Ever have someone suggest to you, “Oh, look at that cool wall. That would make an excellent backdrop for a photo!” However, an untrained eye wouldn’t notice the awful lighting that would plague a photo taken against that wall.
There are many inexperienced photographers out there who still let a background or a location drive their photos, whereas, I will argue that your photos need to be driven by one thing: lighting.
Here is why. If you take a photo with OK lighting by a really cool background, the subpar lighting will distract from the really cool background. If, however, you decide a location based on where the good lighting is, a boring background will be much less distracting to your image, if it is even noticeable at all.
And, the photo will look much more natural than if you tried to correct the poor lighting in Lightroom or Photoshop. For instance, the title image of this blog post has very little post-processing. I have not sharpened or brightened her eyes or run any actions in Photoshop. This is all the result of good lighting, equipment, and correct settings when the photo was originally taken. Taking photos like this is second nature to me, since I have been doing this for a long enough. It wasn’t always that way, trust me! It takes time to know what to look for from the light when choosing the perfect spot for a photo, and this tutorial will help get you started.
Now, this is a particular “look” I am going for. My style is clean and even lighting on my subjects. Another photographer may like to play with the light a little more or work with direct sun to get more of a high-key fashion look. I’m simply showing you how to get nice, clean lighting on your subject. Once you know how to work with natural light to get a desired look in your photo, you can begin to experiment more. This is a tutorial on how to start at the beginning and obtaining basic lighting on your subject.
What is a natural light photographer?
Most photographers these days call themselves “natural light photographers.” Flash can be a little scary and overwhelming to learn to use, so using the sun for your photos is an easy solution. Hence, the surplus of “natural light photographers!”
What photographers don’t realize is sunlight can actually be pretty tough to harness it’s full potential for your photos.
There are many rookie mistakes that can happen when trying to work with sunlight as your only light source:
- Photographing at the wrong time of day
- Photographing with too harsh of sunlight with no fill or reflector
- Not looking for catchlights
I will address all of these points below and give you tips on how to avoid these common lighting pitfalls.
Disclaimer! I have given these tips below based on the fact that you do not have any assistants holding lights, scrims, and reflectors to modify the light to your needs. Those types of photographers probably know the light well enough to not have to be reading this blog post. 🙂 This is strictly for those of you who work alone, don’t rely on flash for their outdoor portraits, and may use a handheld reflector.
Let’s start at the beginning with basic overview of lighting…
What natural vs. artificial light? What is a light modifier?
Natural lighting is light from the sun. Artificial light is light created from a source other than the sun (flash, lightbulb, etc.).
Both of these light sources can be used directly or diffused depending on the type of image you are going for, or rather modified to your needs. A bright sunny day would be an example of direct natural light, however a cloudy day is an example of diffused natural light. If you are using an artificial light, a flash is direct artificial light. Put a white piece of paper over it, and you have diffused artificial light!
You can also modify any light source with a reflector. Typically, a reflector is used to fill in the shadows on your subject. You can either use a handheld or physical reflector or natural reflectors in the environment.
It’s important to recognize what natural light really is and what your different options are for modifying it.
On a cloudy day, I shoot at any time of day, right?
Let me ask you a question: When you have gone into a traditional portrait studio, where do they have the primary light for your face? Is it directly above you or to the side of you? How would that light look if it was directly above you, even if it was diffused?
Even with diffused lighting, if it is directly above your subject, it will not evenly light the face. The light will fall down the face, which is not flattering lighting.
Now, think about the direction of the sun in the middle of the day. Is it straight down? Just like if you were in a portrait studio with the light coming straight down on your subject, the light will fall down the face. If you are forced to do a shoot during the middle of the day on a cloudy day, this is where a reflector will come in handy. All you have to do is simply bounce the light back up at your subject, so just put it directly under them! Another option to tackle this type of lighting is to use fill flash.
The best method, in my opinion, is just to avoid portraits taken during the middle of the day.
When is the best time of day to take outdoor portraits?
Well, if the middle of the day is the time to avoid, the easy answer is early morning and later afternoon. However, it’s not so simple to nail down exact times. For instance, where I live in Minnesota, in the fall, good lighting in early afternoon can be as early as 2:00. However, in the middle of summer, 2:00 would be a disastrous time to have a photo shoot outdoors. The sun is stronger in the summer months than in the spring and fall. So, if you do a shoot at 5:00 in the summer vs. the fall, you will be dealing with much harsher lighting.
So, the best time to shoot outdoor portraits depends on the time of year and where you live. I could give you a lesson in astronomy, but instead I will direct you to a really neat app called LightTrac. It takes a location where you will be shooting and the time of year, and shows you the position of the sun at any time of day. I love that I can schedule sessions months out and know the perfect time to start.
