Shooting in Existing or Natural Light

Cameras love light, that's for sure. In general, you need the flash for indoor shots but not always. Some of the best interior photos use nothing more than light streaming in from a window. Pictures taken with only ambient light without adding flash are called existing light or natural light photos. Portraits taken in natural light have a classic feel, reminiscent of timeless paintings by great artists like Rembrandt.

Of course, relying solely on existing light isn't always feasible, but if you can manage it, natural light has the following advantages over flash photography:

• More depth. Flash photography's big drawback is that it illuminates only about the first ten feet of the scene. Everything beyond that fades to black. If you turn the flash off, your camera reads the lighting for the entire room. Not only is your primary subject exposed properly, but the surrounding setting is too, giving the picture more depth.

• Less harshness. The light in an existing-light photo generally comes from a variety of sources: overhead lights, windows, lamps, and reflections off walls and ceilings. Combined, these factors create soft, balanced lighting, instead of the stark, whitewashed glare that a built-in flash often generates.

• More expressiveness. Too often, flashing in your subjects' faces produces that "deer in the headlights" stare. Existing-light pictures tend to be more subtle and expressive, because the people you're shooting are more relaxed when they're not being pelted by bursts of light.

The vast majority of digital cameras come with an automatic flash to compensate for any lighting deficits. In the interest of keeping the customer happy, camera makers design the flash to ensure that you get a picture every time you press the shutter buttoneven if it's not the most attractive, artistic one. If you want to get creative and flash-free, these tools come in handy:

• Flash control. Before you ask your significant other to perch on a stool by a sunny window, make sure you know how to turn your camera's flash on and off. (It's not always obvious.) An unwanted blast of light is unpleasant for the model and, perhaps, embarrassing for the photographer.

• Adjustable ISO (film speed). If your camera lets you adjust the film speed (Section 1.8.3), try a setting of 200 or 400 to make your camera more light sensitive. (If you have enough light for a decent exposure, though, then don't increase the film speed, because it'll slightly degrade the image quality.)

Tip: To tell whether you need to increase the film speed, simply review a test shot. (On the LCD screen, zoom in, magnifying the photo, to inspect it more closely.) If the image is too dark or has motion blur, increase the film speed from 100 to 200. Take another test shot. If it still looks dark, try increasing one more time to 400 speed. And open the drapes all the way.

• Spot meter. Consider turning on spot metering (Section 3.1.1). It permits the camera to make exposure decisions based only on the subject, without being affected by the lighting in the surrounding background.

• Remote control or self-timer. Holding the camera still may well be the biggest challenge of existing-light photography. If a remote control came with your camera, use it. If not, use the camera's self-timer feature, which counts off a few seconds before snapping the picture automatically.

• Tripod. A high-quality tripod is an optional accessory, but if you take a liking to existing-light photography, you'll find it invaluable for holding the camera steady.

• Reflector. To help direct existing light where you need it, you can use a photographer's reflector panel. Or you can make do with any white cardboard, paper, or sheets you have lying around (more details in a moment).

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