How to Shoot With Natural Light

Shooting with natural light is full of unpredictability, which is exactly why many photographers find it challenging and exciting. Ever since starting my photographic journey, I’ve always been drawn to natural light because it allows me to create a certain atmosphere and, thus, translate the idea I have in mind into a photograph.

Light is a crucial element to photography: no wonder the word photography itself means painting with light.

As much as studio photographers love the control the studio environment provides them, I love the spontaneity and adrenaline of catching the perfect ambient light. That means getting used to different lighting conditions, but it also makes you better as a photographer because you gain experience and flexibility.

These are some of the most common natural setups:

BACKLIGHT
One of the first rules you learn on a photography course or class is: don’t shoot with your light source positioned behind your subject. That is — don’t do it unless you want to break the rules and have fun experimenting The lowering sun during the golden hour is perfect for backlit photos because of the softer shadows it casts.

Tip: if you want to see the model’s face in the image, overexpose it and bring back the contrast in post. Make sure to always shoot in RAW so that you have the versatility of toying with settings in your editing software of choice. Another way is to use a reflector and direct some soft light in the model’s face.

This photo was shot with my model Mietta near an amusement park where was our primary location. The sun was setting low and I positioned Mietta in front of the sun, the backlight casting a warm tone to the image. It was created without any reflectors and I pulled up the brightness of her face in Photoshop.

SUNNY DAY
During a sunny day I prefer to shoot in the golden hour that enriches photographs with a beautiful warmth and glowing colours. The few minutes after sunset, with their cooler tones, are superb to use for a darker theme, but it’s important to have everything already prepared because it gets dark quickly.

shot this with my friend and model Lisette during the golden hour in summer. The light had a specific warm glow that looked beautiful on Lisette’s blonde hair. We shot this in my garden and I thought it had a slightly vintage feel to it, so I decided to create a colour palette that would match that mood.

Shooting at noon, especially in the summertime, is not such a good idea: the sun is set at almost 90 degrees, casting deep dark shadows underneath the model’s face. In that situation, I would either use a reflector, or opt to shoot in the shadows instead.

CLOUDY DAY
Although the images taken on an overcast day can sometimes seem flat, I love shooting under a grey sky, as it allows me not to care too much about harsh shadows. Clouds act as a giant softbox, evenly dispersing sunlight that goes through them, which makes cloudy days great for portraits.

In wintertime the sky is mostly cloudy and gloomy and that’s why Stella’s features matched perfectly with the dark tall trees behind her. We shot this in the middle of the day using pure natural light. Since this wasn’t a classical portrait I didn’t mind the shadows — they even made the photo look more in tune with the overall theme.

PLAYING WITH SHADOWS
One great thing about sunny days is playing with shadows in all ways possible. Use a hat with tiny holes, tulle, lace, plants; basically anything where a beam of sunlight can get through.

A sunny spring day made it possible to have interesting shadows on Laura’s face. The park where we shot it had a beautiful blossoming tree and I underexposed the shot and pulled up the shadows in Camera RAW. It’s always better to shoot RAW than JPG simply because it allows you more options in post-processing!

WINDOW LIGHT
This one is my absolute favourite. It produces soft shadows that don’t lack depth, and is ideal for portraiture because it shapes the model’s face in a very pleasing manner. Placing the model closer to the window will have a ‘retouching’ effect on the skin, evening out pores and pimples, while placing the model further away is suitable for moodier shots. Depending on the day outside, it can result in warmer or cooler tones, so plan your shoot accordingly.

Self-portrait done lying on the floor below a big window (on the right side of the image). The soft light created gradual shades because it was cloudy outside. If I would’ve shot this on a sunny day, the light areas on the plant would’ve been completely blown out.