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Event photography case study | Balancing natural and artificial light

Event photography case study | Balancing natural and artificial light

I thought I’d spend some time talking about different jobs I’ve done, going through my thought process before and during the shoot, to give you some insight into exactly what goes into a shoot.  Because I strive to make a lot of my work look naturalistic, it’s easy to assume that I’m just turning up and clicking away, whereas the truth is making it look natural takes a lot of effort!

Here’s a recent event shot at a restaurant in central Manchester this summer just gone.  On arrival, I always look at the location, checking the different source of light and what kind of light they are.  After all, light is essential to all photographs, and good light is absolutely fundamental to great photos.

At Tattu, the room is dark for atmosphere, with darkly painted wall, dark wood ceiling, deep leather padding and the bar set back in the room, illuminated mostly by large Edison bulb chandeliers.  One wall of the restaurant is large glass windows, allowing a lot of natural light in, but there’s a mezzanine floor that creates an overhang half way into the room.  So, half the room is double height, flooded with daylight, while the rear half is single height and in deeper shadow.  Very much a room of two halves! 

The evening in question was glorious, with bright sunshine flooding into the place.  However, because of the tall surrounding buildings, I knew that the natural light would drop considerably once the sun started to sink low.  That meant a limited time window to use it.

There are a couple of rules you need to understand about light.  One is that it travels in a straight line.  So, in using the window light, I needed to be aware of the direction it was coming in from, as that affected the shots hugely.  If I was facing the massive windows, there was a huge quantity of light coming onto the camera’s sensor, causing problems of over exposure if I wanted to stop people turning into silhouettes.  That’s why those shots have such bright backgrounds, as the windows have nearly blown out.  By turning ninety degrees, and having the light coming in from the side, I can use it to create well-lit shots more easily; and by having my back to the window, everything is even easier as the window light naturally falls off halfway into the room, which gives a sense of depth to those shots.

Every time I moved towards the rear of the room I was aware of how much darker it was, and how much harder the camera meter was having to work to get good exposures.  As the evening wore on, the sun sank and the natural light level dropped, this became more apparent.  It also affected the colour and atmosphere of the light in the room.  The second rule you need to know is that light is actually a range of colours, depending on different factors.  The Edison bulbs are designed to create a very warm, orange light.  All tungsten bulbs do this, but Edison are quite extreme.  It looks great in a restaurant as it creates an intimate atmosphere, but can look a little too artificial in a photo.  It’s fine while there is another light source to balance it (like natural daylight), but as soon as the outside light levels started to drop, the orange started to dominate.  Had I stayed until after dark, the orange cast would have been overwhelming.  Look closely at the wider shots showing the depth of the room and you can see where the orange tungsten starts to dominate.  You can also start to work out which shots were taken earlier or later in the evening, by how neutral the colours and skintones are, or by how much of a colour cast they have.

That’s how I approach every event.  Lighting is essential to photography, and by understanding the different qualities of light, and by carefully positioning myself I can maximise what I can get out of it.  A venue like this looks striking, which is one of the reasons it gets chosen to host an event.  I see an essential part of my job is to show the venue off in the photos, just as much as what a good time was had by everyone there.  It sets the tone and mood of the evening, and it’s important to reflect that in the photos shot.

I hope you find that interesting, and start to understand some of the ideas that go into creating a set of images.  If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with them.