Every year folks take to the road with most bringing along a camera to record their trip. Many times the photographs suffer from common mistakes that are easily avoided. This month I'd like to introduce a series of articles that will help you use your camera more effectively.
Quality of Light
What you see is what you get, or is it? Our eyes are wonderful organs that compensate for a wide range of lighting conditions. Our brains take up the slack when things don't look quite as we think they should. That's why the photographic print in your hand may look different than what you saw in the viewfinder when you took the photograph. Your eyes and your brain work together to show you what you expect to see.
To illustrate this, select a small object and photograph it under different lighting conditions. First, turn off your flash and take an indoor photograph lighted with an incandescent light bulb (the kind that screw in to a socket), or a fluorescent bulb (the tube type), and then go outside and take a photo with natural sunlight. You'll quickly see by comparing the photographs side by side that the image varies significantly with each light source.
Even natural sunlight has different qualities. Photographs taken in the early morning will have a cooler appearance. Those taken in the late afternoon will have a warmer appearance. Photographs taken during the mid-day hours may be most neutral in their color balance, but because of the more downward light they are frequently harsh and washed out. On a sunny day, therefore, your best results with natural lighting will be in the morning or late afternoon. This is the time to shoot landscapes and scenery. During the mid-day hours look for shaded areas such as under a tree or the shadow of a building, or shoot indoors.
Cloudy days can impart slightly cool colors, but the soft diffused light is helpful for avoiding shadows. When the sky is overcast, move in close and shoot portraits and still-life compositions. If you can protect your camera from getting wet, even rainy days can produce some great shots.
A special challenge is to shoot by moonlight, but that will depend upon the light gathering capabilities of your camera. To test if your camera has this ability, turn off your flash, set the camera on a tripod, and make your shot. If you can shoot by moonlight you can produce some very ethereal effects - think spooky. Also, don't overlook fire as a light source either. Keep your flash off, and shoot across a campfire for a warm and friendly portrait of your campmates.
When natural lighting is not available or produces unwanted results, flash photography is usually the best alternative. A flash is designed to closely match that of natural sunlight so color balance is not normally an issue. The most common problem associated with using a flash is the distance to the subject. The average flash unit built into a camera cannot adequately illuminate a subject much over 15 feet in distance, so keep your camera fairly close to your subject. You can, however, get too close with your flash and wash out the image completely. Getting this right is just a matter of learning the idiosyncrasies of your camera.
Another use of flash is to supplement natural lighting by using a technique called fill lighting. Most modern cameras have a function that will allow you to force the flash to operate even when the amount of light reaching the camera is adequate to provide proper average exposure over the entire frame. This function is appropriate when your subject is backlit with the shadow of the light source obscuring the area of interest. The flash is used to fill in the shadows. For example, if you're taking a photograph of your friend and the sun is behind them, their face will be in shadow and the exposure will be incorrect. Turning on the flash will add light from the front and remove the shadow. This technique will require experimentation with your camera to get the best results, but it's worth the effort.
An alternative to using a flash for fill lighting is to use reflected light. This is normally a technique using a reflective board positioned to bounce light from the primary light source to areas of shadow. Even though you may not have such a board, there may be a white wall or other reflective surface nearby. Moving your subject nearer the surface can improve the exposure. You can also improvise and use something you may have on hand. For example, some of the sunscreens used as automobile dash guards work quite well for reflective board, but anything bright may work (even a white towel). Just be cautious that the material does not cast unwanted reflected color upon your subject.
The quality of light is one of the most overlooked elements of photography and it's one of the more difficult to master. It is, however, one of the most important elements of producing a good photograph. The very best way to learn it, however, is also the most fun. Just take lots of photographs under many different lighting conditions. Experiment, discard what doesn't work, and refine what does. You'll soon learn to see your subject as your camera does, and not as your brain thinks you should.