Natural light is probably what most of us begin with when we are starting to get into portrait photography. It makes sense. The sun is free, it’s dependable (depending on where you live) and it’s just so easy! After a while of shooting with natural (or available) light, we then start to find it a little underwhelming, and that’s when we typically begin our forays into strobes or artificial lighting.
But as we realise with more experience, shooting portraits with natural light isn’t necessarily easy or straightforward, and there are many things we can do to improve our shots. In this video, Omar Gonzalez shows us which pitfalls to avoid when shooting in natural light.
Not fully assessing or seeing the light
When we’re first starting out we tend to prioritize seeing our subject over seeing the light. Sometimes there isn’t enough light, or the quality of light is just not really that good. It’s fairly typical at the beginning stages to just shoot your subject without regarding the actual light.
Direction of light
After a little more shooting you begin to become aware of the light. However, you probably still aren’t using the light to your full advantage. Typically you aren’t considering the direction the light is coming from and how that affects the subject. To quickly find where the direction of good light is coming from, Omar suggests using your hand out in front of you and moving it around until you see it almost light up. That’s a good indicator of where to place your subject.
If all the light is coming from directly above (think shooting in the middle of the day) then your subject will get racoon eyes. Once you’re aware of this it’s pretty easy to remedy. You can have the subject tilt their face up slightly, photograph them from slightly above, or find a spot with a natural reflector on the ground (pale concrete for example) or opposite (a white wall) that will bounce light back at them. Now of course if the natural reflector underneath is too bright then it will create unflattering Halloween style lighting. That can also happen with a poorly placed photography reflector under the subject’s chin. So the takeaway is then to be aware not just of the direction of light, but also of any natural reflectors that could be bouncing the light around. Use them to your advantage.
Over-reliance on shade
Open shade is one of those sweet spots that photographers love to mention. And it can often be very useful, particularly if you’re shooting in very bright sunlight. But you can have too much of a good thing and believe it or not, you can have too much shade. The key to using open shade correctly is to actually have the subject be on the edge of it so you can get beautiful light hitting them indirectly, or you can use the sun as a hair light behind them without causing a lot of flare. Being too far back into the shaded area will create those dreaded ‘dead eyes’ where there are no catchlights in the eyes.
Embrace the sunlight
Yes, you read that correctly, you can take great photos in full sun. But, you do have to be very careful that shadows aren’t being cast on other people if photographing a group, and if used incorrectly shooting in open sunshine can produce horrible results. One classic move is the use the sun as a backlight and reflect some of that light back at the subject. You can also just use the sun as a light source, particularly towards the start and end of the day. Pointing your subject’s nose towards the light is often going to help sculpt the face in an attractive manner.
Omar says that often a natural light photographer won’t take into account the fact that the subject might be surrounded by greenery or are wearing a brightly coloured shirt for example, which are all going to reflect those colours back onto the skin and affect the skin tones in undesirable ways. If you’re faced with this situation you can use a reflector to actually block the light that’s creating the colour casts away from people’s skin. Removing the reflection of green grass from a chin is a fool’s errand in post, far better to remove it in-camera.
So you get to where you’re doing the shoot and discover that there is quite literally, no light. The horror! What are you going to do? Well, you could do what I do and always bring a strobe plus light modifier with you just in case of emergencies. I love to shoot with natural light when I can, but I also love to use artificial light and other available light. Even if natural light is your preferred lighting method, don’t be afraid to learn how to use other forms of light, it may well save you in a tight situation. One of my favourite combos is balancing a flash with the other natural or ambient lighting. It’s very subtle and will help push your images up to the next level.
Finally, I would add that anyone who wants to rock natural light really needs to get really good at manipulating light. Experiment with using silks or other diffusion material, reflectors to bounce light around both white and black. in my opinion, becoming a master of natural light is actually a lot more difficult in the end than learning how to use artificial lighting. But ultimately, light is light. It always behaves in the same way and is comfortingly predictable. You just need to understand it.