Nowadays I’m pretty much an every-day-life shooter. Once in a while I’ll indulge in macrophotography (at which I’m decent) and landscapes (which I suck at). But mostly my focus is various forms of portraiture for family & friends.
The #1 technique I rely on to feed grandparents with great pictures – trumping all concerns about cameras and lenses – is to pay attention to where the nice light is. If there is no nice light, then I try to make it nice (following the teachings of Strobist). You don’t need much gear to make nice light, but you do need some.
What is nice light? It’s soft, it’s large and it’s abundant. For portraits anyway, but for most other subjects as well.
Even though I’m now waiting for a D700, I don’t think for a minute that it will enable me to take good pictures in bad light. Bad light is everywhere, you see it in 98% of all images taken, and it’s the photographic kiss of death. You’d need 6-7 stops of noisefree shadow range to recover from moderately bad light, and even the D3/D700 don’t have that.
Here are my good light tips. Hope this helps someone.
#1 : Outdoors, shade does wonders
For this shot we were sitting under both natural and artificial shade. The clear blue sky did the rest.
The main light is the sky itself when you’re in shadow, this is the biggest softbox you can get and it’s free. The only issue with sky light that it adds a color cast, to blue obviously. When you correct white balance watch out for a yellow-ish cast that will appear in shadows that receive only bounce light from the environment – most commonly in people’s eye sockets (mostly corrected here, some residue left).
#2 : Indoors, window light is best
For this shot a pair of 70+ inch windows illuminate from the back/sides with pure daylight.
I love using window light at various camera/subject angles, but never with both the window and the camera looking at the subject from the same angle. There should be a minimum of a 30~45-degree angle difference between the camera axis and the window’s illumination. If your lens can take it, shooting completely against the window light gives dramatic effects with creative exposures that either drown the subject in light or reduce it to a sharp and moody black shape.
#3 : When the light sucks, make new light
For this shot I was getting frustrated with the light quality. This was indoors, during the day, but too far away from the window. I couldn’t get an exposure that had a reasonable amount of detail (f/2, kept missing focus), noise and contrast (D80 @ 500ASA).
Before the moment disappeared I lunged for my bag, pulled out an SB-600, and aimed it at the wall/ceiling corner nearby. Triggered it with CLS slaving. This let me shoot f/5.6 at ISO 100, get my sharp focus, low noise, good color depth and contrast. Internalize this: the flash didn’t just improve the light, it improved my entire gear’s horsepower by about 6 stops, that’s the same difference between a crappy pocketcam and a D3.
Note that this isn’t a Great Shot™ - it’s nothing particularly special in my book - it is merely an acceptable one. I’m not going to print this 20-inches wide. But I think the grandparents will find it excellent as a “baby’s first crawling” picture, as it happened to be.
Conclusion : look for big surfaces that glow, or you could make glow
Professional photographers use big cloth boxes with strobe lights inside them to create customized soft lighting. These are called softboxes. Not having the means or the time to master these, photographers like you & I need to seek out softbox-like light sources in the field. The sky, windows, and flashed wall/ceiling are free for you to use to the same effect.