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Natural Light, Contrast & Correct Exposure

This is a series of photos that I worked on practicing shooting in natural light.

The goal of these images was to really push natural lighting to an extreme of what it can do as well as practice flawless camera exposure.

In these photos, there are three main features of the lighting and exposure;

1) The highlights for the most part are not burned out and over exposed. Even when the person is wearing white, you can see the detail in highlights.
2) The shadows aren’t under exposed and you can see the detail in the shadows or black clothing.
3) The light was uneven as it hit the subject. You can call this “side lighting” or sometimes I call it “half lighting”.

Side lighting (one side of the subject lit more brightly than the other side) is a common goal in studio portrait photography. It results in the illusion of a more three dimensional image because the shadows and highlights express the form of the subject.

In studio terms, the bright side of the subject is lit with a lighting source called the “main light” and the shadows are lit with less intense light called a “fill light”.

The purpose of a fill light is to keep the dark side of the subject sufficiently lit that one can still see the details in the shadows.

Sometimes a photographer will use a reflector to act as a fill light on the shadowed side. Other times a photographer can use a flash to act as a fill. This is called a “flash fill”

Lighting conditions outside due to the interaction of bright area with shade, create a similar lighting condition to what is done artificially in a studio.

Outside, the sun becomes the “main light” and the reflection of sun light bouncing off walls, objects or the ground become the “fill light”.

The main problem for photographers shooting outside in natural light is CONTRAST.

The camera is only capable of registering only a small degree of difference between the brightest parts of the scene and the darkest parts of the scene.


The above is a basic understanding in the subject of photography lighting.

By identifying uneven lighting condition in the ambient environment one can produce the same effect without lighting equipment but the lighting conditions have to be just right.

Lighting equipment can also be used to increase contrast intentionally to either burn out part of the photo (all white) or intentionally underexpose part of the photo (all black).

These techniques are generally (with a few exceptions) relegated to studio work though and specific to certain types of photography styles.

In terms of the above three main features of the photos (not other factors such as wardrobe, color scheme or pose, expression, message) these are excellent photos.

If you compare these to non-professional photographers photos you will find;

1) The exposure of these photographs is spot it.
2) Other will often lose detail in the highlights and shadows due to under exposure or over exposure.

This is INVARIABLY because of;
A) non-recognition and lack of understanding of lighting conditions.

B) Unskillful use of camera resulting in photos taken at an incorrect exposure.


C) TOO MUCH CONTRAST IN THE SCENE ONE IS PHOTOGRAPHING FOR THE CAMERA TO CAPTURE THE FULL RANGE OF LIGHTING DIFFERENCES. i.e. some things in the scene are too bright and some things in the scene are too dark for the camera to registrar the full range of contrast.

When “C” is the case one has three options;

a) Leave part of the photo under or over exposed.
b) Move to a different scene with less contrast.
c) Use lighting equipment to reduce the amount of contrast in the scene.

Mike Williams

Austin Fine Art & Glamour Photography

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