How-To: Shooting in Existing Light


How-To: Shooting in Existing Light
Text and Photos by Lynne Eodice

Some of the best photo opportunities present themselves in situations that would appear to pose lighting challenges, such as outdoors at dusk or dawn, or indoors with window light or artificial illumination. This how-to story provides tips on meeting these challenges without using flash.

Dusk and Dawn


For a half-hour to an hour before the sun rises and after it sets, the sky is filled with soft, beautiful light that has inspired the term magic hour among photographers. Beginning with the first faint light of daybreak, colors in the sky brighten quickly—from cool blue tones to soft pastel shades, and finally, the warm tones preceding sunrise. After sunset, this process takes place again in reverse.

Because you have such a slim window of time in which to shoot, it’s best to scout out a scene that you want to photograph ahead of time. During the shoot, you’ll want to use a tripod (or plan to use a fast ISO setting like 800 or greater if a tripod is not available). You should also use a small aperture like f/8 or f/11 for great depth of field. Check your exposure readings frequently. The darker the scene, the more important it is to bracket your exposures. Long time exposures of several seconds are very likely once the sun goes down.

Dusk is a great time to photograph city skylines. You’ll still have some exciting color in the sky, and the lights from street lamps and buildings will also contribute to creating a truly dramatic photograph. An extra bonus is that if you’re using a very small aperture, like f/11, f/13, or f/16, small points of light in the scene (like street lights) may resemble multi-pointed stars.

Natural Light Indoors


Occasions may arise in which you’ll want to shoot indoors, but aren’t permitted to use flash because of certain restrictions; i.e., weddings in chapels, art galleries, and other public buildings. When shooting indoors with natural light that comes in from outside, use windows or doors that get reflected light from the sky. This light will be directional, but softer and not as intense. Diffused window light may provide flattering illumination when photographing people. If you’re not using flash, you’ll probably need to use a higher ISO reading like 800 or 1600.


If there is a lot of bright light coming in through a window or doorway, you can reduce this contrast by using a secondary source of light, like some sort of reflective material. You can use white poster board, Fome-Cor board (both are available at art supply stores), or a commercial reflector (from your local camera store) to bounce light back into shadowy areas of a person’s face. Whenever possible, you can open a door or curtains to let light in from another direction to fill in shadows.

Your camera’s meter is often fooled by bright areas of direct light from a window, so you may want to switch to your camera’s spot metering mode to get a more accurate reading. Take your spot meter reading from an important part of the scene—like a person’s face or mid-tone object. Use your camera’s exposure-lock feature to hold that reading.

Artificial Indoor Light


Taking pictures with ambient indoor light can be challenging. First of all, you may want to change your Auto White Balance (AWB) setting to match the main light source. Some indoor artificial lighting requires that you switch your White Balance setting to a tungsten setting to correct for incandescent lighting. (But if you like the warm cast created by this light source, use your camera’s AWB setting.)

To photograph a person in a public place, try to position him/her in a place with even indoor lighting, or surround the individual with bright, reflective surfaces. If you’re photographing a subject next to candlelight, the person may appear warmer than he/she would with tungsten lighting. When photographing performers on a stage, you’ll have the challenge of bright lighting on the person or group against a dark background. Use a telephoto lens to bring the performer in closer and switch to your camera’s spot-metering mode to get a reading from the person’s face or clothing.

In a Nutshell:

Dusk or Dawn
•    Scout out your scene ahead of time
•    Use a tripod for best results
•    Photograph the lights of the city balanced with the color of the sky

Natural Light Indoors
•     Shoot with reflected light coming in from outdoors
•     Use a reflective material to fill in shadows
•     Use your camera’s spot-metering feature

Artificial Light Indoors
•     Adjust your White Balance setting to match the light source
•     Photograph a person in a place that’s evenly lit
•     Use a telephoto lens to bring stage performers in close


2 Responses to “How-To: Shooting in Existing Light”

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