Existing-Light Photography

Existing-Light Pictures Indoors
Existing-Light Pictures Outdoors
Suggested Exposures for Existing-Light Pictures

Existing light, sometimes called available light, includes tungsten and flourescent found indoors, daylight indoors, and low light outdoors such as dawn or dusk. It's the light that happens to be on the scene. Technically, sunlight and other daylight conditions outdoors are existing light. But in defining existing light for photography, we are referring to lighting conditions that are characterized by lower light levels than you would encounter in daylight outdoors. 

Existing-light pictures have a realistic appearance because they're made by the natural lighting on the subject. Existing-light photography is also sometimes more convenient than picture-taking with flash because you don't have to use extra lighting equipment or concern yourself about the light source-to-subject distance. 

Existing-light photography really isn't as new as we sometimes think. Photographers have been taking existing light pictures for over 50 years. But their exposures often lasted several minutes. The big advantage of today's fast lenses and fast films is that they make it possible to take existing-light pictures with much shorter exposure times. Often the exposure times are short enough to allow you to handhold your camera.

Night scenes are natural subjects for your existing-light photography. The colorful and dramatic lighting patterns let you create pictures with a totally different appearance from that of conventional pictures taken in the daytime.

Since most existing lighting is comparatively dim, you need an f/2.8 or faster lens and a high or very high-speed film for handheld picture-taking. An f/2.8 lens is sufficient for many existing-light scenes. But if you have an even faster lens such as f/2 or faster and use a high or very high-speed film such as 400 ISO film or 800 ISO film, you'll have more versatility. The combination of an f/2 or faster lens and a 400-speed or faster film lets you take pictures in dimmer lighting conditions while handholding your camera. A fast lens and a high or very high-speed film also lets you use higher shutter speeds for stopping action when the existing lighting is somewhat brighter. Another advantage is that you can use a smaller lens opening for greater depth of field under brighter existing-light conditions.

Handholding your camera is suitable for shutter speeds as slow as 1/30 second with a normal-focal-length lens. To obtain sharp pictures consistently when using a slow shutter speed, you must be able to hold the camera steady. Practice holding the camera. Eventually you may find that you can get satisfactory results with even slower shutter speeds. However, at slower shutter speeds you should normally place your camera on a tripod; if possible, use a cable release so that you don't jiggle the camera when you trip the shutter.

If you don't have a tripod and you want to use a slow shutter speed, try to brace the bottom of your camera against a wall or post while you take the picture. If your camera has a self-timer, you can use it instead of risking camera shake by tripping the shutter with the shutter button. For example, set the self-timer, press the camera against its support, press the shutter button, and wait a few seconds until the shutter trips.

You will take most of your existing light pictures with a large lens opening, which means the depth of field will be shallow. Focus accurately so the subject is sharp.


400, 800, and 1600 ISO films are excellent for existing-light photography. They are especially suited for this kind of picture-taking because of their speed and their versatility. You can take pictures in various kinds of existing light-daylight indoors, tungsten, and fluorescent illumination without using filters. These films produce more natural color rendition under a wide range of lighting conditions because they have special sensitizing characteristics that minimize the differences between various light sources. Also, color rendition can be partially controlled during the printing process.

Whether you choose daylight-type color-slide film or color-slide film designed for use with tungsten light (regular light bulbs) for your existing light pictures is often a matter of personal taste. With existing tungsten light, you'll get the best color rendition when you use film balanced for tungsten light. With daylight film the colors will appear warmer, or more orange. However, many people like this added warmth in their existing-light pictures. With fluorescent lamps, daylight film is the better choice, but the colors are still likely to have a cold (greenish or bluish) cast. When daylight from windows or a skylight illuminates your subject, use daylight film.

By using a high-speed film for existing light pictures, you can hand-hold the camera and sometimes use a small aperture for greater depth of field. When you photograph your subjects with black-and-white film, you don't have to be concerned with the color quality of the light or the type of lamps illuminating the scene.

Existing-Light Pictures Indoors

You'll find lots of possibilities for existing-light pictures indoors. Around home you can take unposed pictures of your family just being themselves or you can record holidays and special occasions. Away from home you can take pictures of such subjects as ice shows, stage plays, museum displays, auto shows, and graduation ceremonies.

When your subject includes both very bright and very dark areas, such as spotlighted performers, and you can't take a close-up reading, a built-in meter isn't much help unless it has a spot-metering feature. An averaging meter sees the large dark areas surrounding the small bright area and indicates more exposure than is needed. In reality, there is plenty of light on the spotlighted subject. If you shoot at the exposure indicated, however, the meter will average the dark and light areas, causing the bright subject to be overexposed.

Auto-exposure cameras that have a matrix metering system will do better in such situations because they are programmed to recognize the signals of the contrast differences and bias their exposure for the important subject area. No matter how sophisticated the metering system, you must be careful not to aim the lens directly into a bright light, such as a stray spotlight or even a reading lamp. If you do, the meter will underexpose the subject.

