Natural Light is the most Unique and diverse light source there is. Although you can’t control the overall natural lighting, you can achieve various effects at different times of the day, during different seasons, or by shaping
the light yourself using reflectors and diffusers. There are many iconic fashion photographers who shoot entirely with natural light because of its quality and adaptability.
To master natural light you need to understand how color temperature, direction, and brightness work, as well as when it’s best to shoot.
Getting the best out of natural light
Certain times of day can bring out the unusual and dramatic in your photographs and make for beautiful backdrops, not only for landscape photographers, but also for us as fashion photographers.
The best time to shoot in natural light is
the first hour after sunrise and the last hour before sunset—often referred to as the “golden hour” by landscape photographers. The light source during these hours is soft and diffused, the angle low, and the color warm. Even though the sun sets or rises quickly, the golden hours should provide you with enough time to capture a variety of images from hazy backlit shots, through natural flare, to direct warm frontal light.
Many location shoots can last all day, and as natural light changes so quickly throughout the day, you will need to use various accessories to shape or fill the light. Here are two important accessories location photographers should always carry with them:
Reflector: The most common location reflectors are circular collapsible pieces of equipment with either gold or silver reflective surfaces used to “bounce” or redirect light onto a subject. They are used to fill in areas of shadow, especially when working in direct, unflattering light. Scrim: A scrim is a piece of transparent gauzelike material (often stretched out on
a collapsible frame) to diffuse strong light. Photographers use scrims in much the same way they would use a softbox in the studio.
Natural light scenarios
Backlit: When the light source—in this case the sun—is behind the subject, the subject is said to be backlit. Backlighting works best during the golden hours because the sun is less bright and has a warm-colored tone. As the sun gets higher in the sky and grows brighter, backlighting will produce featureless silhouettes. Golden-hour backlighting will usually provide a soft, hazy, ethereal effect.
Adding flare: When shooting a backlit model, the sun is shining directly into the front of
your lens and can create interesting flare effects. You’ll get the best results with flare when
the sun is at its lowest and you shoot with a wide aperture.
Direct to the light: To achieve a strong, contrasting light, pose your model so that he
or she is facing the sun. During the golden hours direct lighting will create high contrast with warm tones. Add reflectors to remove harsh
and unflattering shadows on the face and body. You should always encourage your model to keep his or her chin to the light if the light source is higher in the sky to eliminate obvious harsh shadows.
Weather permitting: One thing you can’t
shape and change on a shoot is the weather. In most temperate climates you should always be prepared for rain or even extreme weather when in an open environment. Here’s how to cope with some weather scenarios—you can even
use them to your advantage.
Overcast: Clouds are your natural softbox; they help diffuse strong sunlight. Overcast days are really useful for certain shoot themes. If
it’s a gray day and light levels are low, try using a high ISO and a wide aperture to recreate grainy-looking movie scenes. The light will be even on your subject and very flattering on the skin. If there’s a lot of cloud cover, think about how you could use it as a backdrop to your scene. Maybe you could use it for a powerful, moody conceptual piece?
Raining/snowing: Among the hardest weather scenarios to cope with are rain and snow (and everything in between). You should only work with either if your shoot requires it—which is extremely rare. However, if you have to, look around your location for areas under which you can shelter to prevent you having to cover the entire scene—this could create for interesting results, especially if you can capture rain drops.
Rim lighting: Rim lighting emphasizes the subject’s outline, and can give a wonderful halo effect. When working with rim lighting on- location, it’s important to understand exactly how it should be captured and what settings you will need for the correct exposure.
The best time to capture this kind of lighting is when the sun is at its lowest point in the sky (early morning or late afternoon), specifically during golden hour. To get the best out of rim lighting, you may want to consider the way your subject is styled—light colored pastel crepe or sheer fabrics work beautifully with rim lighting (as well as with backlighting), and fine, loose hair is captured beautifully in this light and emphasizes a majestic, dreamy theme.
Rim lighting is most noticeable when you slightly underexpose your photograph (usually by 1–2 stops), resulting in a low-key image. You may also want to consider the background of your shot—dark tones will emphasize the highlights even further. However, if you’re shooting portraiture and your only light source
is natural, you may want to consider using the gold side of a reflector to reflect light back into your subject’s face, or consider mixing natural and artificial lighting for something slightly more powerful. Another technique is to set your camera on a tripod, and take two shots (with your model staying in a set position); taking one slightly overexposed image, and one slightly underexposed image. This way you’re capturing the rim lighting, but can later combine the two photographs and retouch so your subject is also in the light.
Working with the environment: Making sure you’ve got the right exposure is tricky when working with purely natural light, so consider using elements in your environment (natural and man-made) to shape the light. Whenever I am shooting on a rooftop, I find that reflective silver surfaces are perfect to help expose the whole of my subject’s features. If I’m working near water, such as a lakeside, or on the beach, the water’s reflection can place a nice emphasis on the subject’s skin, or help highlight colorful eyes. Or if I’m working near a forest or trees, I use the canopy of trees to create shade away from the sun, use the shadows of leaves on my subjects’ skin, or capture backlit leaves. This creates lovely speckles using a wide aperture.
Intentional underexposure or overexposure:
Many photographers are told to “hold the highlights” when shooting overexposed images. However, I don’t believe that specific shooting scenarios have a perfect exposure—it differs for every shot. Sometimes you may want a high-key shot to blend into the background and achieve glowing tones, or to deliberately overexpose your shot to eliminate background clutter (like trees in a park or people in the busy street scene). Try it out! The best way of understanding whether overexposure/ underexposure works for your shot is to try it in the set-scenario; sometimes you won’t know this until you start shooting!