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An auto rickshaw in the early morning in Agra, India © Beren Patterson. How to use available light in photography and how to balance your flash in tricky situations. Clearly illustrated with many examples.

Working with Available Light

Available light is in many ways the most convenient way to photograph. It requires the least equipment, but it also requires the keenest observational skills and, as a result is one of the most rewarding. It gives you an excuse to go and appreciate the everyday subtleties of light in your surroundings. The other great thing about working with available light is it is the least intrusive. You don't have flashes going off, banks of lights or reflecting boards.

I hope if you are reading this section you instinctively know where the sun is, and ensure that the subject has the best possible light to suit you desired result. This doesn't mean you aren't photographing during the middle of the day, but you are very aware of the bright light, strong shadows and washed-out colours.

Remember, you can increase contrast and colour saturation by using a polarizing filter in some situations. Note that a polarizer is not a good all purpose filter and does not in any way replace a UV or Skylight filter on your SLR.

I strongly recommend looking at other photographer's work and try and figure out where the sun is, have they used any other lights or reflectors? If there is a person you may be able to see the reflection in their eyes of a flash. The Links Section has links to some of my favourite sites and books.

© Beren Patterson. All Rights Reserved.

Balancing Your Flash

One of the hardest things to do photographically, but one that can look great when you pull it off is to use your flash to balance existing light and freeze movement. The trick is to get the flash to just act as a fill flash. On the picture above I used my fastest lens (50mm ƒ1.4) wide open (i.e. ƒ1.4) and a shutter speed of around 1/8th of a second. When holding a shot like this make sure that the camera is as steady as possible, and if you can, use a tripod or monopod. Then, with my flash set to TTL mode (check your manual or see the glossary) I get the flash to make up the difference in exposure. This is great for shooting scenes like this festival where there are a lot of different lighting scenarios.

If your flash has a swivel head then use it. This is designed to let you bounce (reflect) light off the ceiling, walls, etc. . . and selectively illuminate your subject. It also softens the results of the flash producing a very soft effect. Be careful about the colour of the surface you are reflecting off.

Some photographers always set their camera to under-expose on the flash (i.e. -1/3) and over-expose on the ƒ-stop by +1/3. This reduces the normal affect of the flash while still producing a good exposure.

Common photographic terms explainedLinks to useful and interesting websites, books and DVDs