Working With Mixed Light

Professional photographer David Wells shows how to create a polished look to your photo essays and video projects by knowing how to work with the quality of light as it changes during the day

Broad images taken in open shade at midday will have a slightly cool look because the illumination is coming from the blue sky.

I started my professional photography career back in 1979. That year I sold my first image for publication. In the ensuing 35 years I have been continually selling images as an editorial photographer and a stock photographer, portraying the world as I find it rather than working in the controlled environment of a studio. Along the way I have continually evolved. I embraced digital imaging in 2003 and started to work with video four years ago.

Over those three and a half decades, the definition of what makes one a professional publication photographer similarly has been changing. I say this because, with the democratization of photography through digital imaging and smartphone cameras, it’s more important than ever to clarify the definition of just what a pro is.

It used to be a pro was simply someone who was paid for their photographs. Then it became someone who could get the best shot. More recently it was the person who could get the highest quality image in changing situations. In my own experience there is one other under-appreciated definition of what makes a professional publication photographer. In the world of publication photography done outside of a controlled environment, a pro has all the skills noted above. They also must know how to use time of day, and the light that comes with different times of day, to their advantage.

When the midday conditions become too harsh, go into open shade to get richly saturated colors and detailed shots.

Yes, every photographer, pro or otherwise, dreams about getting assigned to spend months photographing a given location for an international magazine. The cold reality of the world that I work in is that being given a week to cover a region in India is more typical. In this article, I will be talking about a November 2012 assignment I did for Saudi Aramco World magazine to make still images and video of the Kutch region of Western India.

My assignment was to traverse as much of that area as possible, giving a sample of each place in the form of still images and video clips. My wife, who is from India and has some language facility, was my assistant, guide and occasional translator. We also hired a driver with knowledge of the roads and who had better local language skills, which was all but a requirement to pull off this project in one short week. Due to the many challenges of moving around this part of India at night, we settled on a plan of shooting sunrise through late morning, followed by mid-day drives to the next location, followed by afternoon/sunset/evening shoots.

With the sun just over the horizon, you can create dramatic backlit images with a dark foreground.

If you look at the map at between.salt.and.sea.htm, you’ll see the 27 different venues we photographed and recorded on video during the week’s shoot. At least half a dozen more were covered, but they did not make it into the final piece, which is typical with any editorial assignment.

Unlike sunrise shots, as the sun gets a little higher in the sky, you will get more light on the ground and longer shadows.

If you look at the images accompanying this article you will see a small sample of the images I made. Most importantly you will see the images tagged according to the time-of-day categories that I use when blocking out and executing projects like this. I have six categories that I use when thinking of when an image will be made or how I will use a given block of time while on assignment. Those are sunrise, morning, midday reserved for detail shots, which can be the same time as the midday reserved for indoor shots of people, followed by afternoon and sunset/night.

Midday is a GREAT time to shoot portraits of people near windows. When making posed portraits, I use the same type of windows to create dramatic portraits. The directional light that comes in from one side creates evocative portraits. The way I control the impact of that is mostly in how I position my subject in relation to the light source and the background. The final variable is controlling how much or how little of their face do I ask them to turn towards that light source. The degree of this varies based on how I pose them and on how I position myself in relation to them and the light source.

Getting close to sunset, make use of the long shadows and make them part of the composition. Here the shadows create a leading-line effect drawing the eye to the tourist couple being photographed.

The Wells Point
While many photographers hew to the idea of only photographing during the so-called Golden Hour, I have always found that time to be too limiting. Yes, the light is warm and beautiful, but it is too short a time for me to work efficiently and there are many other colors I want in my images besides the yellow/orange/red that often dominates that time of day. I work during the golden hour, but I continue working right up to the point where the sun reaches 45 degrees above the horizon. Then I stop working outside until the sun arcs through the sky and reaches that same 45 degree point in the afternoon.

I use something that I call The Wells Point to tell me just when that is, to know how late in the morning I can shoot before the light goes bad, and at what point in the afternoon the light turns good. The Wells Points, as I tell my students, are when the shadow is the same length as the object that casts that shadow. I am 5′ 7″ so when my shadow is 5′ 7″ in the morning I stop, and in the afternoon I will start again when the shadow gets to that length or longer.

Following The Wells Point and shooting further into the late morning light and using the early afternoon light after The Wells Point expands my shooting time, which is something critical on shoots like the Kutch project. That same light also has more contrast and yields images that are nicely saturated in terms of their colors. The nice thing about using The Wells Points is the idea works around the world, regardless of season. In the dead of winter in the Northeastern U.S., for example, the sun never gets above The Wells Points, so winter light in places like Boston, New York and Philadelphia is always great in the winter.

As you approach a Wells Point in the afternoon, the light is warmer and much softer than at midday.

With my expansion into video, I’ve become a bit more disciplined about white balance. I spent years shooting color slides and I once even owned a color meter for fine-tuning my color filtration. So I know about color temperature and white balance. On the other hand, shooting RAW files with the myriad options for correction in post-production had made me a bit loose when it came to color temperature and white balance. While it’s technically possible to color correct video, why would I want to spend the time doing that when an extra 30 seconds spent during capture will give me video with the white balance I want.

In some cases changing my position will change the white balance. For example, a mud wall with sunlight bouncing off of it can make or break a video clip depending on how close the subject is standing to that “warm light reflector,” so I have to control that variable myself. Similarly, open shade under most awnings tends to be pretty blue during hard midday light. But, controlling where I put myself or my subject can reduce, eliminate or even make that blue color cast a useful part of the narrative I’m creating.

Shooting The Video
You can see finished video from the Kutch project at The full video includes stills, time-lapse animation and pieces from the 27 shorter videos that are thirty to ninety seconds each. The short vignettes populate the map at: between.salt.and.sea.htm
The approach that I took while working on assignment in Kutch, especially in terms of how I allotted my shoots based on time of day and thus the resulting light, should inform the thinking of any established or aspiring publication photographer. The difference between working like a pro and an amateur is as much about managing time (and thus, light) as it is about any other skill. As someone increasingly working in video as a one-man-band, those same skills of time and light management are more important than ever.

So, when shooting video I follow two rules that organically spill over to make my still photos better. First, I’m constantly checking the white balance of my video clips to make sure my whites are fairly neutral and that I do not have any wild fluctuations in white balance between video clips—if, for example, the inside of a workshop for handmade embroidery is slightly warmer in one corner and a bit more neutral in another corner, I don’t care. In fact, that variance, as long as it’s not too extreme, gives the final video a more organic feeling. Those lighting situations, where there are extreme changes in white balance, require a custom white balance, which is so easy to do with today’s camera, so why not do that?

To me, the big issue is how to accurately judge the white balance and my potential corrections for the videos in question. This is especially challenging when working in bright sun where the back of the camera monitors are hard to read at best. Having a bright electronic viewfinder on my cameras allows me to see the imagery that I’ve been making through a darkened viewfinder so I can judge the white balance, exposure, etc. Some photographers use magnifiers or external monitors with sun hoods to make this easier.

Two other tools are keys to my success in a project like this—having a camera with an articulating LCD screen and a tabletop tripod. When photographing from high or low, I use the folding screens to compose so as not to contort my body to see through the viewfinder. Once I settle on a composition, I often set up my shot with the camera on my Really Right Stuff Pocket Pod tabletop tripod. It allows me to shoot still images, video and the occasional time-lapse animation and have them all flow together seamlessly.

You can see more of David Wells‘ photography and video assignments at Check out his blog at