Light is the most critical thing that a photographer needs to take a photo (besides her camera and a decent lens). Without it there isn't gonna be a picture. And there is no such thing as ideal lighting conditions when it comes to taking pictures. Every kind of lighting situation is challenging. For example:
I took this picture of Angel yesterday during my Tastefully Simple party in our backyard. She was eating a strawberry that she just dunked into the Key Lime Cheese Ball (I made it into a fruit dip). It was about 3 in the afternoon - the sun isn't directly overhead (both she and I were in the shade) I thought that this lighting was great - except that when I uploaded this picture into my computer, all I could really see was the blurry background. I brightened Angel in PSE6.0 by magnetic lassoing her and then adjusting the highlights and shadows by 25%. She still came out not so great - any greater than the default 25% and it would have looked like I lifted her from a different picture and put her into this one. I think if I was just a bit in the shade and she was all in the shade, this picture would have come out exposed correctly. My camera measured exposure for my background which was considerably brighter than where we were (as you can tell by the super sunniness on the back of our house.
Today, we did a lot more running around. We cleaned my car (ok, it's a Dodge Caravan - when we found out that we were having Melody we had to trade in our practically new, 1 1/2 year old Hyundai SantaFe - not enough room for 3 carseats - Melody is 3 years old and I'm still resentful that we had to go soccer mom vehicle - if I had any coolness about me, it was all gone when we traded that puppy in). After I took a 15 minute power nap that ended in a huge headache, we scrambled up some lunch, dropped the girls off at mom and dad's and took Dylan to his first ice hockey team practice. I hadn't shot photos in there for 2 1/2 months and I really didn't have it in me today to take a good shot at the rink - not to worry I'll get many chances this year at the rink to take pictures...we have hockey practice 3 times this week, 3 times next week and then after school starts, we have practice 4 times a week and this isn't including games. I did take some good shots of Dylan last year when he was just learning to skate and play hockey.
I discovered something last hockey season when I used Dylan's practices for my own practices - my camera shoots dark (I'm talking strictly without a flash). I have a Canon Digital Rebel xTi that I am in love with. It's standard zero exposure is more like a -1/2, so pictures tend to come out a little bit darker than I like even when set to a zero exposure (making my photos a bit underexposed). You can see that in the some of the hockey photos above where the ice looks a little gray, it's pretty slight.
One of the hockey dads I met had a Nikon D80 (wow!!! I'm a Canon girl but I can admire and respect any camera). His camera (and lens) took incredible pictures. Nikon's standard exposure seems to be more correct at zero than mine - he took some wonderful pictures of Dylan and his boys playing hockey (if I can get in touch with him and ask him if I can put his pics on my blog, you'll see them soon).
The lighting in a hockey rink is horrible - between the amount of florescent lighting and the reflection of the white ice, it's a nightmare shooting situation. Where my camera takes dark pictures, they come out not so bad at zero exposure. If you have a DSLR, you should be able to adjust the exposure compensation when you're shooting in a creative mode (one of the letter modes not the automatic modes). And you can't adjust it if you are using a flash. If you adjust to a positive number, your picture will come out brighter. If you adjust to a negative number, your picture will come out darker. Pictures with these adjustments to follow.
Back to the lecture at hand - light. I do some really crazy things, like take pictures at stop lights.
I took this one today while I was driving, when I was stopped at a stop light.
I turned around and shot this photo of Melody - it was about 5:15pm and the sun was on Melody's side of the car (she sat right behind me in the mom-mobile, sigh!). No editing was done on this picture. This photo was taken with nearly direct sunlight from Melody's left side. Our slightly tinted windows helped filter out some of the light yielding us this great exposure.
If you're gonna use the sun for a light source, there is so much you need to be wary of. First of all, the worst sunlight to shoot in is direct overhead sunlight - anywhere between 11-3pm depending on where you live. It is harsh and too bright and relatively unforgiving when it comes to shadows. If you have to shoot outdoors during those hours, find some shade for your subject and shoot from just outside that shade if you can.
Sunlight is great at sunrise and sunset...two totally different lighting situations but way easier to shoot in than in the middle of the day. The photo of Melody above, wasn't taken at exactly sunset but we got a good exposure for a number of reasons: first, the sun wasn't directly overhead, but it was directly to the left of us. And the tinted window helped immensely, so Melody isn't squinting (a good hint that there is too much sunlight). Also, the light from the windshield played a part in this photo (we were stopped at an intersection where the crossroad runs west to east and at this point in the day the sun was in the western sky).
This picture was taken at the stop light prior to the one above:
Melody is queen of the funny face. She is also, of my 3 kids, the most willing of subjects. So taken about 1 minute before the last sunny picture, you can see there is a difference in lighting. We're still in the car, and we're both in the same positions. There are shadows on the right side of her face, sun was still to the left of us, but we were at a side street intersection (that even though that crossroad ran west to east, there were buildings and trees blocking light).
***FYI, that greenish mark on Melody's face is not boogers - she had her face painted at a street festival earlier in the day and that was the last of it. You wouldn't honestly think that I would take a picture of Melody that dirty - of course, I would...but just so my mom doesn't think that I would publish my daughter's boogie face, it isn't boogers, mom.
Lowlight situations are pretty difficult to shoot in...so many factors are critical to taking a good exposure in that situation. ***we're still talking about shooting without a flash.
You need to have a lens with a pretty low f-stop capability. A low f-stop number indicates a wide open lens. If you would like the analyticals, lenses have measurements called f-stops. These numbers tell you what your aperture is - simply put, how wide your lens can open. The smaller the f-stop, the wider your lens is open. I have a Canon 50mm f1.8 - that 1.8 is the lowest stop that lens can go, allowing a lot of light in. I can decrease the width of my lens, by increasing my f-stop. If I have an f-stop of f32, I should have a lot of light available because I'm closing my lens to have a narrow opening. It took me the longest time to remember this and even now, I still talk my way through it. Adjusting your aperture (f-stop) also affects your depth of field. We won't get into that now, we'll just talk about light.
This photo is of our Christmas tree, taken last Christmas. It was shot with my Canon 18-55mm @ f32. Notice the lights flaring and looking starry. Remember, my lens opening here is narrow, so those little lights are traveling into my lens and struggling to get in because of the narrow path (thus the flare).
Same photo at f5.6. Totally different - with a wider lens opening, the little lights aren't flaring because that lens opening isn't so narrow.
We'll talk more about lowlight situations in a later post too.
In conclusion, light can be a photographer's best friend and her own worst enemy. Every lighting situation presents different challenges - too much light, too little light, light from the wrong direction, mixed lighting...I love it - I'm up for the challenge.