Working with Natural Light
How to Work With Natural Lighting As a Photographer
Lighting a portrait can be an intimidating – even a discouraging – task. It seems that the whole process is a chemistry exam which you’ve been given without warning. Unflattering patches of light, harsh midday sunlight, or a cloudy day all seem to point to the fact that you can’t take great portraits at any time of day without artificial light. However, it’s possible to take advantage of any type of weather, no matter what time of day it is or how much light is available. Even a 10-minute photo shoot in unfamiliar lighting conditions could end up being the best creative experience you’ve ever had. Remember that chemistry exam you were given without warning? You can get a perfect score by using patience, observation, and an open mind.
Let’s begin with simple portraits, the ones with unchallenging light mixed with a spoonful of softness. Many of us first began experimenting with photography by taking photos in front of windows. Windows are ideal for any kind of portrait, be it a casual family photo or a self-portrait. Standing directly in front of a window will light up your subject’s entire face, giving them both a pleasant glow and a beautifully lit appearance. Light works uniquely with each individual; your job as an artist is to find and document that chemistry. The more you experiment with a variety of facial angles, the better you’ll understand the relationship between light and everything it envelops, and the closer you’ll get to taking the best and softest portraits.
Now, let’s experiment a little more fearlessly. The farther you go from a window, the more vulnerable light becomes. Darker atmospheres may seem uselessly depressing, but you can use them to create touching portraits. As long as there is a light source, no matter how weak, you can take a great photograph reflecting your exclusive view of the subject. If the sunlight is too harsh, take a few steps away from the window. Alternatively, you can cover the light source with a transparent material – this will soften the harshness and make your subject easier to photograph. To make your shot even more creative, find a colourful material that’ll add vibrancy to your photo’s composition, or use a patterned fabric to cast captivating shadows on your subject’s face. Outdoors, you can use trees, buildings, or any objects at your disposal to shade your subject and add a beguiling mood to your images. There’s an abundance of possibilities when it comes to sunlight; combining it with almost anything will create a major difference between a simple photograph and an eye-catching one.
Threatening storm clouds or an overcast day might force you to put your camera down and wait for a better opportunity, but keep in mind that even such conditions can prove to be creatively fruitful. For instance, if you can’t find the right facial lighting, make your subject turn their back to you; a few suspenseful portraits will add a pleasantly enigmatic atmosphere to your shoot. Similarly, if you’re in a dark area in which a mild light source shines directly above (i.e. a forest or a park), take your photo from a low angle and make your subject face the light. Upon increasing the exposure during the editing process, you’ll notice a softness reminiscent of sunlight. Wherever a light source exists, no matter how insignificant, make your subject face it. The results will surprise you, challenge you, and make you a better artist.
Silhouettes and backlit photographs can also create the most outstanding and emotional portraits. Backlight gives photos a very dreamlike feel, whereas silhouettes create attractive anonymity, compelling the viewer to take a closer look at everything that’s surrounding the outline. However, take note that though backlit photos create even lighting, they may make your portraits appear flat; using a reflector will give your subject’s face a brighter glow and fix the problem. If you’re unsure about lighting conditions in the dark, use a lamp or any available light source against your subject to create a silhouette (windows work very well in this case, too). Adding dust or water droplets to the composition will heighten your image’s originality. Additionally, the process of finding new elements to add to your photo will inspire you to make use of every item you own, thus making you a more inventive person.
Next time the sky begins to darken, next time the sun allows its light to get harsh, don’t let your hope do the same. There’s a photographic opportunity everywhere, waiting to be found.
To get the most out of your portraits, we recommend our Lightroom presets for portraits.