Finding good light, the natural way.

Natural light shooting is, in my opinion, the most misunderstood photography technique in use today. Natural light is a bit of a misnomer as I’ve never seen unnatural light but we’ll go with that term for now just to avoid confusion.

Natural light, for the purpose of this article, refers to using the sun as your primary lighting source. As with all light sources, there are certain rules you need to be aware of to better imprint your vision onto an actual photograph. We’ll start with those rules first then get into a few details about how to achieve that look you want.

Rule #1 – The larger the light source in relation to the subject, the softer the shadows.
Rule #2 – Of course, this means the smaller the light source (in relation to the subject), the harsher the shadows.
Rule #3 – Natural light almost ALWAYS comes from above.
Rule #4 – People with light colored eyes will squint faster in bright light then those with dark eyes.
Rule #5 -Flat light (frontal) hides texture, side light (from the side) accentuates texture.
Rule #6 – Shoving (as I affectionately call it) light into your subjects eyes will bring out their eye color unless they are black.
Rule #7 – Northern light (when you are in the northern hemisphere) is the softest, most diffuse light. It also is the “coolest” (blue) because it’s a reflection of the blue sky.

Now we know the rules, so let’s look at tricks to find great natural lighting. For the purposes of this article, let’s assume we are photographing your average 30 year old female with a normal amount of makeup and normal skin (a few blemishes but otherwise nice skin).

What to look for

In general, when lighting for portraits, we want soft, directional and slightly specular light. An easy way to see this is to examine any shadows on the ground. Are they diffuse or sharp? Sharp shadows indicate harsher light. Do you see any shadows at all? If not, stand in the location that you want to place your model and find your shadow. On really cloudy days, you may not see any shadows at all. That is indeed soft but not really directional (I call it mushy light) so your results will probably be mush. So, yes, we want some shadows but want them as soft as possible. Also use your hand to check for direction. If you turn your hand flat against the light, you should see no texture. When you turn your hand to the side (side lighting it), you should see the texture pop. It takes a bit of practice but when you find good lighting once, it becomes easier the more you try.

Window Light

Window light is, of course, very directional but not always soft. If the sun is beaming directly thru it, then it will be harsh (rule #2 – the sun, in relation to the subject, is very, very small). On a cloudy day or when you have a window not facing the sun, it’s a pretty good light source that will offer direction and specular light. Make sure to find the brightest spot in light to place your subjects face. It will make the whole photo pop and everything else will fall into place naturally (exposure wise).

One of the downsides of window light is how close your model has to be to the window and the resulting shooting angle you have to use to get a good shot. Finding a compromise between good light and a good angle is key.

Here I used the light coming thru a casement window beside a door.

Open Shade

Open shade is one of the most versatile outdoor lighting techniques.  In essence, it’s where light is coming thru and being funneled by something (a building, a roof, awning, stairwell, etc) so the top of your subjects head has no direct light but their face is exposed to open sky.  A tree comes immediately to mind and that often works well but keep in mind, on bright days, you’ll turn your subject slightly green (martian) because of the light that filters thru the leaves.  My personal preference is openings of buildings, doorways, barns, etc.

This photo shows open shade. Our model is shielded from light directly overhead but her face and clothes are well lit.

Northern Light

I touched on this above in the rules but Northern Light is indeed the best “natural” light for portraits out there. You can always tell North (in the Northern Hemisphere) because its the bluest part of the sky (where the sun never touches). Because of that fact, it’s ALWAYS clean and slightly bluish in color (If you are in the Southern Hemisphere then it will be southern light). I prefer to use slightly warmer light but I just adjust the white balance on my camera for “shade” which will bias your photos slightly yellow. Experiment with your camera settings to see where your personal preference is.

Northern light in itself is wonderful, but I always prefer to have some device providing more direction (window, open shade, etc) to add more drama to the photo. Combining northern light with window light, for example, makes for a very rich and dramatic photo.

Above is an example of window light which also happens to be northern light. Note how soft it is while remaining directional.

Indirect (Bounced) light

A favorite trick of mine when in the field is to find a light colored wall that is NOT in direct sun. White, off white and even beige can provide a great “bounce” effect which essentially becomes your light source. When using this technique take into account the color of the wall. Using a blue wall will make your subject a smurf or, as we call it, a great B&W photo.

The trick with using a wall is looking at your subjects face as you move them closer to, and away from, the wall. When the wall is not in direct sun, it’s taking the “filtered” light and reflecting it, directionally, away from itself. By using the catch lights in the eyes and the texture of your models skin, you can very accurately determine where the best light is and even move them around in that light. This is a huge advantage over open shade and window light, which is often more static of a setup.

There is a large white wall (30' long by 20' high) for indirect light behind me. We are also in open shade which gives a wonderful back light.

Between buildings

If you happen to be in an urban area then light between two buildings, with a little work, can give you amazing results. The light is being funneled very narrowly but it can often be too narrow to use without a little adjustment. That adjustment can be a flash, a large piece of white paper, a reflector or anything else that will reflect light. With the light being so narrowly focused, you are sure to get some drama but often the face and eyes will go dead (the top of the head will look fantastic though). So what is needed is a way to fill the face & eyes with light. Once that can be done, the results will be pretty darn cool.

This is a before/after photo. The shot on the left was all natural light. You can see how her face and eyes are "dead" but her hair looks fantastic. Using an on-camera direct flash, set to TTL (automatic) but -2 EV (turned down 2 stops), it added the frontal directional light I needed to make the photo come alive.

Gotchas

As with all things photography, there are quite a few gotchas to look out for when using natural light. A big one is what is directly in front of your subject. You may have a great cloudy day with a fabulous spot with open shade. However, the eyes on your model appear dark. My bet is there is something behind your camera that is large and dark (a tree, building, etc). That object will actually “suck light” out of the face and eyes of your model, so just relocate or change positions so the eyes come alive. The above photo is a great example (the before photo) of having a 30 story black building behind my camera position.

I am a really big fan of good clean light. When inside or outside, pay attention to your model’s skin tones on areas that do NOT have direct light on them. If you have red brick on either side of your subject, you may get a bit of red coloring in areas without good clean direct light.

The direction of the light is important. When the light angle is too high, you’ll start to show texture, bags and other things on your models face that they probably don’t want to know about. Two quick fixes are either move your model so the angle of light is lower to their eyes (making it flatter) or have them turn their head up toward the light.

I used a higher camera position and had the model turn her head upward to make the light on her face more flattering.

Conclusion

Using natural light well is an exercise in repetition, trial and error.  The above rules never change so whenever you get into a position where you are unsure of how to correct a problem, break down what you are seeing and it becomes much easier to overcome.

About Brian Mullins

Brian Mullins specializes in commercial, portrait & wedding photography in the Raleigh NC area. His photography studio in located in the historical downtown Apex. Brian has been a professional photographer in Raleigh since 2005 and has additional experience in cinematography and videography, which has crafted his artistic photo-journalistic approach to capturing beauty in the moment and evoking emotion with his wedding photography. Brian’s wedding, commercial & editorial photography has been published in local and national publications, most notably as Cary Magazine’s chief photographer. He is a founding member of the Wedding Photographic Society (www.thewps.com) which boasts over 700 members worldwide and both speaks at conventions as well as educates new professional photographers in both business and technical aspects of photography. You can find out more about him and see his work at: www.brianmullinsphotography.com
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