The Art of Natural Lighting Photography.

I have never, in my SEVEN years as a photographer, used studio lighting with my clients!

A lot of photographers are under the mistaken belief that you cannot take professional photos without a Softbox and a powercord, which is a damn shame because Natural Lighting Photography is the holy grail of all photographers.  It also has the added benefit of requiring ZERO investment and no setup.

Photography is a beautiful art form that is accessible to anyone with a camera, and if you know a little about natural lighting then you can easily take your photos to the next level without having to drop a few hundred dollars on equipment.

I like to break up Natural Lighting into three types, Sideways Light, Overhead Light and BackLight, and I’ll describe these in my tips below.

So let’s get to it…

It’s all about Shadows!

Before we begin to talk about lighting, let’s talk about shadow.

Rather than look at your photography in the form of light you want to achieve, think about what kind of shadows you want to see.  Because the opposite of light in photography, is shadow, and if you can get your shadows to work, you can control light.

In a lot of cases, photographers are looking for the least amount of shadow or soft shadows.  But there are times when greater amounts of shadow or harsh shadows create mood and grittier photos.

A good rule to remember is ‘the brighter the light, the darker the shadows’.  If you want softer looking photos, then you want soft light to create soft shadows.  If you want edgier looking imagery, then you want brighter light and darker shadows.

With that in mind, let’s proceed.

Indoor Sideways Light!

What is sideways light you ask?  Well it is pretty simple actually, anything that funnels light onto your subject from the side rather than above is considered ‘Sideways Light’.  Some great examples are windows and doorways.

One of my favourite foodie photographers Rachel Korinek (@twolovesstudio) does the bulk of her food photography using the daylight streaming through her kitchen window.

I apply the same concept with my model photography by having my subjects stand near a window or a doorway.  I then position them so that the light creates the style of shadows that I want for my photo.

All of the photos below were taken in doorways or beside windows.  My models were all placed within a few feet from the light source and I played with their positioning to create the style of shadows I was looking to achieve.  In some cases my shadows were harsh and created mood, othertimes I used the shadows to highlight muscle tone or frame faces, and in other cases I had them face directly into the light to reduce the shadows to virtually nothing to show off garments.

Easy yes?

Indoor Overhead Light!

Same concept applies here as ‘sideways light’.  Overhead Light is what I would describe as light funnelled through skylights or through buildings when standing in alleyways.

This one can be a bit trickier to play with because in most cases, overhead light will act like a spotlight and cast unattractive shadows on your subject’s face.  But used correctly, it can create huge amounts of mood and generate some gritty looking images.

I use this sparingly and wouldn’t necessarily choose this type of light source when looking for a location, but when you’re in a jam, it can be used to your advantage.

The key with Indoor Overhead Light is to ensure that your subject’s face is either in full shadow, or at least 70% lit.  Unless of course you really want something with a lot of grit. (as shown in the image below taken in a Melbourne alleyway).

In the images below I made use of skylights to light up my subjects in very different ways depending on the type of shadows I was wanting to achieve.

Outdoor Sideways Light!

I’m sure you’ve heard it said before that the best light for outdoor natural photography is early in the morning or late in the afternoon. And why is that?  SIDEWAYS LIGHT.  Yep.  We are already familiar with our friend Indoor Sideways Light, and Outdoor Sideways Light has the added benefit of being friggin’ spectacular because it is generated by a huge ball of gas in the sky.

I won’t go into the science of the sun, (and this is all about science), but basically sunlight cast around sunrise and closer to sunset is softer and gives off a redder appearance making everything glow.  It is less direct and easily controllable by moving around your subject to change the style of light and shadow that you want.

I will generally schedule my clients around early mornings or late afternoons so that I can make use of this strange magic.

Outdoor Overhead Light!

If you like to take your camera outdoors (which I imagine will be 99% of the photo taking population), then you will at some point have to shoot in the peak of the day.  *GASP*

“But all my photos will be ruined by the harsh harsh light of the direct midday sun!”  This is probably true.  I have at times been butt kicked by the sun when out shooting clients during the day, but when you have no other choice but to find something that works, you will be surprised by what you can achieve.

This is where your use of shadows will help.  In the photos below you will see that when the sun is high in the sky, I have my clients tilt their faces either into the sun to light them, or have them tilt away to create shadow.  It requires a little direction on your part and a little more work for your model, but so long as you are both aware of the direction of the light you can create the shadow you need to make your photo work.

Backlight! Backlight! Backlight!

We’ve covered off Sideways Light and Overhead Light, but Backlight can be an awesome way to make some very interesting imagery.

Backlighting doesn’t always mean that you will be creating a silhouette, it just means that the bulk of your subject will be cast in shadow but still properly exposed.

Backlight will create the MOST amount of shadow and only in cases of very direct backlight will your subject appear as a silhouette.

You can achieve this by shooting your subject with any form of natural light behind them.  This could be coming from a doorway or window or even the sun.

This might take some practise and you will most likely fail more times than you succeed.  I often have to think a little more before attempting this style of light and shadow, but when I nail it, I do give myself a little pat on the back for being awesome.

In Summary…

Whether you are taking photos for fun, or doing so professionally, you are using the same light and shadow to frame your subjects.  All it takes is a little practise and a bit of awareness.

Remember not to get too caught up in the concept of ‘lighting’ your subject and think more about where the shadows are going to fall.  Being aware of both is the key to controlling and manipulating Natural Lighting for your photography.

Go Shoot and Goodluck.