How I Work With Natural Light

One of the biggest compliments I get from my clients is on my lighting and use of sun flares. Ever since I became interested in photography, I have been attracted by soft, golden light that creates a beautiful and clean atmosphere in the final images. From time to time, I experiment with artificial lights and modifiers but I cannot beat the look I get from natural light. It just can't be recreated! Here are a few tips to help you understand my process.

Time of Day

Whenever I aim to shoot with the soft, clean look in mind, I begin three hours before sunset. This gives me a lot of time to try a few different locations, and allows for outfit changes. I never like to feel rushed when I'm working because I find that stress leads to poor performance and you'll only regret what you didn't do when you start culling the shoot. If you plan on going to multiple locations try to work in the darkest area (a deep forest, for example) and move toward the lightest (a large field with no shade) at the end of the shoot. It always sucks to run out of light, so plan ahead!

Direction of Light

One of the biggest mistakes many photographers make when shooting natural light is not knowing where to position the subject. Where you put your subject in relation to the sun can either make or break an image. Three of the most common scenarios I shoot in are shade, direct, and backlit. Of course, I could probably write several posts on light direction alone, but for now I'll just give some of my basic tips when working in those situations on bright sunny days.

Shade

The quickest way to get soft, clean images is to shoot in the shade. I always have my models face away from the sun to avoid any bright "highlights" on the face. In the image below, you can see that the background is beautifully blurred out and the light on the model's face is even and flattering.

TIP: With the shade rule, it's possible to work pretty much any time of day. On my university campus, the bright harsh sun diffuses really nicely when casting shade on the many buildings. 

Direct

Direct light is probably the hardest to master. Personally, I'm still not super comfortable working in harsh light for anything other than fashion style images. In this set-up, the sun is directly facing the model and creates extremely harsh shadows on the face and clothing. This is a really interesting look that gives a rich and natural mood to a photo. Many fashion and editorial photo shoots will utilize this style because of how raw the images appear. While it is the trickiest to master, I find it the most creative. Playing with the value in the shadows and light can force you to think outside the box and consider, "how can I make this look cool without looking amateur-ish?" 

TIP: Try playing with the shadows by putting objects in front of the lens or in the sunlight itself. In this image I found a branch on the ground and cast the pattern on the model's face for a different look. You can use pretty much any object for this effect, but anything with a repetitive shape or translucence will typically give the best results (click the image below for a before and after).

Backlit

Here it is. The scenario that could get an entire book dedicated to it. I love shooting backlit. I'm probably even obsessed! Shooting backlit is as easy as putting your model away from the sun. Whether you're in the shade, an open field (this is when you can get those magical sunset images), or in a residential area, shooting with the sun behind the model gives a soft even glow and very flat light. You can even play with "light leaks" by putting the sun just out of the frame for a hazy, sun-streak effect to create mood. I do this all the time for added warmth in rich sunset images.

Camera settings are also vital for backlit images. I try to underexposure a few stops in camera to retain the detail in the highlights and then brighten the image later in editing. 

TIP: Editing backlit is sometimes a bit trickier because the raw images will have little to no contrast. Try pumping those warm tones and black sliders (or contrast) in editing and the colors will be spot on (click the image below for a before and after).

Reflectors

I LOVE working with straight natural light, but sometimes there just isn't enough light on the model's face for a technically "perfect" image. In that case, I will use a reflector. What is a reflector exactly? Essentially, it is a white/silver piece of foam core, fabric or any other material that bounces the light from the sun back onto the subject's face. Reflectors are especially important when working in backlit situations where no natural diffusers (i.e. trees, buildings) are available. I use a 5-in-1 reflector that covers pretty much any scenario in which extra light is required. If you want to be thrifty, simply buying a big piece of foam board will do the same thing!

TIP: Look for natural reflectors such as white walls or even concrete sidewalks. A big white building will act as a GIANT reflector and the light will perfectly soft every single time. 

Pullback image with my reflector. I balanced the reflector on my legs with the white side facing my model. The closer you are, the softer the quality of light. 

Pullback image with my reflector. I balanced the reflector on my legs with the white side facing my model. The closer you are, the softer the quality of light. 

Those are just a few tips I have on natural light. I have so much more to learn myself, but those are just some basic things to try out yourself. The best way to learn is from experience and you gain experience by experimenting. In the day of digital photography, you can take thousands of "failed" images to get one step closer to that winning shot. Let me know in the comments what you all would like to learn next, I have some posts in the works but would love a direct opinion or two! For now, enjoy the rest of my images from my Alice inspired shoot. 

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