Yup I remember saying that very same thing in an intentionally arrogant tone. Truth be told back in the day, I didn’t know how to use artificial light effectively whether it was from a strobe or hand held flash. Sure I had ‘dabbled’ with them, but didn’t understand the first thing about using either very well.
I began my photographic journey doing street shooting. No artificial light, no reflectors, no scrims, just what being in the right place at the right time had put before me. After that initial fear of shooting strangers going about their daily lives street shooting became invigorating. Looking for the ‘right’ person, in the ‘right’ situation, in the ‘right’ light meant being visually vigilant and above all being patient. To this day it is still my favorite type of photography, but I’ve been both blessed and cursed to not have the time to pursue it as often as I have in the past.
So in this article I want to talk about shooting tips in natural light whether you’re street shooting or creating a portrait. I’ve always been a bit of a do it yourself kind of guy. I loved making my own reflectors and light modifiers before I realized that the time it took me to do so was too time consuming. Like most photographers, in the beginning I had little money to buy ‘gear’ for my hobby. So my reflectors were white foam core boards, until I discovered that white cardboard held up better in the wind. I used whole rolls of aluminum foil to make a silver reflector on the back side of the white cardboard panels. I discovered that wrinkling the foil before taping or gluing it to the cardboard made for a ‘better quality of light.’
I have developed my own rule for shooting whether by natural or artificial light. I call it “The LEE” principal: Light, expression, environment.
Available Light/Street Shooting
How to get over the jitters about photographing strangers on the street is an article all unto itself, so I won’t go into it here. The main elements you should consider when looking at potential street scenes:
1. Tell a story, including the environment is as important as your subject. If you frame too tight, you lose the story in the shot. If you want to go in tight you can always crop, but try to get the entire story in camera. Park yourself in an interesting place and WAIT.
2. Observe the light and determine what you hope to achieve before taking a shot.
3. Wait for the right action or expression. Remember a great expression with crummy light or a boring environment will not get you the shot you want.
4. Make sure your image tells a story either using light, expressions or the environment. Your best shots will incorporate all three factors.
5. As in the example below, sometimes you may need to interact with a stranger to get the shot you want.
All of us get invited to parties and events. Quite a few people think, “Hey, Stan’s got a nice camera, let’s ask him to take some photos.” I see quite a few photographers at events with their flash units on top of their cameras with the latest Fong dong or some other modifier on it. I always chuckle a bit because I’ve always hated how those photos look. They’re mostly the “Everyone say cheese” variety. Instead, go without a flash, use the available light in the venue. Sure it may be horrid, dark or yellow or green, but make do with what you’ve got. Look for authentic expressions and interactions…. Pump up your ISO, take it off Auto and look for a story. Light, expression, environment.
Reflectors are EXTREMELY effective in directing light where you want it. Remember at the beginning of my article? I used white cardboard to reflect light when I first began. I don’t use them now because I’ve found using a dedicated reflector is better. But it’s up to each individual to choose what he/she wants to use for their purposes. I especially like Sunbounce Mini reflectors. They’re ultra rigid, very light and take about 30 seconds to assemble. They’re especially useful when you don’t have an assistant to hold your reflector.
I use a light stand with one of the Sunbounce knuckles (clamps) to hold the reflector on the stand. If it’s windy I always carry a reusable waterproof shopping bag and fill it with whatever is available. Water/sand/rocks/trash and place it onto the stand to keep it steady. I carry a roll of paracord with me to lash the bag to my stand. I now use a knuckle and arm to steady my light stands in wind when I don’t have an assistant. If you don’t own a knuckle and arm you can always use a broomstick. Simply place one end of the stick onto the crossbar of your light stand and place your foot on the other end…instant wind security! You can always carry a sandbag, but I’m just too lazy to do so….
Don’t have a scrim? Use a white bed sheet or a piece of fiberglass screen door mesh. My point here is you can use any number of materials to reduce or reflect sun. More expensive methods won’t make your images better, they will just make your task more convenient.
My must have items in your bag:
- Reflector (s)
- Scrim (s)
- Light Stand (s)
- Para cord
- Waterproof shopping bag
- Broom handle
- Roll of gaff tape
Must have items in your head:
- Knowledge of your camera beyond ‘Auto mode’
And my final piece of advice: Get off gear forums and use that time to study light and practice patience. You’ll be amazed at what that ten year old camera can create with knowledge and imagination behind the lens. Happy shooting.