When to Add Light

Despite the impression you might get from much of the content here, the vast majority of my photography uses the ambient light that is already present in a scene. And when I do add light, the vast majority of the time I’m simply sticking a flash on top of the camera, not setting up 4 flashes scattered around hotel grounds. For me, the off-camera flash stuff is often limited to speeches, a night portrait, and dancing. For those situations I have specific stylistic reasons to add light to a scene. But what about the rest of the time? What informs my decision to add light or not?

There are two cases – where I need to use add light to fix something, or where I want to add light for creative purposes. Let’s talk about the first case, first. Adding light to fix something. Like what?

The obvious problem most people will think of is when the quantity of light in poor. In reality that manifests itself in one or more of the shutter speed, aperture or ISO that are needed to get a “proper” exposure being outside my comfort zone, causing too much risk of shake, too little depth of field, or too much noise in the final image

The family photos at a wedding typically have the potential to tick all three of these, and so for these I often turn to added light to guarantee a clean, sharp file with everyone in focus:

Another obvious problem is when the quality of light is poor – shadows are too harsh, or perhaps the light is uneven or lacking definition. Often related to that is the direction from which it is coming, and I may want to add my own light from a preferred direction. A simple example most people can relate to in this context is using fill flash when shooting into the light.

For instance, without adding light to the following scene (another family photo) the people would be too dark or the window would be too bright as the daylight outside was much brighter than the ambient light inside. In essence, adding light in this situation is to compress the dynamic range of a scene – the range from brightest part to darkest part – into one that the camera can handle.

Perhaps slightly less obvious but also relevant (and yet, often overlooked) is when the colour of light is poor. Sometimes there’s only so much you can achieve with a white balance adjustment (especially if the ambient light is from multiple light sources, each with their own colour temperature. Here’s an example of this from a wedding a few years ago – you can see the ambient light shot on the left, and the flash-lit version on the right. In this case, I was able to also improve the quantity of light. But it’s the change in colour that is most notable. [Admittedly one of the subjects is different too, but ignore that – these two photos were taken minutes apart!]

So far, so pretty obvious – we have the four classical characteristics of light – quantity, quality, direction and colour – and need to fix a problem with one or more of them.

But they’re not the only things we may want to correct with added light. So let me give you couple of less obvious examples, which might plant a seed in your head for adding light in the future, when the problem isn’t one of the big four.

How about when there’s something in the scene I don’t want to see – like, maybe, myself? Adding light allows me a new variable in how I control exposure, and since I am adding light, I can set my camera exposure to lessen the impact of the ambient light on the exposure (or even completely remove it). Do that, and the only things that will be visible in my photo are things that I deliberately light.

That’s what’s happening in this next image – this is a mundane detail shot, but I wanted to get a reflection of the shoes, but didn’t want to see myself (or some of the clutter around the room) in that reflection. The solution – sit a flash above the shoes on the top of the dresser, constrain the beam with a grid to ensure it doesn’t light too much of the room, and set the base exposure to kill the ambient element in the final frame. Every pixel of light in this shot, therefore, is added light:

Another use is where I want to draw attention to something (or someone) by highlighting a subject with light. In reality this is a practical example of adding light to change the direction of the light:

Adding light may make sense to create some separation in a scene, to allow a subject that would otherwise be lost against the background to stand out a little more.

Or adding light may help show shape and texture:

Finally, though – and perhaps most commonly – I’ll consider adding light where there’s a chance that any or all of the above might apply in a dynamic or impromptu situation that I absolutely must photograph, but that is very hard to plan for.

The photo at the very top of this post (repeated below for convenience) is an example of that – it’s not a first dance, as such – it was actually a somewhat spontaneous dance that took place as the bride and groom entered the function room for dinner. I say “somewhat” spontaneous, in that I knew it was likely to happen, as it was a bit of a cultural tradition that the couple made me aware of, but I had no idea where in the room it might take place, or exactly how many people might leave their seats to join in.

As it turned out, it was pretty much the middle of the room, and lots joined in. I needed depth of field, even light, a fast shutter speed, and – it being such a key moment in the day – a deliverable image. So bouncing a flash off the ceiling was my go-to lighting solution for this situation. Could I have taken the shot using ambient light only? Probably. But there was a chance that I couldn’t, and that wasn’t a chance I was willing to take. That alone is a good rule of thumb for adding light.

We’ll return to this topic in a future post to talk about adding light for creative purposes, as opposed to for problem solving purposes but, as I’ve said before, I firmly believe that being comfortable adding light to solve problems makes adding it to be creative a much easier process.