Learning to See Light

As photographers, we are pretty intuitive about recognizing interesting ambient light when we see it. But stick a flash and umbrella in our hands and we tend to default to much more standard styles of lighting -- especially at first.

In the real world, great light rarely comes from 45 degrees up and to the side. So if you want to be able to create more interesting light with your flashes, you should work to better recognize how ambient really works. This way, you can recreate those different looks when you are in control of the light.

My daughter Em rides horses, a quality she surely gets from her mom. Even though I grew up with horses, it is my strong preference that any vehicle I ride have a failsafe means by which to stop.

Saying "whoa," or pulling up on the reins doesn't cut it for me. And since they won't let me carry a big rubber mallet when I ride, I'll stick to motorized vehicles.

I drove Em out to the barn this weekend, and took a camera along. It is easy to forget to grab the day-to-day types of photos that are so fleeting when your kids are growing up fast. So I try to always have a camera with me, but also to balance between shooting and just watching.

Seems like only yesterday she was an equal mixture of new, excited and nervous around horses. But at 13, she is full of confidence -- trotting, cantering, even jumping. As a dad who never got the horse thing it still makes me a little nervous to watch. But I am happy to hang out and take photos. (For one thing, the moment I take my finger off of the shutter release, I know at least my camera will stop running.)

As she was getting her assigned horse ready, I noticed that the light was gorgeous. There wasn't much of it, but it was beautiful. It's the kind of light that you are not sure will translate in the camera, so you take a frame or two and chimp it to adjust the exposure before shooting more.

This is exactly the kind of light I want to be able to create with flashes. So after shooting in this environment I always try to take a moment and notice the sources. And lately, to do an ambient lights pullback and make some visual notes for later.

Here, I was amazed to see that nearly all of the ambient in the photo was coming from this long strip of windows behind them. There were windows on the other side of the barn (way behind me) but they were far enough away to be contributing very little. Ditto the door at the camera left end of the barn. I know this because the strongest shadows from the horse's hooves are pointing forward.

So most of this light was coming from the back, then wrapping around and bouncing off of the ceiling and reflective objects in the frame.

I love the light, but it is something I would have never previously tried to create. Which is exactly the point about trying to more consciously see and analyze different types of ambient light.

If you are constantly looking at interesting ambient, you'll have no shortage of ideas when it comes time to create your own light with flash. In fact, this scene quickly seeded an idea for an upcoming portrait of a local poet. I want to push everything in from the back -- a single light source -- and build the portrait with internal reflections.

I won't have a fill horse. But I will have fill boards, which should work even better. (I will state for the record that I have actually used a fill goat on assignment, which long-time readers will remember.)

And while I do not own the dozen or so boomed strip boxes it would take to create this horizontal bar of light, I think I can do a lot with a backlit sheet or two. The trick will be to put something opaque (in frame) in between the subject and the huge backlight to allow the light to wrap around the edges (out of the frame) without contaminating with flare.

Or maybe let it contaminate. Sot sure yet. Either way, we'll see. If it works, I'll post it.


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