(Check out my other recommended apps for your iPad or iPhone.)
In summary, do not do an outdoor portrait shoot in the middle of the day. You will have an easier time shooting, and your clients will get better results from their images.
What can I do when the sun is too strong on my subjects?
What if you can’t control the time of day you are shooting, and the sun is too high or too strong on your subjects? This can happen, especially at weddings, or if you are working around client’s schedules and bedtime routines. You have to be prepared to work with the natural light of the sun if it isn’t at your ideal time of day.
Option #1 – Find some open shade.
What exactly is open shade? It is a side of the building, under an overhang, or in a garage. It is anywhere you can get evenly diffused light on your subject.
Option #2 – Find a tree.
Now, a tree is not considered open shade, since the leaves let through pockets of light. I do use a tree for shade, however I always make sure my subject’s back is to the sun. I give you an example of this further down in this posting. It is the option I most frequently choose even if there is open shade. I personally like to have backlighting on my subjects, but this decision comes down to where you are shooting, your style, and your subject.
Option #3 – Use your flash.
You set your camera to manual and expose for the sun. Then, your flash will be set to its strongest setting for a high aperture (for larger groups) or a lower setting for lower aperture setting (smaller group). If you need a refresher, check out my blog post about aperture and camera settings. I always take a couple of test shots to make sure I’m getting the results I’m looking for. Essentially, you are trying not to blow out the background, while at the same time not underexposing your subject.
Option #4 – Expose for your subject’s faces.
You will most likely end up blowing out or rather, overexposing your background. Again, this isn’t a great option, but it is one that can be used if the background isn’t worth saving. Or, possibly, that is the look you are going for in your image.
Option #5 – Do a composite image.
I know I said “without the help of post-processing,” but I have to give you all of your options in case you do run into lighting trouble that you can’t control. To do a composite image, take two identical images, one exposed for the sky and background; the other exposed for your subject’s face. Then, in post-processing, you can merge the two images together in Photoshop. Now, I would not personally choose this option, given the amount of time it would take for just one image. And, it would have to line up perfectly, as well. But, it is an option that will work to help get accurate lighting during an undesired time of day.
My client’s eyes are dark. How can I fix this without using editing in post-processing?
There is a very simple answer to this. Before settling on a location, make sure you see brightness in your subject’s eyes. Hint: if you have your subjects in open shade and you are facing them towards the light, they will always have catchlights.
What are catchlights? Here is a great example of natural catchlights:
Notice how there are no dark shadows in her eyes. Her entire eye is evenly bright and lit up. This is especially important if you are working with a subject with deep-set eyes. Their eyes are deeper into their skull, so making sure you have adequate catchlights in their eyes is vital to lighting their face and eyes evenly.
Basically, before that shutter button is pressed, always, always check to see if your subject’s eyes are bright. If their eyes are dark, move to a different spot to take the photo. Or, it may be as simple of a solution as turning the subject around. 🙂
What is a natural reflector?
A light colored building, a body of water, and the sky are all great examples of natural reflectors. It’s basically whatever is going to reflect the light back into your subject’s eyes and face.
I have used a handheld reflector in the past. Some photographers swear by it! Using a reflector definitely has its pros and cons. With a reflector, you can have more versatility in your choice of location. You do not need to rely on natural reflectors, because you have one of your own. You can create your own catchlights wherever you are. A negative is that it is cumbersome to work with alone. So, if you do not want to deal with it while shooting, you would have to have someone else hold a reflector in the right place for you.
Personally, I prefer to shoot simple, carrying and using as little equipment as possible. With my style, I like to use a variety of lenses, however when it comes to light, I work with what is presented in front of me. I follow the light, not the background, as I stated above.
You definitely do not need a handheld reflector to get wonderful catchlights in your subject’s eyes. But, if you are shooting with only natural light, you will need some kind of reflector (natural or handheld) to create brightness in your subject’s eyes. It takes practice and experience, but with time, it will become much easier to use the natural reflectors around you!
Putting it all together!
Here are some great examples of catchlights in subject’s eyes. All are different lighting situations where bright catchlights were obtained. They were all taken without the use of a handheld reflector or flash. And, there was not further enhancement to the eyes beyond a simple sharpening and contrast brush in Lightroom.
Are you a true natural light photographer?
Just because you only use the sun to light your subjects does not necessarily make you a true “natural light photographer.” Well OK, you can call yourself that, but if your subjects are poorly lit or have shadows on their face, something needs to change. You are doing a disservice to your clients and to your business. With changing up simple techniques in how you work with the sun, you can clean up your images in no time, without relying on post-processing.