Sometimes you stumble upon an image on Facebook or on your favorite blog, and the fabulous light in this image stops you in your tracks.
A gorgeous golden hour shot, a stunning silhouette, or maybe a low light image with fantastic depth… And you can’t help but think, “Oh how I wish all my images would look like this!!”.
And here comes the dreadful self-doubt, again. Because let’s face it, not all our images look like that. More often than not, we are taking pictures in less-than-stellar lighting situations. Does it mean that we should trash 90% of our images? Not necessarily.
Sometimes the light is just plain wrong, and there is nothing you can do except work with artificial light, which might not be your thing. So yes, there are lighting situations in which it’s better to simply not take pictures (and maybe enjoy the moment instead!).
But other times, the light is just OK. Nothing to rave about, but you know that you will have a well-exposed image, without any major flaws, except that you will never get those “WOW, look at the light!!!” comments on Facebook. In these cases, I do think you should take the picture anyway, and I even believe that you can still create a memorable image in the process.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that you should be happy with less-than-stellar light. Learning to find the light is a constant quest for us photographers, and there is a reason for that; we create photographs with light, it’s our raw material. Therefore, fabulous light is the best first step to a fabulous image. However, there are many other things that can lead to an impactful photo, even if there is really nothing remarkable with the light you are shooting with.
Here are the ones I most often use in my own work as a children and family photographer:
- Compelling composition
- Colors (or tonal range in a black and white image)
Let’s consider a toddler session, for example. It’s no secret that I love photographing toddlers, but there is one thing very annoying about them: shooting at golden hour is not an option most of the time, because it will be too late and they will be awfully cranky. Believe me, a cranky toddler is NOT what you want. So I very often schedule those sessions at 10 a.m. or 4 p.m. which are far from ideal hours, especially in the summer. In that case, to avoid dealing with strong overhead lighting or blown environment due to the overwhelming sun, I will often shoot in the shade. There is nothing wrong with shooting in the shade, except that the light can be somewhat flat, and often boring. Which means that I need to rely on other elements than the light to create the “wow” factor in my images.
My rule of thumb is the following….
If I can’t get interesting light, I need to combine at least two of the other factors (composition, emotion, colors, movement) to make sure that my image will be impactful.
Let’s see a few examples…
In other words, if you cannot “wow” the viewer with striking light, you need to compensate by creating visual interest in a different way.
Last but not least… As much as you can, don’t give up on catchlights, the beautiful reflection of light in the eye. They are such a powerful way to make a portrait come to life. Combining a rather boring light with no catchlights will probably lead to a very dull portrait. If you are shooting outside in the shade, a very easy way to get catchlights is to shoot your subject from above, making him/her look up towards the sky!