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Ambient Light

Ambient light can be sunlight, or it can be artificial light that is provided at a stadium or arena. It is simply light you can’t control that but you have to learn to use.


You must learn to use the light that is present at game time. It is what it is. The key consideration to remember is that there is no one correct exposure. You have to look at the situation, decide what part of the subject matter is most important to you, and then expose to amplify that part of the image. You can also help yourself massively by paying attention to where the light is coming from and positioning yourself to take advantage of it.

Often, the light is constantly changing. Therefore, you should monitor the exposure settings each time before you shoot and make sure that you have the camera set to do what you want it to do. You should drive the equipment instead of letting the equipment drive you.

The golden hour

Ideally, the best time to make dramatically lit images is the hour before sunset. This lighting is often referred to as “liquid light.” Its qualities are rich, full, golden, and very directional. It’s perfect for making front and backlit images, and it normally changes quickly (Figure 4.1).

Figure 4.1

Figure 4.1. This motorcycle race was shot in the Australian Outback at sunset. I sat facing west so the backlight would amplify the dust being kicked up by the motorcycles.

Midday harshness

Working from an elevated position or getting very low is often the best way to deal with ugly light. Sports equipment the athletes wear—uniforms, hats, or helmets—is particularly difficult to expose for during the middle of the day (Figure 4.2).

Figure 4.2

Figure 4.2. Notre Dame vs. Michigan was a noon game in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Football is very difficult to shoot in midday light, so I decided to shoot from an elevated position and take advantage of shadows and patterns.

Overcast deception

There is a common misconception that you need bright sunlight to make photographs. The truth is actually quite the opposite. Flat, soft light has the potential to be simply lovely and is by far the easiest light to work with. Overcast light is wonderful when you’re shooting action sports. The tonal range is condensed, and you can expose in a way to capture highlights and shadows well. This is especially important for sports where faces are obscured by helmets, and where hats can cause dark shadows on foreheads and eyes.

I love shooting horse racing in overcast weather (Figure 4.3). When the sun is shining, it is very difficult to expose for the skin tone of the riders, which can mix with the generally dark coats of the horses and the light tan mud.

Figure 4.3

Figure 4.3. Overcast weather casts a nice, even light across the whole field, making the image easier to read.

Artificial Light

Artificial light is usually the ugliest light possible and is frequently the light you will have to deal with. When you’re working under these lights, you will have limited options. To stop action, you’ll need to use the fastest lens you have and work with the highest ISO settings your camera will produce acceptable images with.

Color temperature will be important. Auto normally works fine, but if you can identify the color temperature of the light, set your camera accordingly.

Pay attention to the direction of the lights, and make sure that you note any places on the playing surface where it is brighter or darker. The light might appear to be roughly consistent, but patches of dark and light can make a big exposure difference, as can the angle the light is coming from. For example, the exposure from an elevated position and the exposure at the field of play will be very different. In basketball, the higher you go the brighter it will be, because basketball courts reflect light.

Basketball is one of the many sports that takes place indoors (Figure 4.4). The good thing about shooting inside is that the light never changes. The bad news is that you have no control over what that light is.

Figure 4.4

Figure 4.4. Kobe Bryant wipes his face during a game in 2005. To make this image, I got as low to the floor as I could and shot up to reduce the effect of the ambient light by putting him against the black ceiling.


Strobes provide that necessary flash of light when you need it most. One of my favorite ways to use strobes is in combination with natural—or ambient—light. Without a strobe, the subject in Figure 4.5 would have been in silhouette. But by introducing light, I was able to draw him out of the background while still including it.

Figure 4.5

Figure 4.5. Placing the sunset in the background gives viewers more information and adds an interesting element to the photo.

On-camera flash

On-camera flashes are small, less powerful lights that normally fit in the hot shoe of your camera. They are lightweight and usually work automatically with the camera, allowing the sensors in the camera and the flash to communicate with each other and provide an acceptable amount of light for normal situations.

These flashes put out a small amount of light, which means they cannot sufficiently illuminate a very large area. They have a short flash duration, which means the burst of light is short and therefore has greater stopping power (Figure 4.6).

Figure 4.6

Figure 4.6. Using the Nikon SB-900 and a slow shutter speed, I was able to illuminate both cowboys and maintain the dusk light in the background.

Big strobes

Big strobes provide significantly more light. They are large, require more power, and normally have slow flash durations. They are not automatic, so they do not communicate with cameras directly.

The advantage of using a big strobe is the size of the area that it can light. Use big powerful strobes that you can place a good distance from the playing surface at angles that will not disturb the competition, or use the artificial light that is in place. Small strobes are not powerful enough to get the job done and will likely not be allowed for security reasons.

Strobes for portraits

The size of a strobe unit doesn’t matter nearly as much for portraits. The key to good portraiture is controlling the light by shaping it, modifying it, and making it provide the tone and style you want.

I made the portrait of Danny Woodhead in Figure 4.7 after he broke the NCAA all-time rushing record at Chadron State University in Chadron, Nebraska. For the portrait, I wanted to show the small environment he was in, even though he was one of the best college football players ever.

Figure 4.7

Figure 4.7. I used a large strobe—an Elinchrome 1200 watt/second strobe with a Chimera octabox—to illuminate the whole locker room around Danny.

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