Today I thought I'd tackle another reader question from my Facebook query a little while ago. This one's from Ali (Thanks Ali! Starbucks GC coming your way!): Q: Is there an idiot-proof way to make photos come out decent when you're stuck in really bad lighting (low-lighting, flourescents, etc.)?

A: First off, I wanted to take a moment to discuss "good" lighting and "bad" lighting. I think it's important to note that because photography is an art form, the lines around good and bad are drawn loosely and are broken all the time - in some instances with fantastic results. That said, there are certainly some generally pleasing and generally displeasing lighting situations. I'll tackle several instances of the latter here.

Scenario 1: Not enough light.Chapel Hill Photographer

Photography is all about light. In order to create a photographic image, a camera's sensor must be exposed to light. Taking pictures when there is little light can be challenging, and is one of the most significant arguments for investing in a better camera. The size of the sensor, the ISO capability of the camera, and the maximum size of the lens aperture all affect how well a camera reads light, particularly in low-light situations.

If you find yourself in a low-light and are either reluctant to turn on your flash or have no access to flash, here are some suggestions that you can use individually or together to capture better exposed images:

  • Increase your camera's ISO to the maximum number that will give you an acceptable image. As you increase your ISO, your images will look grainier or "noisier". Depending on your personal preference, any noise-reducing software you might use, and the nature of the image itself, a certain amount of grain may be acceptable or even desirable, but at some point, the image quality suffers.
  • Open your lens aperture. All DSLR lenses and some point and shoot lenses allow the photographer to widen or narrow their aperture. Increasing the size of the aperture allows more light into the camera when the image is created.
  • Stabilize your camera. When you're shooting in low-light situations, your shutter is usually open for longer periods of time than it is in brighter light, often resulting in blurry pictures. In order to combat that, put your camera on a tripod or table, or practice to gain a steadier hand.
  • Increase the amount of light on the scene. Well, duh... but really - if you can turn on lights or move your subject into more light, you may very well be able to avoid using the dread pop-up flash.

I didn't want to turn on my flash, because I didn't want to ruin the effect of the candles, so I cranked my ISO to 4000. I chose to use these pictures as an example, because the grain in this second shot is pretty apparent, and in this case, I thought it was worth it to get the picture just as I saw it.Chapel Hill Photographer Scenario 2: High sun/Overhead lightChapel Hill Photographer

As we've discussed in the past, though the sun can be a fantastic light source in photographs, it can also present an obstacle, depending on where it is in the sky. If you've got low-hanging, sideways sunlight, there are a hundred ways you can position your subject with great results. If the sun is high in the sky, though, things get a little trickier. In the middle of the day (or in a room with overhead lighting), be sure you're looking carefully at your subject's face: you want to avoid dark shadows around the eyes and under the nose. Ideally, there won't be any hard shadow lines on your subject's face at all! If there are, consider

  • moving your subject into open shade
  • turning your subject so their back is to the sun (if the sun isn't directly overhead)
  • filling the shadows with fill flash
  • if you're indoors with overhead light, consider changing angles and having your subject look up into the light

This picture, taken just a minute after the earlier one, benefits from the tent that provides open shade. The details of the faces are much clearer, and there are no harsh shadows.Chapel Hill Photographer Scenario 3: Colored interior light.

Chapel Hill Photographer Of course, the problem with turning on lights and using those as your light source is that most lightbulbs cast some kind of unnatural-looking color on your subjects. Normal lamp (tungsten) lightbulbs cast that yellow-y, orange-y light and flourescents make everyone look green. One option in those situations is to change your white balance settings accordingly. To be honest, though, I find it easier to change white balance after the fact, and shoot almost entirely on auto white balance. Any modern photo editing software will allow you to change the color scheme on an image with a single click, so I say go for that. I'm not usually one for shortcuts, but that's a pretty good one!

For the correction here, all I did was use my white balance eyedropper tool (most photo editing software has one) and selected the white on the bride's bathrobe to correct the yellow cast from the tungsten lighting in the original image:

Chapel Hill Photographer Scenario 4: Mixed light.Chapel Hill Photographer

Much harder to deal with is the common problem of mixed light - a combination of tungsten, flourescent, and/or natural light, creating different color casts in different parts of the image. I frequently see this problem when people have turned on interior lights during the daytime to add to the light coming in from the windows. In these pictures, the subject is often one color and the background another, making it impossible to solve the color problem with the single click of a mouse. If I have control of the light in this situation, I generally opt to avoid this situation altogether, by turning off the interior lights and move my subject toward a window, or alternatively closing the blinds/curtains to eliminate the natural light.  If I'm not in control of the light (usually during a wedding or event), I try shooting from different angles or else use my flash to overpower the ambient light.

I noticed the light on the wall while taking the above image, so once the bride's earring was in, I had her turn ever so slightly and changed my angle to avoid the light in the back:Chapel Hill Photographer Scenario 5: Direct Flash

Flash can be a fantastic way to light a scene or even out imbalanced lighting situations, but when you're forced to shoot that flash directly at your subject, it often flattens their appearance, washes out skin tones, and adds dark, unflattering shadows. I almost never use direct flash - I typically bounce my flash off of nearby walls or ceilings - but there are instances in which I have no choice. When shooting outside at night away from buildings and other large objects, for example, without a fancy lighting setup, a front-facing flash to illuminate your subject. The best way to handle this scenario is to use a flash modifier. Flash modifiers can be small or large, simple or elaborate, expensive or nearly free. Basically, it's anything that increases the effective size of your flash. The flash on your camera is small and creates hard light. By diffusing that light, it becomes softer, and the bigger the diffuser, the softer the light.

I had to dig deep to find a direct, un-diffused on-camera flash picture in my files... I just don't take them, period. But here's a picture of me and my beautiful friend Cami from 6 years ago (like I said - I had to DIG). Whoever took the picture clearly tried one shot with the flash on, and one with it off. They both have their issues, but I figured I'd show you for comparison's sake:Chapel Hill Photographer

and here's one using a Gary Fong diffuser - which I pretty much only take out of my camera bag for this one shot at the end of the wedding reception:

Chapel Hill Photographer Just recognizing these issues for what they are is a BIG first step toward improving your images. Look closely at pictures you really like, and pictures you don't, and try to identify what the light source is and how it's illuminating the subject. Practice the above tips and let me know what you find works for you!