Documentary photography may involve a lot of portraiture work, but unlike the studio photographer who can manipulate light through the use of flashes and diffusers, documentary photographers have to work with available light. But it isn’t necessarily natural light only. As the name implies, it refers to light emitted from any source, whether natural or artificial.
So, let’s now look at the most common situations and see what options we have for working with these types of light, whether natural, artificial or mixed light sources.
Documentary photography may involve a lot of portraiture work, but unlike the studio photographer who can manipulate light through the use of flashes and diffusers, documentary photographers have to work with available light.
What is available light? “Available light can be any source of light that isn’t explicitly supplied by the photographer for the purpose of taking photos.”
This definition means that there is no interference on the part of the photographer because he aims to document reality.
But, available light, isn’t necessarily natural light only. As the name implies, it refers to light emitted from a source, whether natural or artificial. Documentary photographers have to adapt to any light source, colour and direction. They have to know how to make the most of it, whatever the situation.
So, let’s now look at the most common situations and see what options we have for working with these types of light, whether natural, artificial or mixed light sources:
Sunlight (golden hour): If it’s early morning or late afternoon, there are no reasons for you to worry. Almost all directions are good to photograph, whether the light is gently illuminating our subject or a backlight situation which can be equally interesting.
Silhouettes can be an effective way of portraying situations or events involving the subject with the surrounding environment.
Direct sunlight: Harsh direct sunlight is the most difficult type of light to work with. The results can vary according to the direction in which you are regarding: (a) The sun; (b) Your subject. But remember, your subjects are not models to be directed. You are the one who must work your way around them in order to make the photo to work. If you have the sun behind you, facing your subject, you will get a picture with a lot of contrast, well-defined contours but not very flattering. But if you position yourself towards the sun, your subject will be lit from the back. Using spot metering or exposure compensation, you will now expose the photograph for the subject’s face.
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Co-founder of the Fuji X Passion Project.
Travel and documentary photographer from Portugal, using mirrorless cameras since 2012.