Natural Light Photography Tips

January 22, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

Over the last two years, I’ve developed a love for portrait photography. Ever since I bought the 50 mm 1.4 lens, I learned to appreciate shooting with natural light in a whole new perspective! Here is some general information when considering shooting with natural light.

Preparation: Before any shoot, you should have at least some details planned out (and set up) ahead of time. You ought to consider the location, your subject’s wardrobe, hairstyle, accessories or props, the specific camera gear you’d be taking along, the time you’ll be shooting and so forth.

Location: I cannot stress this enough! Location is a key factor when shooting with natural light. Depending on the type of shoot you have planned, you may choose between an urban and rural landscape. Thereafter, you can further narrow your choice between solitary or a more populated environment (remember you can always find great urban spaces that is not overflowing with people). You should always keep in mind the amount of light that is present in the space you plan to shoot. Therefore, it’s best to scope the area you wish to shoot in beforehand.

Urban (populated) vs. rural setting

Patience and décorum: Working with any subject can be challenging (especially if you’re meeting that person for the first time on the day of the shoot). If you’re working with an experienced model, then posing may be relatively easy and the shoot should be over quickly. If you’re working with someone who’s still learning their angles, then direction must be clear as crystal. Throughout this session, you should be polite and patient with your subject. If they are uncomfortable or at odds with your direction, It will definitely come across in the photos. I usually try to make shoots educational by giving the subject a brief overview of the angles I’ll be shooting from, the poses and expressions I want them to try. I always remind them to let me know if they’re uncomfortable with anything and that we can definitely try other options. Always take a few breaks so that both you and your subject can relax during the shoot. Finally, it takes a few clicks before you get the shots you’re looking for. So don’t become frustrated if you haven’t gotten what you’re looking for within the first 50 or 100 photos.

I absolutely love shooting portraits with natural light. It compliments most subjects gracefully and it’s totally free! It’s crucial to remember that natural lighting changes every hour, and varies depending on the season and location you’re shooting in. That said, here are my seven tips for shooting portraits with natural light.

1. Back light: Depending on your style, you may choose to filter the light through trees, foliage, buildings, etc or have your back light be light via sun flare or hazy lighting. Always remember that you can attach a lens hood to your camera to further reduce haze in your backlight. Whichever you prefer, always consider how this will affect the overall frame of your image.

2. Where you should stand: Almost always, you should stand in the shade. In doing so, you can control the amount of sunlight that may seep directly into your lens. If you’re in an open space with no shade, then position your camera in such a way that the sun is at a slight angle to your camera.  Again, make sure that the light is not entering your lens straight on (unless you want to mimic a sun flare, etc).

3. Quality of light: Position your subject in such a way so that they are adequately lit by sunlight. It is paramount not to underexpose the most important element of your photo – your subject. Additionally, do not bounce harsh light off of your subject or have them look directly towards the sun, otherwise there will be unflattering and distracting contrasty blobs on your subject. They will also squint and get watery eyes! All that said, it’s best to shoot during the “golden hour” when shooting with natural light. The golden hour is usually during sunrise or sunset. 

Left image: subject facing sunlight (harsh light); right image: subject lit with natural light via reflector

4. Positioning your subject: if you scouted the location beforehand, then you’d know where to position your subject. If you did not, then you may want to spend a few minutes positioning your model in several spots to see what how well the lighting compliments your subject. You can assess the light by having your subject turn 360 degrees and see how it changes on their faces or bodies.

5. Use the light to your advantage: I always carry a reflector with me to capitalize on natural light (especially if the light begins to vanish at sunset). You can reflect light unto your subject by bouncing it off of the reflector. You can use different layers of the reflector to achieve different light results. For example, a diffuser will make the bouncing light less harsh on your subject. A silver reflector, will make the bouncing light a bit brighter on your subject while a copper/yellow reflector will add a warm glow to your subject.  Left image: natural light w/reflector diffuser; middle image: light behind subject w/ copper reflector; right image: natural light only

6. Camera settings: In any type of portraiture, it’s vital to have a connection with your subject. You may have great lighting and a beautiful composite, but the image will not be truly appreciated if the shot lacks a connection with your subject. To achieve such a connection, focus on the eyes is key. Whenever we look at a photo of another person, the first thing we connect with is their eyes. Be sure to make the eyes a focal point. You can always use manual focus if your autofocus doesn’t get it quite right. It is also imperative to use a large aperture (low f-number) to blur out/bokeh the background so that does not distract from your subject. 

7. Practice and have fun: Two things: practice makes perfect and photography should be fun. Photography is an art, and portraiture photography is no exception. Don’t be afraid to ask family, friends or acquaintances to pose so you can practice your techniques and learn to efficiently communicate with your subject. Finally, you can make your art look any way you want it to. As long as you’re happy with your final product, then that’s all that really matters. 

Left image: natural light; right image: natural light with reflector

Happy shooting!


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