Photography is nothing without light, yet pushing ourselves to use it to our advantage is one of the most daunting tasks for beginners and professionals alike. Too often we play it safe by shooting portraits in the shade or on overcast days to avoid the dreaded shadows of high noon, and we shun at the mention of speedlights and flash. However, are we doing ourselves justice as artists when were not embracing new challenges at every opportunity and capping our creativity with only what were comfortable with?
“Light is everything. I can’t put it any more simply than that…”
Jeb McConnell is a published wedding and fashion photographer in Rochester, NY where his sole business, Ursus Media Photography, covers the extent of upstate New York. Like many of us, Jeb too started out with a kit camera and lens but photography has only played a major role in his life for the past 5 years. As an artist, he always strives to emphasize the importance of using light and shadow to generate emotional, storytelling qualities.
“You could be shooting a $5,000 camera set up in the worlds most beautiful location with the worlds most beautiful model and if your lighting falls short, then you end up with a blah, mediocre image. Once I learned how to use light to my advantage, that was when my work really started to shine (pun intended)”
Everyone grows at their own pace in photography but consider this food for thought when you’re searching for new ways to add spice and drama to your portfolio.
“The easiest thing for new photographers to do is learn how to shoot in natural light.”
Whether it’s the sun, off-camera flash or both, understanding the angle of your light, where it’s creating shadows, or how it’s affecting the balance of your exposure are all elements every photographer should know instinctively. Practice makes perfect so collaborate with likeminded people to take part in your photography by taking the time to go out and shoot!
“I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent watching lighting tutorials on YouTube. There are hundreds and hundreds of useful videos out there to get you started. Also, as silly as it sounds, use a dummy model in a studio to help you understand light. I bought a fake mannequin head and mounted it on a stand and photographed it with different lighting set ups many times to see how certain modifiers or angles of light would fall on the face.”
The best time to shoot portraits outdoors is during “Golden Hour” or the period of time shortly after sunrise or before sunset during which daylight is softer and more saturated. You can really get some amazing shots that not only complement your subjects but adds a real dramatic look to your environment. Think wide open fields, sandy beaches, and lakeside locations!
“My preferred way of shooting during anytime of day is to have the sun behind my subject and juxtapose them against a dark background. By doing so, and exposing for the highlights, you will emphasize the rim of light around them against that dark background, creating a wonderful highlight that makes your subject pop. During sunset I will shoot directly into the sun to get an added lens flare which I enjoy very much.”
“…buying ridiculous amount of gear is not what makes a killer photo…”
If you can afford them, invest in speedlights and softboxes. Using off-camera flash is of utmost necessity to your versatility and will play a huge role in not only boosting your visual creativity but also in properly lighting your subjects in poor conditions. Start out with a single speedlight and collapsible soft box at a 45 degree angle to your subject and remember to use a light meter to help you configure shutter speed and aperture settings.
“I use collapsible Westcott softboxes both indoor and outdoor with one speedlight, and I’ll use studio strobes in studio with a beauty dish. I love backlighting so I will try to implement that whenever possible, even in studio. I think it’s important to mention that I am not a lighting master either. I do what works for me with one, maybe two lights. I learned a long time ago that buying ridiculous amount of gear is not what makes a killer photo, it’s knowing how to use what you already own.”
BONUS PRO TIP: When shooting portraits on a clear, sunny day, try using a diffuser to soften harsh shadows and highlights on your subjects face. Simply have a friend/assistant hold the diffuser at a 45 degree angle over your subject as if you were blocking your light source. Diffusers are an absolute must for any photographer and an easy investment for your wallet. If you want to make your own for less than $30, here’s an extra tip from DIY Photography.