Tyler’s Tips Episode 30: Working with bad light


Welcome to Tyler’s tips. Today I’m going to talk about working with bad light.

Okay, so first of all, what is bad light? Those of you who have watched a few of my videos know that I don’t really believe in the concept of bad light. I think what we experienced as bad light is actually just the light not really working very well for whatever it is we’re trying to accomplish. But light, any light can be good or bad, just depending on the situation. That said, we often find ourselves in a situation where the light is bad, and it’s just not working for what we want to try to accomplish. And in these situations we need some tricks to be able to execute and get our photos done, no matter what the light’s doing, right? So there are a couple of different ways to approach it.

The standard way, which I’m going to describe very briefly, is that we change it. We manipulate it. And we do that a lot. I’ll talk about some techniques. But then my favorite way is trying to work with the light a little bit differently, and get creative with that. And that’s what I really want to talk to you about. But first, manipulating the light. So this is things like if the light source is too harsh and it’s hard, direct light, we’ll diffuse that light. Which just means you put a scrim, which is a fancy word for something translucent that the light can shine through, between that harsh light and your subject. Or I guess I should wave this way because my light source are over here. Between the light and your subject. And then the light passes through the translucent material, becomes diffused or softer, and you have a different look to the light, which maybe would work better. That’s an example of manipulating the light.

Another example that we use all the time is we bounced light into the shadows. So if the shadows are too dark, we put something white over here, and it bounces that light back up into the shadows, and it reduces the contrast. And there are zillions of tricks like this. Ultimately, if you carry that all the way out, what we’re doing is we’re using big strobes and artificial lights to overpower whatever existing light there is, so that we’re not even manipulating the light. We’re just completely controlling it, so that we get exactly what we want.

And there are times when that’s appropriate. And it can be very effective, but it’s also a lot of work. And it can really disrupt the mojo of a moment. And if you’re trying to capture moments where you’re trying to work fast, or work in documentary style, you can’t really technically manipulate things if it’s truly documentary, but there’s always gray area. Anyways, in those situations where you don’t have as much flexibility or you just don’t want to get into actually manipulating the light, what I love to do in those moments is I love to try to get creative and figure out how we can make changes to our subjects position, or our composition, that takes that bad light, and makes it into great light. It’s like taking lemons and making lemonade. And I’m going to use an example to show you what I’m talking about.

So a while ago I was shooting up in the Redwoods with two professional ballet dancers, Emma and Caitlin, who I’ve have worked with in the past. They’re awesome. Super talented, beautiful. And the light in the Redwoods can be great in a way. It’s kind of interesting light. It’s super duper soft. And nearly directionless with one exception, and that is that it’s kind of always coming from overhead. And that sort of … Can work really well in certain situations, and other situations that it doesn’t work very well. And in this particular situation I was shooting this composition. I wanted to use this really interesting pair of trees that were leaning, connected to each other, and to really show just nothing but trees and volume and the mass of these trees relative to the dancers. And of course you can see we had the wardrobe set up so they look like forest elves or fairies. It was such a beautiful scene.

But when they were tucked back in, especially underneath, or in that nook between those two trees, that overhead light felt especially overheady. And what that means is when you’re shooting people’s faces and they’re looking at you and the light is directly overhead, it makes people’s eyes look sunken, and it is just not flattering light typically. There’s a big shadow under the nose. It’s standard light for mugshots, which is what it makes us all think of. And so I wasn’t really going for criminal fairy elves. I was going for beautiful, magical fairy elves.

So what to do in this situation? I was looking through the camera. I have this beautiful scene, but the light looks awful on their faces. And thankfully this idea popped into my head. And I said, Emma and Caitlin, would you just look up at the trees? And they did. They looked up, and that light immediately became gorgeous on their faces. It became this gorgeous, incredibly soft light washing over their faces. You can see what it did. It makes them look as gorgeous as they are. And it had an added bonus, which I also immediately noticed. It was a happy accident, is that by looking up, they draw the viewer up as well. It makes us look up when we’re looking at the photo, which ties them much more powerfully into the context, and the story that I was trying to tell, which is these tiny little women in the context of these gigantic trees.

And there you go. So lemons, let’s make lemonade. So Tyler’s tip for today. Next time you’re out shooting and you find yourself in a situation where you have bad light, remember, it’s not inherently bad. It’s just not working the way you want it to, given what you’re trying to accomplish. And if you can try to shift what you’re doing a little bit, sometimes it can be the tiniest little thing like saying, look up, to your subject. Or maybe you’d change your subject’s orientation a little bit, or shift your composition a little bit to work with that light, to turn it into a powerful tool, instead of a hurdle that you’re trying to get past.

So as always, thank you for your time. I hope this was a valuable couple of minutes. If you have any ideas or questions that you’d like me to discuss in a future Tyler’s Tip episode, dropped me a line and I’ll work it in. Until next time.