Updated: March 2, 2022
The most important part of a photograph, for me, is light. Every element of a photo plays its role: the subject, the location, even the editing, but I passionately believe that lighting controls the mood of the photo. Light accentuates the subject, and we, as photographers, use it as a tool to achieve the best photo possible.
Just like when you’re watching a film, looking at a photograph makes us feel a certain way, and I think that feeling is mostly determined by the light in the scene. For example, when the lighting is golden, warm and inviting…
Or harsher, darker, more mysterious…
Either way, light is amazing, because it makes you feel something.
In this article, I am going to describe the things that matter most to me when it comes to working with natural light to create a portrait image. I think that photography is a dance with light, or a partnership. The light accentuates the subject, and we use our cameras to capture that. As photographers, the light is the driving force in our images, and we all work with it and mold it differently, and that’s what makes it so powerful.
Telling the difference between great natural light and not-so-great natural light will get easier with time, and often it depends on what kind of lighting you want and what kind of feeling you want to evoke. I avoid shooting in the middle of the day, when the light is directly above, because it is harsher and often very unflattering for the subject. I typically go for softer, warmer light. I love shooting during the last couple hours of the day, before the sun sets. I also enjoy shooting when it is cloudy/overcast because the light is soft all around, and you don’t have to deal with heavy shadows. Shooting in the morning after sunrise is also a good option if you want that softer light. As long as the light looks good on my subject, and in the photo, then I would say the natural light is good. And if it isn’t, then I usually try a different angle.
I use natural light because it’s beautiful. Natural light is easier to use than artificial light. Even though artificial light gives you an incredible amount of flexibility, I almost like the challenge of natural light for the same reason. There’s never been a time when I was disappointed with my results, or when I wished I had used artificial lighting instead. All I need is my camera and myself.
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1. Angle of Light
It’s important to think about how your subject and the light are playing off each other, especially when using natural light, because you can’t control it like you can control artificial lighting. When I position my models, I often work with the light coming from behind them at some angle (backlighting), because I love the look of it. I think backlighting is dreamy and packed with mood. Then I will either have the subject move their body, or I will move left or right to make sure the light wraps around them just right. When doing this, I keep an eye on the shadows on their face, especially if the light is coming at the model more from the side. Shadows can create a weird or unflattering look, so I usually make sure to have my model turn their head slightly away from the light source to decrease the amount of shadows. Below are a few photos with the light coming from behind the subject, from a variety of different angles.
Sometimes, especially with backlighting, I need an extra kick to the light I’m in, so I’ll use a reflector to bounce light onto a subject’s face. (A reflector is definitely beneficial, and I would certainly recommend using one if you are able.) But sometimes I simply enjoy going out with my client/model and keeping it simple and casual, so I’ll choose not to use one. Instead, I actually end up using ?natural reflectors’ often, such as buildings/walls, cars or anything that is reflecting light back onto a certain area.
The photo below is an example of using a building behind me to reflect light onto the subject, which is why the light is so soft and there are a few different catch lights in his eye.
3. Try Something New
Some of my favorite images resulted in me trying something new, playing with light in a way that was foreign to me. The image below is a perfect example. It was shot in direct sunlight, which is something I never ever used to do, but I really wanted to enhance the subject with bold shadows and a definition that can only be achieved with harsh lighting. I also wanted to capture the colors of the Rocky Mountains, which were more visible under direct sunlight because sometimes the background can get washed out when shooting backlit.
I mainly use Adobe Lightroom to edit. I usually only use Photoshop when I need to do retouching. With editing, I try to get the light in my images as balanced as possible. I am not a fan of high-contrast images, so I usually bring the highlights down, and the shadows up slightly. Sometimes I bring the whites up if I want the light to be a little more distinct.
The last thing I specifically focus on when lighting my subjects is how the eyes look. When I am shooting portraits, it’s all about the eyes. I compose my photos with the eyes in mind and always make sure I am focusing on them. I position a subject so that the light on the eyes looks flattering. And, to enhance the eyes in post-processing, I sharpen them a little bit with the Lightroom local adjustment brush. If necessary, I will also lighten the eyes with the brush, but I only increase the exposure on the eyes just slightly. A good example is below.
I am utterly obsessed with light. I am always studying it, even when I am not shooting. I love the way it falls and touches everything, the way it shines through trees, the way it dances with shadows when the wind blows its subjects, the way it changes color based on the time of day and the time of year. I love when I am in a moment and the light is so perfect it takes my breath away. I just love light.
But, the best part of my love affair with light is finding new ways to capture it, or utilizing it in a new way. It is very dynamic and quite magical. But, just like there isn’t only one way to take a photo, there isn’t only one place where the light should be directed from. You need to learn what works best for your style.
All photos in this article were taken by the author, Crystal Rose Smith.