How to Shoot (Awesome) Natural Light Portraits

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One of the nicest things to use when doing portrait photography is using available or natural light. Mother Nature has given us the most perfect lighting with which to do our craft and if we can learn to use it correctly we can get some awesome results with nothing more than a camera, a lens and a couple of reflection surfaces. Minimal set up and tear down which then yield some outstanding photos as a result. The key is in knowing your equipment, its limitations and knowing how to coax the most out of the light you have without having to resort to using artificial enhancement.

Let’s put away all of our misconceptions about lights and lighting and have a serious look here about what it takes to use available or natural light to obtain a great portrait. It might surprise you just how easy it is to do and just how effective you can be by simply using what nature gives us and a little bit of ingenuity.  So, with all of that being said let us stop and take a look at natural light portrait photography, shall we?

Natural Light and You

Using natural or available lighting when doing portraits can be your best friend or your worst enemy and it is entirely up to you what you make of it.

To be effective at shooting in natural light you need to take a few things in to consideration in the planning of your portrait session. The first and foremost thing that you need to keep in mind when setting up the session is the time of day that you plan on using the natural light. That is because certain times of the day give you very usable and very sweet and forgiving light. Other times of the day give you ugly shadows and very harsh lighting which is not becoming for anyone.

So if at all possible, you should try and set up your sessions to be done before eleven in the morning or after three or four in the afternoon. Also if you can get a day when it is slightly over cast you will find that the results that you get will be much better because the clouds disperse the lighting and tend to mellow things out all the way around. A good cloudy day also will allow you to shoot between the harsh hours of eleven in the morning and four in the afternoon and get good photos. So in this instance clouds can truly be your friend.

If you are doing portraits of humans, especially those that might involve more skin than less. The late afternoon sun is nothing less than phenomenal in making the skin literally glow. The later it gets the more orange glow is in the sun and the result is that you have a warmer and softer skin tone that will flatter almost any skin or body type. That is why a lot of on the beach bikini shots are done in the latter part of the day. The professionals know which light is going to do the best at flattering the female form and they take advantage of it.

In available and natural light it is really all about the timing for the shoot and the placement of the subject. It is not like an indoors shoot in the studio where you can roll a light to another area to get the look that you are after. In the great out of doors you have to be able to think fast and adjust you model and the reflectors that you are using to make the needed lighting changes that will work for your shot.

What that means is that if you are planning on making outdoor natural lighting portrait photography a staple of your photographic you need to scout out a couple of useable locations and then you need to shoot some shots of what the area looks like at different times of the day so that you will have a visual reminder at a later date.

I usually take an assistant with me when I go out looking at locations. I have her stand and I snap a couple plain shots with no flash, no reflector fills. Nothing but a bare camera shot. I then safe that location in my GPS so that I can find it again and when I get home I upload the GPS data to a document file and attach the shots of my assistant and fill in the particulars. Then I have the exact location, I have shots of the area so I remember what it looked like and I have photos of my assistant these so I can compare the lighting. In essence, I have all the data on that sheet that I need to be able to make a choice on where to go for a shot and I know before I get there what it will look like and how to set it up. So I have well over 75 percent of the battle won before the car even gets in drive.

Not only that but I can use the sheets to show the model if they are looking for something specific in the shoot. Yes, I do try and work with my models so that they get as much out of the session as I do. If they feel good about what is going on then they do a better job of posing which gives better photographs so everyone wins.

What It Takes To Get It Done

Obviously you know that you will need the camera, memory and a lens or two. That much is a given no matter what type of portraits you are shooting. I would suggest that you consider a decent tripod or monopod to help you stabilize the camera as you are taking the shots. You can more than likely hand hold the camera and get decent results but if you have even a remotely slow lens or a day that is more overcast than you might like, the solid support will allow you to get razor sharp focus and thus a great shot.

You are also going to want to have some sort of reflective device that will help you redirect the rays from the sun on to your model to add some depth and to illuminate the many shadows that may have shown up as you look through the lens.

Let’s say that you are shooting your subject where he or she is standing at somewhere about 310 degrees away from the sun (i.e.: the sun is partially over the models left shoulder). When you are in this scenario the left side of the face and body will be well lit. Now assuming that you are 180 degrees from the sun (i.e.: facing the sun) the whole left side of the face will be dark. That is fine if that is what you are after for effect.

However, if you take a reflector and put it off camera at about the 270 degrees mark, you can easily bounce the suns rays back onto the darker side of the face. This sill illuminate it just enough to fill in the shadows and make the model look great. If you add a second reflector off camera behind the model you can direct a little light onto the back of the hair to give a little separation from the background and you have a fully illuminated shot using only the sun.

If you did all of your research and homework then you likely knew the best times to be there and you probably have a phenomenal photograph in your camera. You wasted little to no effort, you used only solar power for illumination and you, my friend, should feel proud about your accomplishment right about now.

Bear in mind that while the principals of this type of photography are the same no matter what you are shooting, there are some differences that will push you towards doing certain things a little differently. Let’s look at those things before we get too far off topic shall we?

If you are, for example shooting a man that has rugged features that you are trying to accentuate, you need to adjust your angles towards the light in such a manner that the harsh lines in his face and the muscles that are on the body are better defined. You can do that by cutting down the amount of light that is actually being reflected back on to the darker side of his face with your reflector. The main light from the sun will give bold outlines and the very slight reflection back will soften things up just a little.

If you are looking for a more definitive look you can have the male model flex his muscles a little harder than he perhaps might and you will get the look that you are after. In fact, it can make someone with an average body look moiré toned, buff and chiseled.

