Available Light Photography – Useful tricks by Mike Reid

July 7, 2017 Mike Reid

I often get asked about natural light, or available light photography.  This type of photography is all about creating an image with the light you have.  It allows a fair amount of spontaneity.  But spontaneity is a double edged sword. On one side, you are able to capture profound moments in time.  On the other hand, gear and settings are choices that must be carefully made, often quickly before the moment passes. Only later back in editing mode do you see if your choices played out the way you had hoped. There are missed opportunities, bad weather, dead batteries, out of focus shots, the lens you wished you had with you, etc.  But when its right, the images are sublime, thrilling moments you were able to capture.
© Mike Reid, Sony A7R2, Otus 1.4/28, f/16, 2,0 sec., ISO-80

© Mike Reid, Sony A7R2, Otus 1.4/28, f/16, 2,0 sec., ISO-80

Available light photography, in its spontaneity, involves giving up a bit of control.  It’s definitely photography in the wild so to speak.  Let’s focus on what you do have some control over.  The first thing is timing, and to a certain extent, location.  The second is gear and settings.  Lastly, you control post processing.

Timing is key

Available light is about putting yourself in the best situation possible to capture the light you have in the way you want.  Part of that is the timing.  Timing can involve a particular event happening.  It might be a sunset or sunrise, or the opening of a flower market in India or breakfast being prepared.  Research plays a big part in this.  What time does the market open?  When is sunrise?  This also factors into location.  It might be that a particular beach looks amazing at sunset but not so much at sunrise.  For me part of this involves researching what others have taken on Google Images or other photography sites.

© Mike Reid, Sony A7R2, Otus 1.4/28, f/1.4, 1/160 sec., ISO-1000 © Mike Reid, Sony A7R2, Otus 1.4/28, f/1.4, 1/400 sec., ISO-1000 © Mike Reid, Sony A7R2, Otus 1.4/28, f/2, 1/1000 sec., ISO-1000

I also prefer to shoot during the morning or evening hours.  Much better soft light and the drama of sunrises and sunsets.  That allows during the day for other activities like scouting, to reinforce the location research I have done.  I also like midday naps, since I was probably up way too early for that sunrise.

Choosing the right equipment

Select your gear carefully when preapring for an available light shoot. You should also be familiar with the different setting options since time is critical to capture the best light for the shot. Gear choices are important because simply having everything you own available to you at all times is not possible.  My lenses run from 10mm to 300mm.  I usually try to bring several based on the research I have done and my plan for images.  Something in the middle of that range always comes along.  For available light, I especially like fast primes for their image quality and ability to gather what light is available in the given scene.  I might also bring the extremes of width or reach depending on how I see the scene unfolding.

© Mike Reid, Sony A7R2, Otus 1.4/28, f/1.4, 1/15 sec., ISO-1000

© Mike Reid, Sony A7R2, Otus 1.4/28, f/1.4, 1/15 sec., ISO-1000

Identify the perfect location

Available light also places its own demands.  Available usually does not mean available in abundance so care must be taken to make sure the light you have is used to capture a sharp image with low noise and movement, if any, is movement you have chosen to have happen.  My Gitzo tripod and Sony in-camera stabilization steadies things on my end.  Using fast primes helps here too, allowing some forgiveness in the camera settings.  Slow lenses work as well but allow a bit less freedom in things like shutter speed.  I try to follow the rule of greater than 1/focal length for shutter speed.  So given an appropriate f/stop for desired depth of field, I adjust the ISO upward so that my shutter speed is more than say 1/28 for a 28mm lens.  This along with the stabilization and tripod gives me a better chance of the shot I had hoped for.

Tweaking your images

Post processing for me involves Lightroom on my UHD 34” screen back home.  Advances in tech have allowed me to run Lightroom on my Iphone(!) of all things for a quick sneak preview, which can be handy if you have the option of getting back for another try at the shot.  But mostly it is a matter of getting those RAW files on the big screen to see what you have got.  I usually shoot brackets even with my high dynamic range Sony a7r2, just to have the extra range if necessary.  Looking at the images, I like Lightroom’s noise reduction and highlight recovery.

© Mike Reid, Sony A7R, Otus 1.4/28, f/14, 1/400 sec., ISO-640

© Mike Reid with the Sony A7R and the Otus 1.4/28, f/14, 1/400 sec., ISO-640

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