Thursday, August 25, 2011

Natural Light Photography

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:

Natural Light PhotographyNatural Light Photography Natural Light PhotographyNatural Light Photography

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):

  Natural Light Photography

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.

Natural Light PhotographyNatural Light Photography

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.

Natural Light Photography

Other examples of natural light photography:

Natural Light PhotographyNatural Light Photography Natural Light PhotographyNatural 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.


Jesse W. said...

Excellent post. And great photos as well. Thanks for sharing!

Kyla Stevens said...

Amazing pictures David! At first I thought you were going to ridicule natural light photographers. I am glad to see your examples of natural light done right! Thank you for your information.

Ryan Romeike said...

Great post David and very informative. It should be entitled "Natural Light - Done Right"

I do cringe at those who call themselves natural light photographers who have never used or bothered learning about lighting. Lighting is a tool. Being proud of having no need for a particular tool is like a doctor saying they are a natural surgeon and they have no need for lapriscopic tools.

It's about having the skills to use any tool available for the job - natural or otherwise. You might not need OCF but it's pretty handy to know how to manipulate light when the natural light sucks...

Again - well done on the article.

Lisa Moore said...

Great post! I have to work with natural light because I am one of those amateur photographers with no money to spend on lighting equipment. You showed some amazing examples. I am going to have to try that garage trick!

Myrn Photography said...

Thank you for the great post and as always.. awesome photos!!! I learn a lot from your blog.. Thank you very much!!

Derico Photography said...

Oooooh... excellent post! I think my favorite of those was the gentleman with the awesomesauce blue-green background! Though, they were all pretty awesome... I'd really expect seeing nothing less from you ;)

Alaina said...

Beautiful! And well said, all of it.

I feel like I'm pretty good with natural light - do you have somewhere to direct me for help with flashes? I'm a pretty simple photographer, I wish I could get a simple tutorial on using the on-camera D300 or my SB for fill light.

dterryphotography said...

Alaina ... you can learn a lot from but if you have any questions, feel free to contact me. You can find my contact info on my blog or website.

Annette Turner said...

I do so agree with you David! Great post! Although I do fit in with the 'can't afford supplemental lighting equipment' yet category. I am truly inspired by your photography David! I hope someday I may be able to shoot with you! Thank you for your continued inspiration, education and insight!

KJoyPhotography said...


Thanks for the great post. I graduated in photography and it wasn't until my last semester that I was taught about light patterns and how to use natural light. Since I was educated in it I have watched many photographers and you are the FIRST that I've found who even talks about this! I'm saving up for equipment so everything I take is natural light. One thing that wasn't covered as well as I would like are camera filters. You've mentioned them before, where would you recommend going to learn more? Also do you take a fill and main light with you on location or just one? I'm researching studio lights, I'm looking at plug in mono lights, Is there one that you would recommend? Thanks so much you're great!

dterryphotography said...

Thanks KJoy. Answering your questions:

1) The only filters I ever use are: a) Circular Polarizer, b) Graduated Neutral Density and c) Neutral Density.

The main reason for these choices is that they accomplish things "in camera" that can't be done (or are hard to do) later.

The polarizer gets rid of glare that would be a pain to try to edit.

The graduated neutral density lets me merge two exposures in a single shot (like when the sky is too bright and my foreground is just right).

And sometimes a neutral density filter can be used to get a long exposure to blur motion in the middle of the day.

2) I take at least 3 lights with me to almost every shoot. Whether I use any of them at all depends on the situation. In most cases ambient light becomes my fill light and I only need to use one light to create my own main. But when I'm forced to work outside in bright sunlight, I will usually use two so that I can create my own fill light (because I'm just not a big fan of blown out white skies). I also really like accent light (light that comes in over the shoulder lighting up the hair line and side of the face). If I can get that from natural light, great, but flashes can help when nature doesn't.

On location I'm using my speedlights (all Canon 580EX II). In studio I use Profoto D1 Air.

David Lunt said...

Awesome post! I almost always shoot OCF but I'm looking forward to trying this out!

Sean Holder said...

Great post...your awesome. Can I please re-paraphrase and do a blog post like this. Every time I hear a new photographer say that I cringe. Your work is solid, again thanks for a great post.