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The Magic of External Lights

Earlier we learnt about the nature of light and how different types of light sources can have an impact on our photography. We also learnt how the quality and color tone of the light is impacted by the time of the day, which also has a bearing on our photography. Additionally, we have learnt how to use a flash or any other external (artificial) light source to add a new dimension to our photography. In this three parts series on external lighting we shall learn in detail how to use external lights in different situations to add an element of interest as well as to refine the results.

The Importance of Lighting in Photography

Street Portrait
Canon EOS 6D, EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM, ƒ/4.0, 105.0 mm, Shutter Speed 1/125, ISO 125, photo by Ramesh SA

Photography is essentially about carving something out of a sheer dark environment with the help of light, natural or otherwise. It is an allegorical statement that takes an example out of sculpting. But isn’t that true? Photography is sculpting. Just that instead of a hammer and a chisel to carve out a shape from a rock your tools are light and a camera. Your efforts result in photographs.

Light, both the abundance and lack of it, has its own interesting properties. It can be magical at times and extremely contrasting at another.

Can you imagine any photography without light? Even in a seemingly difficult low light situation where your camera is struggling to auto-focus because of the lack of light, there is still some and that is evidently what produces a breathtaking photograph e.g., that of the Milky Way. Even when you are photographing a cityscape at the dead of night, a long shutter speed magically renders the water to blur, the reflection of the city lights together with that of the lights from passing vehicles add-up and creates a breathtaking composition. So, regardless of the genre of photography that you do, lighting is key.

Dublin at Night (Ha'penny Bridge)
Sony DSLR-A700, ƒ/4.0, 28.0 mm, Shutter Speed 1/8, ISO 1600, photo by LenDog64

Even when you say there is no light at all there is some. You are just not seeing it and in doing so is missing an incredible opportunity to produce an image that is impossible to achieve in abundant light.

Use of external light in a situation with abundant natural light

This is a situation where you have a lot of natural light going around. Most amateur photographers would be happy to shoot right at the stroke of noon when the sun is bearing down and everything is well-lit. It is possibly an easier time to shoot than when you don’t have any light at all, right? Wrong! This time of the day isn’t particularly great for shooting photos, that is, without using any additional accessories. Unless of

Wrong! This time of the day isn’t particularly great for shooting photos, that is, without using any additional accessories. Unless of course, you are shooting black & white contrast images in which case this is a particularly good time. Do you see how different types of light has its own application in photography?

Golden oldie
Sony SLT-A55V, DT 18-55mm, F3.5-5.6 SAM, ƒ/6.3, 50.0 mm, Shutter Speed 1/160, ISO 100, photo by Matthew Powell

Among the accessories that you do need is a screen. Cinematographers routinely use a thing called diffuser for reducing the intensity of natural light. You can make one from scratch. All you need is a thin white sheet.

Raise the sheet over the subject’s head or at the side depending on the direction of the light and voila! You have a beautiful soft light that wraps around the subject’s face.

Ok, that’s the diffuser part, where’s the external light in all these? Well, a soft light is essentially flattering which is good for portraits and other types of photography but at times you need something punchy to create a bit of contrast going. This is where you can bring in an external light. The external light you need in this situation could be a flash held off-camera.

It would create that slightly hard light that will give the image a bit more edge. Else, you can shoot at the golden hour.

late summer cutness
Nikon D610, 50.0 mm f/1.4, ƒ/2.0 50.0 mm, Shutter Speed 1/4000, ISO 100, photo by David D

Another example of the use of external lights in an outdoor bright-lit situation is when you use it for removing shadows. In the above example of shooting at Mid-Day sun if no diffuser is used you’ll have a lot of shadows under the eyes and the chin. This can be ‘filled’ with an external flash/strobe fired at the same intensity as the ambient light.

Read on about high key vs. low key photography.

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