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What is Available Light Photography?

written by: •edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 2/25/2010

When you first begin photography, you use only the light you find readily available around you. The tendency of photographers is then to acquire progressively more elaborate equipment to alter this lighting, or even to create entirely artificially lit scenes. But is this necessarily the right path?

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    Definition of Available Light Photography

    Available light photography is pretty much what it sounds like: using the light available to you at the scene of the shot, and nothing but. This means no artificial lighting like flash. Some photographers further refine this definition by discluding all artificial light as well, or even any attempts to modify available light.

    Available light photography is attractive to many because the lighting feels, well, more natural. Portraits and other types of photography done with natural lighting and not with a complicated studio set up tends to feel much more real, much more relaxed, not just because of the nature of the lighting but also the more spontaneous feel of the shoot.

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    Shooting with Available Light

    In its purest form, available light photography includes only natural lighting, with no modifications by the photographer. While this doesn't provide the photographer with too much control over the lighting other than deciding what time of day to shoot and whether to stand in the sun or in the shade, natural lighting can still be absolutely exquisite to work with.

    Available light photography is best practiced outdoors during the daytime, as relatively little natural light filters indoors, and shooting by night is quite technically difficult (though by no means impossible.)

    Diffuse lighting effects is best provided on cloudy days, in the shade where there is no direct sunlight, which tend to create softer effects, or just before and after dawn and dusk respectively where you also have beautiful colorplay. Higher contrast lighting, on the other hand, is readily found on bright sunny days, as well as sparkles and shimmers of lightplay in the surrounding environment.

    The lack of control of the photographer may force them to take steps that may feel technically wrong, for instance, leaving the background overexposed so that the subject is properly exposed. While this may bother some photographers, and not provide as much control over the final product, it's also an opportunity for artistic license, to play on nature's unpredictability and see how you can turn it to your advantage. Such photography is inherently innovation, and in the digital age where countless millions of photos by aspiring photographers are uploaded every day, such experimentation is necessary to stand out.

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    Artificial Modifications: Reflectors & More

    There are numerous devices that professionally-inclined photographers use that will artificially change the lighting. While some photographers dispute whether these should be included in the definition of available light photography, as use of such devices is an obvious intervention to the scene, they still constitute an incredibly powerful method of control for the photographer to achieve the desired effect.

    The list of devices made to tweak available light are long, and it'd be impossible to list all the possible variations: photographers creative innovative new devices to match their every need, either with a quick DIY or with commercial products. The two most basic types of devices are reflectors and diffusers, with reflectors being afar and away the most popular type of device.

    However, many of the disadvantages of not using available light in the first place also apply to the use of such props. By using and depending on such devices, you limit your flexibility to move, to go with the flow and simply shoot away instead of continuously adjusting large external devices to get exactly the effect you decide you want. It also reduces the intimacy of the shooting, which may result in a more awkward and self-conscious model. Also, if you're looking at just getting started, there's a rather steep capital cost curve involved with getting all the “necessities", or a corresponding amount of time poured into making your own DIY versions.