How often have you heard someone say "I'm a natural light photographer", and deep down you're thinking to yourself ... that probably just means they are so new they can't afford any supplemental lighting equipment?
And then, is it any surprise, when you see a portfolio filled with harsh sunlit pictures, or subjects with speckled (through the leaves) light on their faces and torsos, or even just plain flat unsatisfying light?
Well I confess! I'm addicted to my lighting equipment. For my photography, I often I want to create my own lighting scenario because I feel that it is the contrast of "light and shadow" that creates the image.
But that doesn't mean I don't do natural light photography.
I do love an overcast day because, it means that I can basically post my subjects anywhere and get a nice even fill light from any direction. But an overcast day makes for a very boring (read "flat") main light, which typically means I'm going to be using my flash as my main light. So an overcast day is typically not the kind of day where I am using natural light.
What is Natural Light Photography?
For my definition, I am going to mean any light that is naturally produced without the use of any flash equipment or reflectors to change or modify the existing light. (yes, for some, the use of reflectors would be considered natural light too, but I want to restrict my discussion here to natural light - light that is unmodified by me)
What is the secret to getting soft yet directional lighting in a natural light situation?
The biggest/easiest secret is this: Open shade with a view of the sky!
If you can find the tiniest bit of shade (preferably not speckled shade created by trees) and get the subject to look UP into the sky, you will have turned their face towards the main light AND created a catch light in their eyes (that little glint of light you see in their eyes that brings their eyes to life is called a catch light).
The easiest way to do this, is to have the subject sit lower than you. Then you stand over them in the direction of the open sky and have them look up into your lens. You have now turned their face into the main light and added a catch light into their eyes. I swear, it just works. Every single time! Take a look:
One time I read about a photographer that uses his car garage as his studio. With the garage door open, he effectively creates "open shade" (inside the garage was the shade and the open garage door, without any direct light landing on the subject, created his soft directional lighting). So I had to try it. I've only done this once, but it was back in 2005 and it was so easy, it still stuns me with its simplicity! You can see the open garage door in the reflection of her eyes. The brightness at the top is the sky. The darker, yet still lit up area in her eyes is the driveway. The darker sides of her eyes are the sides of the garage. (and if you look closely at her eyes, you can see me standing in front of her):
Other scenarios... open shade with an object or a structure in front of the subject that is being lit up by the sun. NO, I am not going to put my subject in the sun. I'm going to keep my subject in the shade, but turn his or her face towards that object that is being lit up by the sun. Take a look at the following images. The catch light in her eyes is created by the concrete wall in front of her that is lit up by the sun.
In this next image, we're up in the mountains and there is no direct sunlight. We are surrounded by trees. The open view of the sky (through the trees) is over my left shoulder. So I want the girl on the right, looking up to my left (into the light). This puts natural light from the sky on her face and body and creates my three dimensional view with natural light. No flash or reflectors required.
Other examples of natural light photography:
Feel free to click any image to view a larger version of that image.
And if you'd like to see more examples of natural light photography, click here.
Please feel free to ask any questions. I feel that there are no secrets in photography. I'm open to teaching you anything I know, because one way or another, you're probably going to learn. And rather than competitors, I'd like to think that we are friends with a common love for all things photography.