As a photographer, natural light is your best friend or your worst enemy, depending on how much you understand about the way it works. Today, we're going to explore light in its simplest form, which should help you capture better photos.
For our purposes, natural light means the sun. I suppose you could count moonlight or fire light or any light that is not artificially produced as “natural light,” but most of the time you’ll be using the sun as your main source of natural light. And it is powerfully bright! This is exciting news for photographers who want great photos and don’t have the money to spend on expensive studio gear—even though the same principles of lighting apply in studio as they do in natural light.
Among these principles are:
1. The size and distance of your light source affect the quality of your light.
The sun is a very large light source (about 865,000 miles in diameter) but it is a very long distance away (93 million miles, on average). Because of this, it is a relatively small light source in relation to our subjects. Small light sources produce harsh shadows
2. Diffusing or reflecting light with something relatively large, in relation to our subject, will soften harsh shadows.
Using trees or clouds to diffuse light, or buildings or walls to reflect light allows us to turn a small light source into a relatively big one.
There is no right or wrong way to use natural light. Sometimes the photo you want to make requires hard shadows and lots of contrast between the light and dark areas of the photos. Dramatic landscapes often become strong compositions because of their hard shadows. Portraits can also be made using direct sunlight (and often are in fashion photography) but most of the time classic portraits are made using soft light, free of harsh shadows across the face.
Awesome portraits of people can be made just about any time of day, in just about any location. I have a few tricks I use and one of these always works, no matter the situation.
1. Backlight your portrait. Position your subject so the sun hits the side of their head. Then, have them keep turning away from the sun until you can’t see any direct sunlight on their face. Position your subject such that the sun is to their back at a 30-45 degree angle. You don’t want the sun directly behind them because it will make it difficult for you to get a correct exposure and will possibly create an unwanted lens flare. This effect gives you a nice bright background, separates your subject from the background, and also gives them a nice glow to the edges of their hair.
Positioning your subject's back to the sun allows for even skin tones and nice highlights on her hair.
2. Shoot under cloud cover or if there are no clouds, find the shade of a tree. Clouds and trees diffuse sunlight and make the source of your light bigger, thus softer. Sometimes you can find a tree that lets some light in and diffuses the rest to also let you backlight your subject.
3. Find a natural reflector. When it’s sunny out, just about everything is reflecting light! Look for a white or light colored wall that faces the sun and have your subject face the wall—meaning you are between the reflecting wall and your subject. When the light hits the wall it becomes a large light source relative to your subject and produces a soft light. You can use signs, fences, vehicles or even the sidewalk as a reflector for natural light!
Positioning your subject toward the sun creates hard lines between light and shadow areas.
4. Bring your subject inside. Window light is some of the best natural light and is often perfectly diffused for portraits. Try having your subject face the window or turn their head so only part of their face gets light. Turn off any lights inside to keep your natural light free from different colored lights.
Try each of these natural light tricks during different times of day. Which one works best for you?
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