Conversely when you are working with the softer form of a woman or lady, then you are going to want to add more of the off screen fills reflection so that the fine lines are accentuated and the imperfections will all but disappear into the skin tone. This is an acquired touch but one that will serve you well if you can actually learn it. It will carry over into artificial studio photography to some extent as wells o once you learn the technique in available natural light you will be miles ahead of the learning curve.

What If Things Mess Up?

Well, if you’ve been paying attention as we went along there really is not a whole lot that can go wrong, but let’s address a few obvious ones here.

Let’s say that you got to the shoot location and the sky decided to get very cloudy. It’s late in the day and you only have about half an hour to shoot and it is almost too dark to get a decent photograph. What can you do in this situation? Well, since you obviously don’t want to have a wasted trip and a ruination of the night and all there is only one hope.

You should switch to the fastest prime lens that you have to gather as much of the available light that you can find and get it on to your image sensor. This will help but you will not get too much that is usable yet. Next set your ISO setting high, I often use 1600 ISO in situations such as this, then find your camera settings and set it to shoot in black and white or grayscale as it is called because this will mask a lot of the extraneous noise that in inherent in lower light and set your shutter speed as low as you think that you can stand it. If you are using a tripod and your model can hold still, for got one quarter of a second, if you are going to try and hand hold it because you forgot the tripod, then I would not go below one thirtieth of a second. While all of this is a pain in the butt, you can usually get usable shots in this manner. You certainly can try shooting in color rather than in grayscale. You may get some usable stuff and you can likely edit it in Photoshop and make it useable. But I still prefer grayscale in that type of low light situation. You know the old saying about lemons and lemonade.

What happens if you are on the drive with your model to the location and once you arrive you realize that you forgot your parabolic reflectors so you have no way to bounce the sunlight in and soften up the shadows? This can and will likely happen to you at least one time in your natural light photography life.

This is another opportunity where you need to be a boy scout and made due with what you have so that you can save the session. First thing that you do is to pull out your Swiss Army knife (you DO carry one with you don’t you?) and walk slowly back to the car and reach under the seat and pull out your folding sun shade for your windshield that you use on hot days to cool down the inside of the car.

You then cut that thing in half and you have instantly made yourself two reflectors. They are not as fancy as the store bought ones that you left in your studio but they will for darned sure get the job done for you and bounce that sunlight where you want it to go. Not a fancy solution but it will save the day for you I am positive of that since it has worked for me a time or two.

Here’s one that happened to me just last week, I met my model at the location about 45 minutes from the studio. She was bringing the outfit that she wanted me to shoot her in. It was a nice shiny silver short dress that would have refracted the light all over the place and made a phenomenal series of shots. I say it would have because she forgot to bring it. The bag that she thought it was in actually contained absolutely nothing.

After she calmed down from being overly mad at herself for forgetting to remember it, we both had a nice laugh at it. I told her to go ahead and just be herself and I’d snap a few so we wouldn’t totally waste the evening and then we could go home.

The sun was particularly red and the sunset was beginning to shape up very nicely indeed. She started to move slowly in between the lens and the sunset as I snapped away. I used a long shutter speed to blur her motion and she gyrated around in the fading light. The resulting photos of her are some of the most stunning that I have taken in a long time.

As a caveat to that story, the sunset was followed by a fantastic full moon. Luckily we were in a very secluded spot and she suggested that we do some moon shots. There was a nice calm lake behind her and we proceeded to do some available low light shots of her in various forms if dress and undress in normal cut offs and a bikini top the moonlight in front of an almost mirror calm lake.

On a scale of one to ten, this “botched “photo session ended up giving us the most fantastic shot all by accident that I have ever shot of this model. The thing that started out as looking like a total waste of time turned into a perfect pot of gold for us at that time.

The moral there is to just shoot if all else fails you absolutely never know what is going to happen until you do. This is where having good fast lenses, knowing your equipment and how to shoot in available light combine to separate the men from the boys.

A Final Parting Thought or Two

Most photographers shy away from available or natural light shooting because it scares them. They have usually never taken the time to properly work in that lighting medium to see what they can achieve. This is partly because it is just simply so easy to bring people into your studio, flip a switch and get nearly perfectly illuminated photographs. It is also because as humans we tend to have a fear of the unknown and since it takes a while to master the art, we tend to not put the time and the effort in to the art form. And make no mistake about it, that type of lighting is indeed an art form in the truest sense of the word.

So as a photographer who is interested in being the best at your chosen profession, you owe it to yourself and to your models and clients to learn everything that you can about the various methods of shooting and how to do so under varied lighting conditions.

Knowing how to use available light will come in handy in many parts of our industry. Concerts, sporting events, conventions and other places where cameras may be allowed with a freelancer but where flashed usually are not. Museums are yet another place where flashes and other artificial lighting is generally something that is not to be used.

And one of the great financial generators for any photographer, the wedding ceremony is a place where flashes are all but forbidden by the church, the bride, the groom and the priest. In fact even if you could use a flash at the ceremony the end result would be so harsh that it would likely not be useable anyway.

But after you have mastered the correlation between ISO, the f stop settings and shutter speed on the lens and you take the time to work on it and see how they go hand in hand to make the light work for you and not against you, it will soon be something that you look forward to doing rather than something that you want to shy away from. It puts creativity back into the photographers hand and lets you craft a scene, a feeling and a mood all from the light that is occurring naturally around you at any given point in time.

Embrace the challenge and don’t run from it. Go forward and plunge head long into the fading light and keep snapping your photos and adjusting your settings as you go in search of that illusive award winning natural light shot. You can and will make mistakes at the start but you can and will get better as you go.

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