Let the light in – top tips on photographing outdoors.
1. The basics are building blocks for brilliance.
To really get the most out of the available light when photographing outdoors, you need to understand the crux of how your camera works in relation to the light around you. The eloquence of the mechanism that is the camera is dazzling. When I first began to understand how a camera works, I couldn’t believe that I had such intelligent design between my two hands.
Without going into too much excruciating depth the DSLR camera works as follows:
Light enters through the (often interchangeable) lens. The light is then bounced off a mirror and reflected a second time through a pentaprism or pentamirror (a 5 sided selecting prism) which transmits the light at a 90 degree angle onto the optical view finder eyepiece which allows you to see the image in front of you through the camera. When you press down the shutter button to take a photograph, the mirror flips upwards, letting the entering light project directly onto the image sensor through the focal-plane shutter. The light is then captured on the sensor creating your photograph. After which, the shutter closes, the mirror returns to its starting position and the camera is ready to record the next image. Fhew! So, what we can take away from all that is the amount of light and the length of time we let light in will determine the image we get out.
2. Escape the mid-day sun and seek out shade whenever possible.
If you find yourself shooting in bright, direct sunlight that throws harsh light and dark contrasting shadows causing the loss of desired detail, seek out shade. The last thing you want from a portrait or stylised shoot is for your subjects to appear flat and washed out and squinting in the dazzling sunlight. To convey texture and depth in your image, seek out shade that is still touched by sunlight. You can then use the less harsh sunlight to create flattering images. For example, if you position your subjects under the branch of a tree, sunlight shining through leaves can give you a softer and more workable light – great for romantic couple shoots or family shoots. By stepping out of direct sunlight and into a bit of shadow it will enable you to add a whole different feel to your shots.
3. Fill flash.
A fill flash diffuser is another nifty trick to employ to get some great outdoor photographs. A flash diffuser will diffuse the intensity of the camera’s flash in the same way that a lamp shade does to a naked bulb. The fill flash works to soften the harshness of your flash and in doing so makes the detail in your image pop. The fill flash will often darken the background of your subject, giving your subject prominence and adding punch to the image. If you work it right, fill light can also create a nice catchlight – a sparkle in the subjects’ eye. So in short, put a flash and diffuser in your bag of outdoor photography tricks.
4. Make a plan. Make a plan. Make another plan.
There are times when I have found my self shooting with the sun at its highest point and not much in the way of decent shade sources – working in the dry river bank of Gonarezhou National Park for example. We Zimbabweans have the expression – make a plan – for times when things aren’t going your way. Make your environment work for you. Get on your knees or lower if needed and use the sun to back light your subject. This will create light leaks and enable your subject to pop in comparison to the fore and backgrounds. If you are in a bit of a light pickle, try to use natural reflectors (such as white walls, bodies of water, anything at all that will reflect light) in your environment to bounce light into your images.
Neutral density filters, or ND filters, are designed to reduce the amount of light that reaches the camera’s sensor. If you are using a flash, flash sync speed – a term to describe the synchrony between shutter speed and the camera flash unit – must be around 1/250th of a second. To reliably fire the flash in sync with the shutter, your shutter speed must be at this speed or slower. This sync-speed limitation means that although ISO is low and our shutter speed is set to the maximum set speed, our aperture will let too much light through; resulting in an over-exposed image. By using a ND filter we can get the correct balance of settings we need to correctly expose the photograph and still get the desired shallow depth of field while using a flash in direct sunlight.
There is always a plan that can be made.
5. Prime shooting times
There are times in the day when the natural light is pure magic to photograph. Sunrise and sunset, ahhh…. Beautiful and fleeting, these are optimum times for outdoor photographic opportunities and should be pounced upon when ever possible. In Southern Africa during certain times of the year (thanks in part to fires and in part to increased dust in the air) dawn and dusk are a combination of reds, oranges, pinks and all the hues in between; it’s enough to set fire to the soul. Not only do the colours add feeling and sentiment to your image, sunset and sunrise are flattering lights in which to shoot your subject in. Don’t forget how quickly the light changes during these times. Ensure that you are set up and ready to shoot when the perfect light is revealed.