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Available Light Photography Makes A Difference


Available Light is Natural and Artificial Light Too

Available light photo, Army Pathfinders

U.S. Army Pathfinders “sling-load” a helicopter.

Available light in photography can mean many things to different photographers, in fact one famous photographer I know, often refers to available light as using every light available, while others refer to it as using “low light,” or the light around you. For the purpose of this photoblog article, I’ll go with the latter as the roots of available light go back to the last century when flash was often reserved to newspaper photographers, due to their reproduction quality, thus most other photographers captured images in available or low-light.

While history dictates that some of this was caused by the limits to color film and the more latitude in the chemical processing of black and white film, shooting in available light is where some of the greats became great, like one of the founders of the Magnum Photo Agency, Henri Cartier-Bresson. Cartier-Bresson popularized the famous phrase, “the decisive moment,” which meant capturing photos as they happened, “on the fly,” the goal was for a more realistic or candid moment.

Quite frankly, this is where I feel most photographers fail, they go with photos that are too posed and lack the candid feeling often found with the old days of shooting available light. In fact, using available light, in digital color photography, can take on a different feeling by simply converting the final photo to a more “old time” black and white using software programs like Adobe® Lightroom along with Nik Software’s Silver Efex Pro, my two favorite programs for this technique, though I do miss those old darkroom days at times as film had it’s own character.

Available light photography.

A flamingo finds the concentrated form of available light in the water caused by a lamppost nearby.

While the characteristics of film are unique in comparison to digital photography today, available light does provide it’s own characteristics to a photograph and some will argue an even better “look” to photography than artificial light—and this is where the confusion can begin, as available light is also artificial light. The difference is that the artificial light, in available light, was there to begin with on the scene or location, such as a street lamp, not a portable studio power pack placed with a purpose to direct light onto a scene. Some photographers will also call available light “ambient light,” and still others can confuse it as only “natural light.” (See photoblog post: Natural, Ambient And Existing Light in Photography)

There are so many terms for light, available, natural, ambient, fill, artificial, existing, etc., but when it comes to available light, I prefer to define it as any light source that preexists when you arrive on the scene or location. So if you bring lights to a scene or set, then it’s artificial light, and if you want to split hairs, it’s artificial for that photographer or cinematographer, but if another photographer walks by to take a candid photo of what you’re doing, they are then using available light.

Available Light photos on location.

Here are two unique available light photos I took. One, at a tobacco auction in North Carolina demonstrates the available light from up above, the other, taken in South Carolina, demonstrates the available street and building lights.

An example is at my photography workshops, I’ll take an available light photo, with my camera set at tungsten white balance, for a “behind the scenes” shot of the photographer shooting a model with flash, or artificial light. Thus my light source is usually the ambient light on the set, to include any natural light plus the tungsten modeling lamp found in the studio flash head and the photographer actually photographing the model is using artificial light.

Available light photo in Italy.

Available light captured at St. Peter”s Basilica, it contains the largest interior of any Christian church in the world.

Bottom line, any light that preexists when you arrive to take a photograph is available light, regardless of the source and if you bring lights, you are using artificial light. But don’t despair, as great photographers often will set up their artificial lights, then suddenly switch off their radio remote triggers, change their white balance, and shoot with slower shutter speeds and faster apertures to capture their photos with available light. Often they will find their original concept was great to capture their subject with controllable artificial lights, but the better results come from using the available light around them; and I recommend, if you want a variety in your photography, try this.

Push yourself to turn off your artificial lights, switch your camera settings to match the available light, and look for the light—see it and feel it.  Every light source has its own unique characteristics and qualities. This is another reason I love my Canon 85mm F/1.2 lens, its extremely wide-aperture allows me to shoot in low light conditions for amazing available or ambient light photographs. So when I decide to use every light available on location it simply means I’ll switch from my artificial lights I brought to the location to the available light that was there when I arrived—that’s truly using every light available to you!

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  1. I am so much aware about the photography techniques. I only know about the various angles are are used in photography. But love to learn from your blog…it is quite informative.

  2. Alisha,
    Thank you and I’m glad you like the blog. Please let others know. Thanks again, rg.

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Welcome to (Lens Diaries™), a hybrid photography blog with social flair. The photoblog provides photo tips, photo tutorials and photo diaries by professional photographer, author, writer, speaker and social media consultant, Rolando Gomez.

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