Some Thoughts On Available Light Photography

Available Light

I’m a huge fan of available light photography. That’s probably because when I got started, I was a college student. I had no extra money for studio lights, softboxes, backdrops, flash triggers, and all the gear that goes with even a basic lighting rig. Nor did I have the space for a studio or the time to master the art and science of controlled lighting (and believe me, there is a lot to it). All I had was a low-end Nikon manual-focus SLR and a very old Nikkor 50mm f/1.4 that I got from the pawn shop across the street from the N.C. State campus.  So everything I shot had to be lit by the sun or some kind indoor artificial light source (lamps, fluorescent lights, candles, etc), neither of which I had any control over.

But now that I can afford studio lighting, I still default to available light. I think this is because, to me anyway, it’s challenging in a way that controlled lighting composition isn’t. With available light, you must play be the rules that exist in that space and time. It’s different every time.

Freedom…with Extreme Limitation

Sounds ood, but it’s true. All you need, basically, is a camera body and a fast lens (more on equipment below). That’s the main freedom. Your camera’s light meter is programmed to set exposure for “ideal” conditions (that is, it tries to expose the image as evenly as possible). This will not help in non-ideal conditions, so you’ll need to calculate the exposure manually. You are “set free” from the constraints of the exposure meter. That’s a secondary freedom.

The limitations come with the lack of influence over the setting / scene lighting.  Whatever light is there is all that you’ve got. You must consider the same set of light parameters as in a studio (direction, intensity, reflectance, white balance, and contrast, among others), but you can’t control or modify any of them. It is what it is, and the onus is on you to figure out how to make non-ideal conditions yield a pleasing image. These limitations, I find, force a photographer to be creative and experiment.

Available Light Does Not Have to Mean Low Light

There are many times when available light situations are dimly lit rooms. But plenty of other scenarios will involve full sunlight or very evenly light indoor areas. “Available” does not mean “Low”. It simply means whatever lighting conditions are, that’s what you’re going to use to frame and expose your images. There may even be times when there too much light to get the kind of exposure you’d like, but this would still qualify as “available light”.

Equipment Check Canon 50mm f/1.4 USM

The only real gear criteria for available light photography are: you will need to be able to manually control exposure settings (f-stop, shutter speed, ISO sensitivity) and the lens used should have a relatively wide maximum aperture. So basically any SLR or mirrorless camera with interchangeable lenses and a f/2.8 or faster lens. On the lens side, prime lenses (non-zoom) are far cheaper in the wider apertures and less bulky. The cheap but capable Canon 50mm f/1.8 STM is a good choice, as is the Nikkor 50mm f/1.8 G AF-S DX (what a mouthful!).

A nice bonus is if your camera can output low-noise images at higher ISO sensitivity settings. This is not required, but it sure makes things easier. The Canon 6D (my review here) and Nikon D610 are excellent examples of very-low-noise camera bodies.

What Scenarios Make for Useful Available Light?

I suggest looking for places where the ambient light falling on the scene is diffused in some way. Maybe it’s sunlight filtering through a tall canopy of tree limbs and leaves. Maybe there is a spot inside a church where light through a stained-glass window is falling nicely. Maybe it’s something as simple as light being diffused through a sheer curtain, or industrial lighting filtered through an opaque window.

Other interesting visuals include the areas below street lights at dusk or anywhere there are flood lights. Longer exposure times in areas lit by candles or small lamps can be breathtakingly beautiful.

Try standing with the sun at your back as it nears the horizon. Whatever is in front of you will be bathed in hues of light ranging from yellow to orange to purple, depending on your location and the angle of the sun. This is thanks to a phenomenon called “Raleigh scattering“.

I find that bars/pubs make for great ambient lighting conditions. There are can be a mix of several light sources from multiple angles: low-intensity overhead lights, candles, neon signage, accent lights near the bar, etc.


Additional Reading

9 Essential Tips to Conquer Available Light Photography

Finding and Working with Available Light