Tips: Photographing With Available Light
Flower Homage, Thailand
Photographer Catherine Karnow shares tips on how to create successful photographs in a variety of light situations, highlighting her own experiences with this gallery of photos taken while traveling or on assignment.
Often, the key to shooting at night is really to shoot at dusk. For this photograph, shooting at dusk yielded both a magical blue sky and a lovely glow from the candles nestled among the marigolds.
I love dusk more than any other time of day for shooting. It’s that dreamy in-between time that is neither day nor night, that magic moment suspended in time. Dusk is the most romantic time of day. By shooting at dusk, you can preserve that moment of romance.
The length of the dusk can vary according to location and season—long dusks during summer in Scandinavia, short dusks at the Equator. The key to shooting at dusk is to set up early, because you never know exactly when the magic time will be. It could be just as it’s starting to get dark, when there’s still a glow in the sky from the setting sun. Or it could be well after it seems too dark, when your LCD screen may reveal that the sky is still a deep royal blue. —Catherine Karnow
Photo Tip: When shooting at dusk, set up ahead of time and shoot until it’s actually night—you never know when the best time will be for the situation you’re capturing.
Blue Truck, Hong Kong
Midday Light: Cities
I shoot a lot of cities for National Geographic Traveler, and unlike in landscape photography, which can be tricky under a noonday sun, there’s a lot to shoot in a city when the sun is high. For example, when shooting a city I look for the sun bouncing off of glass and steel buildings. This kind of light can only be captured in the middle of the day—early and late the streets are like canyons. Whenever I see those blinding spots of sun shining off of windows, I look across the street. When in Hong Kong, I was thrilled to see that the historic Central Police Station was lit with crazy patterns of light bouncing off the skyscraper opposite. —Catherine Karnow
Photo Tip: When shooting in cities, look for the sun hitting steel and glass buildings and look across the street; the light can often be alive with interesting patterns.
Outdoor Yoga, Santa Monica
Midday Light: People
In my yoga class one morning, I heard that the Third Street Promenade—a pedestrian thoroughfare in Santa Monica, California—would be filled with yoga devotees. What a great way to capture yoga fever in its mecca! The only problem was the time of day; it would happen under a noonday sun, which is harsh and unforgiving in the Los Angeles area, where there’s often not a cloud in the sky.
But I have many solutions for shooting in the middle of the day, when the light is "bad." When shooting people at this time, the key is to avoid sun on faces, which minimizes squinting eyes, high-contrast shadows, and especially the shadows created by hats. I was lucky that the yoga practitioners were facing away from the sun, but even so, I made sure to keep the light soft on their faces by coming around and shooting them backlit, avoiding even direct sun on their sides. —Catherine Karnow
Photo Tip: When shooting in midday sun, backlight your subjects to avoid harsh light directly on faces.
Slickrock Trail, Moab
I had gone to Moab, Utah, to shoot the famous red rocks of Slickrock Canyon, a popular place for mountain biking. Of course, I was obsessed with showing how red the rocks are and so I set out to shoot in the late afternoon sun, when they would be at their reddest. But I was caught in a sudden downpour, which ended up giving me a wonderful surprise: The storm left behind a blue light and a rock surface that glistened with wetness. All of a sudden the rocks truly looked slick. I had wanted to shoot the place the way everyone sees it, but bad weather gave me an original and surprising way of showing the place. —Catherine Karnow
Photo Tip: Except for lightning, never be afraid of bad weather; this is often when you get the most remarkable light, as well as surprising and unexpected photographs.
Low Light With Movement
I was on assignment for National Geographic Traveler and went to shoot this trendy, sixties-style bar called Ne Nous Fachons Pas in the steamy Pigalle neighborhood of Paris. My goal was to make one good shot, not shoot a million photos all over the bar. When I walked in, I was looking for people and a scene that evoked the sixties. I saw this guy who looked straight out of a Jean-Luc Godard film, with his square jaw and long sideburns. I asked if I could shoot him and his friend. They agreed and I bought them a round of drinks. My goal in bars and restaurants is to capture the natural ambiance of the place. I only use a flash if there’s dancing. But my goal is also, as in any photo, to get a moment. This is difficult when there is very low light. A moment is caught action, and action will be blurry in low light.
Here is my trick. I usually use a tripod, since the shutter speed might be as low as 1/4 second. I watch the action carefully. I wait for a frozen moment. For example, I was watching the Godard guy. He would freeze when he was listening. But that wasn’t a caught moment, because he was just still like a statue. Then I noticed that when he took a drag on his cigarette, he would freeze for a split second, just enough time for me to click the shutter, and happily, also get the red ember of the cigarette. That night, I only got two frames, but all it took was one for publication. —Catherine Karnow
Photo Tip: Watch the action closely for when the subject freezes, and then shoot. You may only get a couple of frames, but one of those will be your shot.
Traveling Opera Audience, China
Natural Overhead Light
I was stuck in Wenchow, China, south of Shanghai, one clammy March, when a traveling opera troupe came into the village. Every day I photographed the opera: onstage, backstage, and even the audience, who were so enthralled by the show they never noticed that I was aiming the camera at them. I was lucky that the temple in which this took place was lit by giant skylights—or maybe it was open to the sky, I can’t remember. In any case, I was able to capture the audience with a stunning light coming down on their faces. And since they were looking up at the stage, those faces were lit perfectly. I am often in search of natural overhead light in my shooting, especially when I’m shooting in bright light in the middle of the day. This type of light is heavenly. —Catherine Karnow
Photo Tip: Look for natural overhead light when shooting; this beautiful type of light solves the problems created by working in dark spaces.
