the sunlit pavement. This created the second type of open shade light: open-shade backlighting. This type of light creates a nice wrap of light around the edge of the subject. It can be difficult to meter this type of light, though.

Strong backlighting fools the in-camera light meter. It tries to average out the exposure, resulting in underexposure on the subject’s face.

This strongly backlit situation, with all of the sunlight bouncing off the pavement behind her, fooled the camera’s meter. It chose an average exposure to try to tone down all of that bright light, which resulted in underexposure on the model’s face. To correct for the underexposure on her face, I set my camera’s metering mode to spot metering. I took a few test shots to assure that this technique gave me a correct exposure on her face, noted the exposure, then turned the camera to the manual mode and shot at the noted exposure. This way, if I composed a shot where the subject was not completely centered, I could still be assured of a good exposure on her face.

In backlit situations, use spot metering, initially, to meter your subject’s face, but shoot in the manual mode. Then you can step back and choose the composition you want without worrying about the backlight affecting your exposure. You can be assured of a correct exposure on your subject’s face even if you decide to off-center them in your composition.

For the final shot, the subject’s face is correctly exposed and the background is overexposed to white. The white light from behind wrapped around her face to frame it nicely. There was another feature in this glamorous mall alcove: a recessed light in the ceiling. I had her stand under this light. This lit her hair on top and helped fill in the light on her face a bit.

This is open-shade backlighting. The subject's face was correctly exposed using spot metering.


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