Let’s start by defining what I mean by “available light.” To some photographers it means using “every light that’s available” while to others, like myself, it means using only or mostly the light that’s available within a scene. Sometimes I’ll use a reflector or supplemental light from a speedlight or a camera’s pop-up flash.
Caption: One of the most traditional forms of available light used for portraits is window light. This image was captured using only the light from a narrow window in my living room. The model was posed midway between the window at camera left and my sofa at right, a distance of less than three feet. As you will see, you can make available light portraits anywhere. Camera was a Canon EOS 10D with EF 85mm f/1.8 lens and an exposure of 1/180 sec at f/2.8 and ISO 400.
Here are a few of the things that I like about making portraits with available light:
- It’s free! There is no electronic flash or other lighting equipment to purchase, set up, plug-in, or chew through batteries. You can make photographs outdoors using natural light or indoors using window light and all you need is a camera and a subject. Of course, you can supplement the available light with inexpensive reflectors that you can buy or make one yourself using a piece of foam core board, although that style is a bit harder to fold for travel.
- It’s easy. You can see the light falling on the model and won’t have to guess about lighting ratios or worry about moving two or three lights around or dealing with accessories such as lightstands, hair lights, or booms. In this kind of setting you will find that the subject is more relaxed and instead of wasting time fussing with lighting equipment you’ll be less distracted too enabling you to make better portraits.
- It’s fast. There are no lights to set up, tear down, or pack or drag through airport security or even worse ship as checked baggage. You eliminate the expense of buying expensive shipping cases for lighting gear or the specter of damage or theft (it happens) in transit. You can also work faster with the models getting more and better photographs while allowing your subject to relax at the same time.
It doesn’t matter what person, place, or thing you’re photographing, the ultimate subject of any photograph is light. Light, whether it occurs naturally or artificially, has three basic characteristics: quality, quantity, and color and it’s the quality of the light on a subject ultimately determines the effectiveness of your portrait.
Joe is the author of the forthcoming book “Available Light Glamour Photography.” Look for it this fall from Amherst Media.