It’s a challenge to shoot on trains because you’re often pointing your camera directly at the source of light, the windows. But I love backlight, the source of light coming directly into the camera. The key is to expose for the face tones—or whatever your subject is—and then let the source of light, in this case the big train window, overexpose (otherwise the subject will become a silhouette). It’s true that there is absolutely no detail in that big white space. But I’ve never had a photo editor tell me that a backlit photo can’t be published. In this shot of the people on the train, the light gives the image an ethereal quality, and the lack of detail emphasizes a sense of reverie, a dream-like state (something that is also accentuated by the small child sleeping.) —Catherine Karnow
Photo Tip: Don’t be afraid to point your camera directly at a source of light and let the light overexpose—just be sure to expose for the subject.
Clouds and Sun
This is the kind of light that’s magnificent for landscapes. While shooting a story on the lands of Prince Charles, I stood on top of a high hill waiting for the right light. Even though the changing light was beautifully dramatic, I had to wait for almost three hours for the sun and clouds to be just so. (I know it was this long because my parking meter was about to run out!) Finally, perfection: The peninsula is in sun, its strong shape further emphasized by shadows in the bottom left and right of the frame. The white waves are in sun, and the rest of the image is scattered clouds and sun. It’s this contrast of sun and clouds, this changing light, that gives drama to an already spectacular landscape. —Catherine Karnow
Photo Tip: Shoot landscapes in dramatic light, but know that you may have to wait hours for the sun and clouds to be in the perfect position.
Fishing Boat, Ha Long Bay
Mist and Fog
I was doing a story on Ha Long Bay in northern Vietnam, and my goal was to depict old Asia. I grew up in Hong Kong in the 1960s, so I’m very nostalgic for that time. I wanted my photos to be like the Chinese brush paintings my mother used to paint. I wanted fog. Bright sun and blue skies wouldn’t be right. I couldn’t believe my luck when the mist and fog never lifted for two straight days! I was able to shoot for hours and hours.
Photographs are effective when they convey emotion. Although content and subject matter are key, the light is everything. I can’t think of a better quality of light to have than that which appears with mist and fog, in this case helping to express the nostalgia of a timeless scene in Ha Long Bay. —Catherine Karnow
Photo Tip: Instead of wishing for a sunny day and “beautiful weather,” notice how elements like mist and fog can be effective in conveying emotion, especially nostalgia.
Tribal Dancers, Western Samoa
Creative Light Sources
I was at an arts festival in western Samoa and wanted to photograph tribal dancers somewhere other than on the stage under big theater lights. I didn’t have any strobes or hot lights with me so I had to think creatively. One night I was driving down the dark road to my hotel, and a truck was coming at me with his high beams on. That's it, I thought, I’ll light the dancers with truck headlights! I found a willing pickup truck owner and a field with a slight slope up the bank from the road, so when parked just so, the truck’s headlights would point slightly upward at the dancers' faces, not at their stomachs. We turned on the truck’s high beams, and the dancers performed. I had a purposely slow shutter speed to show motion, and then got my shot when one dancer froze briefly. —Catherine Karnow
Photo Tip: Be creative with your source of light. You don’t need fancy flashes, strobes, or theater lighting when you can use car lights, flashlights, or any number of other existing sources of lighting.
Icon Painter, Romania
For classic subjects, I love using sidelight; it is timeless and gentle. I was lucky that 87-year-old Romanian painter Maria Poenaru worked in front of the big window in her bedroom, where I could capture the way the light illuminated her from the side. When I’m doing a portrait of someone, I’ll often ask the subject to pose by the window or the side of a door. If it’s bright outside, the light can be especially lovely. —Catherine Karnow
Photo Tip: When doing a portrait, you can never go wrong if you bring someone over to a window or door and shoot them in sidelight. This classic light is especially appropriate for timeless subjects.
San Miguel Mission, Santa Fe
Early Morning or Late Afternoon
The best light for shooting is early in the morning and late in the day, which may not be the most convenient times on your schedule. Instead of wandering around aimlessly at dawn and before sunset, I usually scout my locations ahead of time and know where I want to go. The light changes fast, so I want to be in the right place at the right time. Having said that, if I don’t have a particular place in mind, I always make it a point to get up early and shoot late anyway, because everything looks so much more beautiful at these times. This is especially true of a place that’s bright and sunny all day. The early and late light in such locations will be sharp and golden. In the American Southwest, for instance, shooting early and late in the day is essential—the low sun brings out the clay-red colors of the land and architecture so beautifully. —Catherine Karnow
Photo Tip: I dislike rules, which is one reason I’m a photographer, but if there is one true rule in photography, it’s that you really must shoot early and late in the day to get the good light.
Billboard Model, Sunset Boulevard
I don’t shoot with a flash very often, preferring a more natural look. But when I had to do a guidebook on Los Angeles, I realized I would never complete the book in six weeks if I only shot in good light—early and late in the day. I also realized that using flash in the middle of the day was perfect, especially in Hollywood, where the aesthetic often has an artificial quality (see photo above). For this kind of fill flash, I set the output to high, which does more than subtly fill in a bit of harsh shadows. —Catherine Karnow
Photo Tip: When shooting, let your use of flash complement both your subject and your personal expression. Sometimes fill flash should be set on very high for an artificial flash look.
Sunset, Nile River
I was on a boat on the Nile, on holiday actually, and enjoying the sunset on the pool deck, cocktail in hand, like a normal person. As we watched, the sky took on these stunning tones, and I ran to get my camera.
We all love to watch a beautiful sunset, but I almost never bother shooting them. After all, no matter how beautiful the sky, you could be anywhere. Even a sunset on the water, or in the mountains, rarely gives you any sense of place. But there on the Nile, the cruise boat gleaming white in the last light was just the element I needed to make a shot that had both beauty and a sense of place. —Catherine Karnow
Photo Tip: When shooting a sunset, 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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