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Without a doubt, the single most common cause of poor photography among amateurs is bad lighting.    Someone said to me the other day, “I heard a report on the news today that many people are requesting photographers to take their portrait without using flash.”    This tells me that these people have had their portraits taken by amateur photographers too often with unsatisfactory results.   The primary difference between strobes and continuous lighting is that one is always on and the other is only on in short bursts.   Otherwise, if set up identically with identical temps, directness, etc.. they will have the same result.    You need light to take great photos… but too much direct light is a problem.    Flashes take the bad rap for this because they are the light source most commonly abused by amateurs.   But direct/harsh lighting from continuous light sources, whether tungsten, incandescent, or CFL type bulbs with have equally bad results.

Compare the two images below

Same light source, same camera position - one direct, one diffused

Both of these images were taken with flash in the same room from the same camera position.  The difference is the one on the left was taken with direct camera mounted flash.   The one on the right, I move the flash off camera, tilted it up 45*, and covered it with a diffuser.    Nothing else was done.  This is not a studio setup.   Just an ornament grabbed off the shelf and set on the counter, and snapshots taken with camera flash lighting.

Note how the one on the left even with the dark areas so dark that no detail remains, the light areas of the face/beard are still so burned out little or no detail remains.  In the photo on the right, the diffuser spreads the light all over the room evenly, so while the face/beard maintain great color and detail, the feet and background are still lit well enough that you can see clear detail in these dark areas.

You will also notice in the left photo that the counter looks yellowish.  This is because the flash was so close that it had to have its power reduced to the point that the fluorescent room lights affected the photo.   In the photo on the right, by moving the flash back (off camera) and diffusing it, I had to increase the flash’s power to compensate for these losses, thus the room light had very little effect and the color of the photo is far more natural.

Studios are used for portrait photography simply because we can get 100% control of the lighting.   You can’t create studio environments at Christmas dinner, or at Suzy’s piano recital, but you can understand and control the available light sources you have to your maximum advantage.   Most of us photographers who do weddings, have to rely on flash and fast lenses when taking reception photos in dark reception hall with all sorts of weird colored lights around us.

We won’t always have perfect conditions.  But if you understand how light affects your images, you will be way ahead in the game.   Even if you only have a pop-up flash on your camera, you can purchase universal pop-up diffusers from Amazon for about $10 bucks.   Or with elementary sewing skills you can purchase some white rip-stop nylon and make your own.

If you want to just test me to see if diffused light really makes that much of a difference though, set an object on your counter with white and dark elements in it, then shoot a photo with direct flash… then hold a coffee filter loosely over your flash and take a second photo, and look at the difference.   If your camera has a shoe mount on it, I HIGHLY recommend getting an E-TTL adjustable swivel flash for your camera model, so you can tilt the flash so that you are never directing the flash directly at your subject, and then purchase a quality diffuser for that flash.   (E-TTL flashes are “smart” flashes that can adjust flash power based on distance/ambient light data received from the camera’s sensor). Your photo results will improve 200% — I guarantee it.

The one last thing to understand about light, is light temperature.   Light temperature is measured in degrees Kelvin, and has nothing to do with heat, but with color.   These can be very confusing, but just notice the next time you drive into a town at night how many different colors of lights you see.   When you meet a car coming with very bright lights that look almost blue, you know those are Halogen bulbs.   They have a very high Kelvin temp.   Natural daylight is usually in the 5500-5600K range, although at high noon in direct light you can attain Kelvin temps as high as 6500K.  While average fluorescent lighting is about 4100K.   Incandescents are generally much lower than that.   What does all this mean?

If you set your camera’s White Balance to Daylight (or 5500K), and then shoot indoors with incandescent or fluorescent lighting, your photos will be dull and yellowish.   On the other hand, if you were to shoot with tungsten lighting they would be bluish.    It’s important to set your cameras white balance to match the lighting you are using.

It’s even more important to try not to mix light temperatures.   The flash on your camera is generally built to produce light in the 5200-5600K range (ie. daylight rated).     If you were to set your cameras WB to daylight, and then take a flash photo of someone standing near a room lamp, then likely part of their face will be close to natural color, but the side closest to the lamp would be intense yellow.

In part two of this topic (the next post), I will discuss how to use gray cards to do white balancing, and how to calculate light ratios (or at least to roughly estimate them) for producing maximum results.   In the meantime, take the time to experiment with your camera in different light situations and try to understand how changing lighting arrangements affects your photos.   The better you understand the effect of light on your photos, the sooner you will be able to manipulate that lighting to your advantage instead of always having it ruin a great photo opportunity.

Don’t get discouraged.   Keep taking those pictures.  Even great photographers learn by trial and error.   Take notes, so when you find something that works, you will be able to repeat that setup.

Great photos await you!