In many existing-light situations, you may find that using an existing-light exposure table gives more reliable results. Or you can simply bracket your exposures.

Auto-focus systems may also be adversely affected by low light levels. As mentioned earlier, auto-focus lenses have difficulty focusing in extremely dim or low-contrast lighting. Some cameras focus better than others in low light, but there are a few tricks you can use to help any auto-focus system. If you are photographing a spotlighted act, for instance, keep the brightly lit subject centered in the focusing area of the viewfinder. If you don't want the subject in the center, you can use the focus lock to hold focus while you recompose.

Museums have fascinating displays which offer superb opportunities for existing-light photographs. When the scene and displayed objects are lighted evenly, expose according to an overall meter reading. Otherwise get as close as possible to the subject to make your reading

Existing-Light Pictures Outdoors

Brightly illuminated street scenes, amusement parks, campfires, interesting store windows, and flood-lighted buildings and fountains all offer good nighttime picture-taking possibilities. The best time to shoot outdoor pictures at night is just before complete darkness when there's still some rich blue left in the sky. The deep colors of the sky at dusk make excellent backgrounds for your pictures.

Outdoor photography at night is easy, primarily because of the pleasing results you can get over a wide range of exposures. The subject usually consists of large dark areas surrounding smaller light areas. Short exposures leave the shadows dark and preserve the color in the bright areas, such as illuminated signs. Longer exposures tend to wash out the brightest areas, but produce more detail in the shadows.

When your subject is evenly illuminated, try to get close enough to take an exposure-meter reading. Many floodlighted buildings and store windows fall into this category. Night sporting events also are usually illuminated evenly. Before you take your seat at the event, make an exposure meter reading from a position close to the spot where the action will take place, and set your camera accordingly. When you can't take a meter reading of your subject, use the suggested exposures table as a guide. 

When you go to see the fireworks, take your camera along. The colorful, striking displays make spectacular pictures. You'll get the best results if you put your camera on a tripod, open the shutter on BULB, and record several bursts before you close the shutter. If you don't have a tripod you can handhold your camera to take pictures, but you'll have to set the shutter speed on 1/30 second the lens at the widest aperture. With the brief exposure time necessary for handholding your camera, take the picture when there are many fireworks bursts in the sky, as during the finale.

Suggested Exposures for Existing-Light Pictures

Interiors at Night Average Light 1/15 sec f/2 1/30 sec f/2 1/30 sec f/2.8 1/30 sec f/4
Fluorescent Lights 1/30 sec f/2.8 1/30 sec f/4 1/60 sec f/4 1/60 sec f/5.6
Christmas Lighting-Christmas Trees 1 sec f/4 1 sec f/5.6 1/15 sec f/2 1/30 sec f/2
Circuses-Stage Shows 1/60 sec f/2.8 1/125 sec f/2.8 1/250 sec f/2.8 1/250 sec f/4
Basketball-Hockey 1/30 sec f/2 1/60 sec f/2 1/125 sec f/2 1/125 sec f/2.8
Night Football-Night Baseball 1/30 sec f/2.8 1/60 sec f/2.8 1/125 sec f/2.8 1/250 sec f/2.8
Brightly Lighted Street Scenes 1/30 sec f/2 1/30 sec f/2.8 1/60 sec f/2.8 1/60 sec f/4
Nightclub Theater 1/30 sec f/2.8 1/30 sec f/4 1/60 sec f/4 1/125 sec f/4
Store Windows at Night 1/30 sec f/2.8 1/30 sec f/4 1/60 sec f/4 1/60 sec f/5.6
Floodlighted Buildings 1 sec f/4 1/2 sec f/4 1/15 sec f/2 1/30 sec f/2
Amusement Parks at Night 1/15 sec f/2 1/30 sec f/2 1/30 sec f/2.8 1/60 sec f/2.8
Skyline-10 Minutes After Sunset 1/30 sec f/4 1/60 sec f/4 1/60 sec f/5.6 1/125 sec f/5.6
Burning Buildings Campfires 1/30 sec f/2.8 1/30 sec f/4 1/60 sec f/4 1/125 sec f/4
Fireworks* f/8 f/11 f/16 f/22
*Use BULB setting for several bursts with a tripod and cable release.

NOTES: These suggested exposures apply to daylight and tungsten color films. When you take color pictures under tungsten illumination, they look more natural when you use tungsten film. Daylight film produces pictures more orange, or warmth, in color. Use a tripod or other firm support with shutter speeds slower than 1/30 second. Tungsten color film is not recommended for use with fluorescent light. Shutter speeds of 1/60 second or longer are recommended for uniform and adequate exposure with fluorescent lighting. Shutter speeds 1/125 second or longer are recommended for uniform and adequate exposure with lighting from multi-vapor or mercury vapor high-intensity discharge lamps.

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