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Go Au Naturel: Shooting Portrait in Natural Light

When I first bought my little Canon AE1 back in 1993 and started shooting, I couldn’t afford a flash.

Photo by Barbara Stitzer

Photo by Barbara Stitzer

I shot everything in natural light, and I think I made every mistake known to mankind, so for those who would like to learn from my mistakes, this one’s for you!!

Backlight

When I was a little girl, my mother would tell me, “That’s right, tilt your face up to the sun, you look so pretty with a little burn on your cheeks.” And I’d turn my little face up to the sun and my eyes started screaming so I would scrunch my face up so hard that I’d get white lines in between my burn lines. Of course now, everyone knows not to do that, because you’ll get wrinkles, but I’ll be danged if every single time I set up a large group with their backs to the sun, there won’t be some guy or another who will laugh, shake his head and pull me gently aside and point out where the sun is and that I have it in the wrong place!

Photo by Barbara Stitzer

Photo by Barbara Stitzer

Well, trust me on this one, you will NOT get good shots if you turn people to the sun. Their eyes will get too squinty, and almost close, and their faces will wrinkle up, so that means that you are the one who has to face the sun. It doesn’t matter if you get wrinkles, heck, you’ll be making so much money off of your session that you’ll be able to afford botox like nothing, so Man Up and look into that sun. This includes cloudy days, by the way…the sun is still there whether it’s cloudy or sunny, and if you personally can not stare directly into it for two straight minutes, your client won’t be able to either.

BUT, if you’re shooting someone very late in the day and you have a fabulous rim light going and it just disappears and your model’s face gets really dark, turn them immediately so that you can catch the last vestiges of The Golden Hour, that time between an hour before sunset/sunrise and an hour after. Even if it seems like the light is bad, shoot it. If the sun is beyond the horizon and you shoot your model facing it, the most glorious quality of light that you can’t even see will appear on your image and you’ll love it!!

Photo by Barbara Stitzer

Photo by Barbara Stitzer

So you’ve mastered backlighting and now you want to move on? Try back lighting with a reflector. You can get some five- in-one models at Samy’s Camera or Calumet . I like the dull gold side of mine. Don’t have a reflector? Use the dull side of some gold or silver aluminum foil, wrap the foil around some thick poster board and you’re all set.

As you can see from the shadows in front of the children and the highlights on the camera left side of the baby’s face, the sun is in back and to the left of this darling little trio. But the background is also a good exposure and not blown out, even though the sunny side really should be much lighter than the shadow side. How you make the subjects brighter is by putting a reflector in. The reflector should go directly opposite the sun, kicking light into your model’s faces. You will have to kind of move the reflector back and forth a little to position it correctly, and it will continually change, so have an assistant hold the reflector. The reflector can bother your model’s eyes if they look at it, especially if they have light eyes, so tell them not to look at it, and tell your assistant to watch your arms.

When your arms go up to shoot, they put the reflector up, when you take your camera down from your face, they take the reflector down, giving the model’s eyes a break.

Photo by Barbara Stitzer

Photo by Barbara Stitzer

In this shot of the lovely golfer, Angela, on a late sunny afternoon in Lake Tahoe, I turned her so that the sun was to her back…see the shadows? They’re at a 90 degree angle to me. Then I had my assistant put the reflector directly in front of her, so at the other 90 degree angle to me, giving her that nice loop off her nose, and looking like we had an enormous beauty dish on her instead of just the sun and a reflector.

Windows

Shooting outdoors is a challenge sometimes…you have to shoot early or late in order to not have harsh shadows or too much of a discrepancy between light and dark, so if you must shoot midday, you can shoot indoors and use a window as your light source. I shot the fabulous Janice Hughes of Grace Abounding Jewelry, and her Miniature Dauschund, Sunny, in her kitchen, with window light streaming in from the camera left side, and nothing else. It made a beautiful Rembrandt/split light on her face and fabulous jewelry.

Photo by Barbara Stitzer

Photo by Barbara Stitzer

I shot Tara, below, inside a greenhouse at the Phoenix Botanical Gardens on her wedding day. It was November, but it was pushing 102 degrees, and the heat was just so melting that we decided to find some air conditioning, so we ducked into the Butterfly Gardens. (They looked so pretty that I added some that I’d shot while waiting for her into the shot in post later). The light was coming from everywhere, but there were lots of trees shading her, and we added a reflector from camera right to bounce the light into her face, yet still keep the details of her dress.

Photo by Barbara Stitzer

Photo by Barbara Stitzer

Some people like to put their models right up against the window and then either lean on the wall and catch their side face, or shoot them from the dark side and let the light trickle off, like this of the lovely Frannie:

Photo by Barbara Stitzer

Photo by Barbara Stitzer

That is a totally valid way of using the light, and the light coming across a white dress, especially, makes the tiny details of the dress come out, but I must admit, I like to play “What happens if” a lot, so I took the awesome and talented Fernanda, put a North facing window at my back, so that there wasn’t any direct sunlight coming in through the window, but still that all of the “light” light was on her, and shot her straight, using the window as a giant soft box:

Photo by Barbara Stitzer

Photo by Barbara Stitzer

Look deeply into her eyes, you can see the window. Did you know that you can always tell what kind of lighting a photographer uses, just by looking in to the model’s eyes? It’s all there for you!

Please send me your winners and fails of natural light pictures to barb@barbstitzer.com, and I can help. We’ll get better together!

Barbara Stitzer

Barb Stitzer is an award winning Master Photographer living in Hudson, Ohio with her husband, her teen, Zoe and her tween, Tenley. She creates beauty and memories worldwide. Feel free to find her on Facebook or check out her website.

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