I remember when I wanted to be a landscape photographer, I was obsessed with Magic Hour. And I also remember when I wanted to be a strobist photographer and all I was obsessed with was soft light. Now as a Street Photographer (Mostly a Documentary shooter but whatever…) I take light as it is, harsh, soft, overcast, gloomy, there’s always a picture to be found there. That being said, here’s how to deal with 7 different lightning situations when doing street photography to shoot all day long. Yipee!
Post dedicated to Ruby Jung
1) Magic Hour
Magic hour usually refers to the time when the sun is either coming up or going down. The light is nothing short of beautiful. Depending on the time you shoot, the colors can go from cold (blue) to warm (red). The tough thing though, is that the light changes quickly, and I mean QUICKLY.
So if you really want to shoot during magic hour, you better be up very early and be out in the streets. It’s the time when business owners start opening their businesses, and street workers are present. Most likely the streets are empty from regular folks, but everyone else is there.
Your subject matter will change if you go out at sunset, businesses are closing their doors, street vendors start lighting their carts, man made light starts mixing with natural light. There are many more people out though, it’s after work and they are probably out relaxing.
Sunset portrait, no harsh shadows around
There are not many harsh shadows out because the light is soft, and it’s a killer time for available light portraiture. Since the light is dim, you will probably want to bump up your ISO or shoot at a slower shutter speed. Also since the light will change rapidly, it might be a good idea to have the camera at Aperture priority or something, by walking two blocks the light might have changed.
There are four times to be aware of at early morning or night: Astronomical, Nautical & Civil Twilight, and Sunrise (or Sunset). The light changes temperature (therefore mood) depending on how many degrees the sun is below the horizon. Long story short, the sky goes from blue to average in a matter of hours. I would personally wake up at Nautical Twilight to go out and shoot.
If you shoot in Black and White, the draw of Magic Hour is beautiful, with soft shadows. If you shoot Color, the colors you will get are arguably the best of the day. What I really like at Magic Hour, is when natural light is fighting man made light, it’s a non issue for BW shooters but when you shoot color, there’s two different light temperatures fighting for attention in the pictures. The top image of the man in the train illustrates my point, inside is a dull, man-made light from the train, outside is a beautiful light, I shot it when I saw it was on the face of the man.
In the color image the yellow really creates color tension, a non issue for the BW image
The shot also brings home a point: Color contrast. When out in the streets shooting at Magic hour, look for color contrasts, usually it’s a patch of warmer light on a background of colder light, see below:
Not only the man above is brighter than the rest of the scene, he is also warmer, the scene being in shadows made by buildings. The fact that he is warm not only creates color contrast (Your eye focuses on the man first, before the rest of the scene) but also creates a sense of depth. It’s an age old art technique: Create depth by making the point of focus warmer and the background colder.
What to look for: Pretty much anything you shoot will look good light wise, everything is of one accord because the light is of low contrast in the streets. Contrasts can be created if you juxtapose man-made light with natural light, of if you look for patches of light, warming an otherwise cold scene.
What sucks: Waking up early, Higher ISOs, fast changing light
2) Harsh Light 1
Now that you’ve probably drank your coffee (We can only be friends if you drink some Starbucks coffee), the sun is up and it’s time to deal with it. When the Sun is at a certain degree above the horizon, the light starts getting very harsh and scenes start getting very contrasty. The most basic thing here is to always be aware of where the sun is.
The absolute, no brainer approach to harsh light is to put the sun in your back. Now of course, you can still get soft shadow images if you go shoot in shadow areas, but if you want freedom, you must deal with the sun. The image above is the best example I can find, the sun was in my back and I was going in the direction further and further away from the sun.
Now where there is harsh light, there are harsh shadows. Shadows, when thoughtfully placed and underexposed in Lightrom can become an element of the frame like the image above. When you are dealing with harsh light and you expose for the parts of the scene that are hit by the sun, everything will become underexposed because the difference of light between the lit parts and unlit parts are great. Since there’s lots of light, you can shoot at higher shutter speeds, therefore operate fast.
When you get the sun in your back, it’s like having a lighting assistant behind your back. If you want to bring back some elements of the scene back if harsh contrasts are not your thing, you simply have to bring back the shadows back in Lightroom by using the “Shadow” slider.
What to look for: Shadows, Patches of light, Faces looking at the sun
What sucks: Nothing
2) Harsh Light 2 (Backlit)
This usually is a No-No for people but I think it’s the most interesting. Instead of putting the sun in your back, you put it in front of you. It’s a No-No for most because if the sun in in front of you, your subject’s face will be in the shadows. Well that’s what I like the most. There are three ways I usually solve the issue.
