As photographers, we are always on the quest for what I call “Optimal Light”. You know, that beautiful light that hangs on the margins of the day – sunrise/sunset. How would you tackle a project if that spectacular light wasn’t available on the day you were out shooting? Are there any creative tactics for you to use to produce better photos when things aren’t happening the way you truly want them to? Here are three creative tactics that I use when everything else is failing.
Creative Tactics – Silhoutte
I will look to the silhouette when the light in front of me is less than ideal. We often think of sunrise and sunset light as the standard go-to optimal light. However, when the atmosphere is super dry and devoid of any type of cloud system the light is only best right before sunrise and right after sunset. I think this happens because the sun isn’t really getting filtered by anything. This scenario also happens right after a weather system has cleared and right before a new system enters our environment. I mostly see the effect occurring in the drier climates of our planet. This effect lessens when high pressure stays for a long time. The winds typically start pushing dust and pollution into the upper atmosphere, thus helping to diffuse the light a bit more.
When I look to the above silhouette image, I am looking for a recognizable shape. The outline of whatever my subject is prior to taking the photo. The photo above is the perfect outline of the head of a bighorn sheep right at sunset in Glacier National Park. I have used this technique with skiers, mountain bikers, trees, flowers and any other subject that has a definable shape that would be recognizable to my viewer. The silhouette photograph produces one of the most graphically designed formats of a photograph. It isolates the simplicity of shapes.
Creative Tactics – Flash
I learned how to use fill flash techniques by reading one of Joe McNally’s books. The first time that I tried what he wrote about, it was like having Sasquatch cross the road right in front of me. I couldn’t believe how easily it worked. You need a single flash with a set of colored gels for this technique to work. Add a way to remotely trigger that flash and you can conquer any lighting situation. The remote allows the flash to be taken off-camera. This in turn allows you to directionally control your light source.
When you add the gels, you warm up the light coming from the flash so it doesn’t look, well, so flashy. Using a flash really helped when I lived in the Pacific Northwest and winter produced weeks of gray days at a time. This technique works great regardless of your subject. You typically only get one shot from a flash. So blazing away with 10 frames per second won’t help. If you work on timing your shutter release though, you will see success.
I used a single, gelled flash off-camera to create this photo at Steven’s Pass Ski Area. The key was timing my single capture for when my rider got to the perfect point in my composition on the boardwalk. One little trick to use for a photo like this is to put your frame advance to single-shot only. It helps you to mentally focus for releasing the shutter at that single specific moment. It may take a couple of tries to get the timing perfect, but from there you will be able to duplicate the action over and over.
Creative Tactics – Artificial Light
I am like a Jack Russell Terrier jacked up on caffeine and steroids when covering an assignment. I wake up way before sunrise and I don’t stop taking photographs until long after sunset. A big problem we face as photographers is what to do once the sun has set. This is when I look to artificial light. This type of light differs from the above scenario in that you do not need a flash. You need your imagination and a light source as simple as a handheld flashlight. That is not your only option though, you have car lights, parking lot lights, town lights, city lights, building lights. Anything that is producing light will allow you to see again.
In the above example, I was shooting an assignment for Bike Magazine on mountain biking in the Tetons. We had just finished taking photos with a group of fourteen downhill riders. Everyone was congregating in the parking lot of a local bar. It was at that very moment (nine o’clock at night) that the photograph materialized for me. Riders standing in a parking lot with the exterior lights of the bar illuminating my subjects and casting dramatic shadows off into the darkness. This is one of my favorite images from last year.
The more tools that we have in our quiver, the more chances we have at a successful photograph. Remember, silhouette, flash, and artificial light can provide drama in a photograph when drama isn’t available. Or when you want to experiment with something different creatively.