When you say “available light photography” to two photographers, you might get two different responses as that term can mean different things to many photographers. One former major magazine staff photographer told me once that available light photography meant to use every light available. Still others refer to it as photography in “low light” conditions and even others, to just use the light around you.
I prefer the latter words as the roots of available light photography date to the last century when flash was often reserved for newspaper photographers due to their reproduction quality. Since the greatest common denominator were non-newspaper photographers, most photographers relied on available light photography to capture their images.
While history dictates that some of this was caused by the limits of color film and the more latitude in the chemical processing of black and white film, shooting available light photography 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, or “on the fly”. His style of photography entertained a more realistic approach or to capture a candid moment through available light photography. People react differently once a flash is triggered.
That Candid Feeling
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 available light photography. In fact, using available light in digital color photography can take on a different feeling through post production plus black and white conversions, though I do miss those the darkroom days of film and its character.
While the characteristics of film are unique in comparison to digital photography today, available light photography still provides its own characteristics to a photograph and some will argue an even better “look” than artificial light—and this is where the confusion can begin, as available light is also artificial light at times.
Available Light is Natural and Artificial Light Too
The difference between artificial light and available light photography is that while artificial light is a form of available light, available light doesn’t require artificial light to exist. Available light is always there on location, artificial or not. Though some photographers call available light “ambient light” and still others call it“natural light.” (See 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 photography, I define it as photography conducted in any light source that preexists when you arrive on location. If you bring lights to a location it’s normally artificial lights. If you want to split hairs, it’s artificial for that photographer, but if another photographer walks by to take a candid photo of what you’re doing then they’re using available light even if it includes the modeling lights of your studio flash units.
As an example, sometimes I’ll take an available light photo for a “behind the scenes” shot even in artificial light. Thus, my light source is the ambient light on the scene which includes the natural, existing light plus the artificial tungsten modeling lamp found in my studio flash head. Though now that I mainly shoot with mirrorless cameras, I find myself using photography reflectors more than studio flash.
Preexisting Light Is Available Light
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’re using artificial light too. But don’t despair, as great photographers often 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. This is more common for photographers that have switched to mirrorless WYSIWYG electronic viewfinder cameras.
These photographers often find their original concept to capture their subject with controllable artificial lights an inferior choice when they see the beauty of ambient light around them. I’ve seen it at my photography workshops where photographers with mirrorless cameras use the modeling lamps of our flash units—I’ve done it too! In fact, I use photography reflectors, like the SUNBOUNCE PRO and MINI more than ever to redirect available light and barely use flash anymore. Every photo in this photography tip were created with a mirrorless camera as the capture device.
DSLR’s are old technology and mirrorless didn’t start with Olympus, Panasonic, Leica, Sony, etc., it started with the iPhone and other smart phones. Yes, smartphones are mirrorless and how often do you see iPhone photography with studio or portable flash units attached? I haven’t, though there’s apps that allow you to sync with some flash units and your iPhone but there is no app requirement to use a photography reflector with a smartphone.
SUNBOUNCE, The Mirrorless Camera Lighting Solution
Regardless whether you use a DSLR or mirrorless as your primary camera, push yourself to turn off your artificial lights and switch your camera settings to match so you can explore all the possibilities of available light photography. You also get the “what you see is what you get” benefit with continuous available light even if it’s redirected with a SUNBOUNCE photography reflector.
You might even say that a SUNBOUNCE photography reflector is the mirrorless camera lighting solution. Besides, who needs camera shutter speed sync issues? There is no camera sync required in available light photography when used with photography reflectors. Photography reflectors are not light sources, they are light modulating devices. Photography reflectors influence light, not create it like artificial light sources.
While every light source or modifier has its own unique characteristics and qualities, so does available light photography. When you use every light source available at a location, sometimes this simply means to use the light or lights available to you that were there when you arrived and even better, redirect that light with a photography reflector—that’s truly taking advantage of every light available to you on location.