– Find something to hide the sun
That’s what I did in what’s probably my favorite picture. The sun is bright, very bright, hide it behind leaves like I did, or find trees, poles or even someone’s head to hide it behind. It won’t be so direct. In the example below, I framed it to peek behind a building. I like the sun directly in front because it forces me to deal with it, I can’t ignore it.
Here’s what Ruby Jung, who inspired the post made:
– Shoot the darn thing
Or you can simply shoot the darn Sun directly. I find it’s one of the most interesting elements to put in a frame because we can never really see the sun with out own eyes, we avoid it intuitively, and including it makes a sort of visual surprise, but that’s just my opinion.
Sometimes I deal with the sun by exposing for the sky and then simply go back in Lightroom and recover my shadows, this is the case for this image:
In the original state, all of the bottom part of the image was black, the only thing you could see was the outside of the window. When I got to Lightroom, I simply recovered the bottom underexposed area and I was done, this is one of the advantages of RAW. Alternatively what you could do is simply use the flash to balance the natural light with the flash.
What to look for: Shadows, Patches of light, patterns
What sucks: The sun might be completely overpower the image (To overexposed, to close to the face) and you are left with a ruined photo
3) Harsh Light 3 (Sidelight)
To deal with the Sun’s harsh light you can shoot with it in your back, in front of you….or you can make sure it comes from the side. The trick to harsh light situations is to basically be aware of the direction of the sun and shoot accordingly. Here’s an example of side light:
The sun was on my right, really harsh light, I made sure I could capture the guy’s face looking at the direction of the sun and I was done. You can shoot someone that is facing the other way, but there is just something about the outline of the face that I find pleasing. Only you know what you want to shoot. In the shot below the Sun was on the right, and I had to bring back the left part in Lightroom because it was underexposed:
For this last photo, the sun was high and on the right. There was a tunnel of light, the rest of the scene was pretty much in shadows.
What to look for: Shadows, Patches of light, patterns
What sucks: Needs more attention than Front and Backlighting
4) Harsh Light 4 (Duck!)
The last way to deal with harsh light….is to simply ignore it completely. Go for the shadows and ignore the high contrast scenes. You can go and find places that are just in the shadows because of their locations:
Or you can just point the camera at people that are inside or the opposite:
Things really get interesting in my opinion when there is harsh, contrasty light outside and you stay inside, especially a cool location like a train station. There are pictures to be made like that:
Or even waiting under a bridge:
In my opinion, we should embrace harsh light, learn to deal with it, it’s how we grow as photographers. Plus there’s always something interesting with patches of light like this:
What to look for: Look outside from inside a location, Shoot what’s inside
What sucks: It’s Sunny outside why not go out?
It’s gloomy, the sun’s shining but the clouds suck up all the light and diffuse it. Right about the perfect day for a portrait shoot, but for street photography, it basically means low contrast scenes. When in overcast situations, the light is soft and low, so a slower shutter speed a a higher ISO might be in order. Things are a bit harder in overcast situations, when you have the sun, you can lead the eye to go directly to your subject by playing around with contrasting light….but that’s all gone when there are too many clouds because the light is diffused.
So you have to rely on composition, for example to lead the eye, say with lines leading to your subjects. Or you can lighten your subject and darken the background to bring focus to your subject like so:
Or you can pull out the flash to fill in where you want to lead the eye:
It’s up to the photographer to lead the eye without any help from the sun. Good thing you can bring attention in other ways like focusing on color contrasts, etc.
What to look for: Contrasts to bring attention to your subject, leading lines
What sucks: No Sun!
If it rains: Run. Water is to the camera what Kryptonite is to Superman. If water goes in your camera it’s pretty much cooked. If it happens, you can try to put it into rice, and then try to open it (careful of electric discharge) and then dry the insides with a no heat hair dryer. After the rain there is many opportunities to shoot, especially look for reflections, they just spice things up. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t shoot much after the rain, so here’s a random example:
You can always stay inside and shoot outside. Since when it rains it’s probably overcast the same tips apply to rainy situations, just beware of water getting into your camera.
What to look for: Contrasts to bring attention to your subject, Leading lines, Reflections
What sucks: No Sun!
I like the night, it’s when I get to
suck some blood go out. Well actually I’m not quite the night shooter. Photography deals with light….when there is no light there are two basic schools of thought: