'Tis the Season to Use Light Creatively / by Andrea Moffatt

Only a couple week until the Winter Solstice, and you know what that means! Time to put away your camera till spring? No way! Time to get creative with your indoor light sources. 

My friend, Kristina of Hello Olivia Photography, is the MASTER of creative indoor light sources. Look at only a small sampling of out-of-the-box ways she lit her daughter last winter here. Can you spot the light sources in the indoor shots? Computer, refrigerator light, and oven light? C'mon. That is some resourceful shooting! 

If you were stranded in Alaska during the winter with only your camera, could you survive? (We know Kristina could. And that is only through hours and hours of practice and experimentation on her part.) Ask yourself, how can I become an indoor photography survivor like Kristina? What light sources could I take advantage of this winter?

Last night, my kids were playing with these truly loud and bright (cough: obnoxious) LED toys that routinely disappear mysteriously in our house and only are "found" after much plaintive questioning and searching. If you are a particularly patient and loving parent and want to purchase them for your children, look at your own risk. (Jet, fire truck) All joking aside, they LOVE them and were a gift from their hip aunt and uncle. 

I cranked up my ISO to about 4000, set my shutter speed on the bare minimum speed of 1/125 to freeze motion, and opened up my aperture nice and wide (f/1.8). I didn't ask them to stop or pose - as if they would've listened! They had just reunited with the long lost loves of their lives. There was no interrupting that! So I was patient. I waited for times I saw the toy light their faces or bodies and I grabbed focus by waiting till their faces were lit also. My camera didn't struggle too much with searching for focus as long as the face was brightly lit, creating contrast. 

In these, I waited for faces to be lit and grabbed focus on the brightness that was illuminating their face.

This is how bright these toys are. In these two, the jet's industrial strength headlights were pointed straight at my camera, practically obliviating the whole frame with flare and haze. I immediately liked them, but wanted to be able to see more clearly who was holding the toy. So I adjusted my angle very slightly by tilting my camera downwards and it did the trick.

In these next two, my adjusted camera angle keeps the light flare, but reveals more of the scene.

In this one, I somehow managed to grab focus on his face (probably by luck because there is not really enough light there for my camera to lock). But I don't think it works very well because not enough of his face is lit. Another thing that may have happened is that one of the bright blinking lights from the toy on the right lit up just before this frame, lighting his face enough for me to lock focus, but went off before I clicked the shutter. This could explain why my focus hit, but the light is no good.

And finally, here are some where I shot a little wider and/or didn't worry as much about their faces being lit or in focus. The many lights from the toys also do a nice job of lighting the contours of their bodies, walls in the house, and textures around them. So by backing up and shooting a little wider, I could tell the story of two brothers playing with their light up toys on a dark winter night.

In this type of shot, there is not the added pressure of locking focus on the eyes, or getting tack sharp focus. This would be a good shot with which to start if you are inexperienced with low light shooting. Just remember to keep that shutter speed up! (If you aren't in full manual yet, you can do this by shooting in shutter priority mode, somewhere between 1/125 and 1/250.)

A light up toy is only one candidate for a winter light source. The possibilities are truly endless. The trick is not to force it: keep an open mind, observe the light in your life constantly and store ideas away. You are likely surrounded by winter photography survival tools- you just have to find them and learn how to use them!