Thoughts on Natural Light Photography

Thoughts on Natural Light Photography

Very often, the difference between a good photo and a mediocre photo is proper lighting. Have you been frustrated with the way your photos turn out when shooting using only daylight? If you have, the good news is that it is possible to create fantastic natural light photography – but the key is knowing when AND where to shoot your subject. Below are three tips that I hope will help you get better photos of your beautiful destination.

Time of Day Is Key for Natural Light Photography

If you’ve hired a photographer in the past, you’ve probably begun to see a pattern when asking about his or her preference for time of day. They will almost always request earlier in the morning or later in the day. No, this is not because of a mid-morning brunch date or their mid-afternoon siesta. It is because almost nothing looks good with harsh shadows created by the sun straight from above.

Shooting photos earlier in the morning or later in the day presents the best opportunity for natural lighting.
Shooting photos earlier in the morning or later in the day presents the best opportunity for natural lighting.

The mid-day sun is just not flattering, especially for people’s faces. Because our eyebrows and eye sockets are designed to shield our eyes from the sun, this often causes “caves of darkness” in the eye area, and natural light from above can often create long shadows under the nose. Even supermodels don’t photograph well under this type of lighting. Can this be solved if you absolutely must shoot under mid-day sun? Yes, but it can be more complicated as it can involve several people working as a team, require more equipment or many times a combination of both! We plan to cover this in another blog entry soon, but for now… trust us and stick with scheduling early morning and late afternoon photoshoots.

So how do you know which time to choose?

Best Time for People

It’s usually best to put the sun to their back for natural light photography for several reasons. The first reason is that facing them towards the sun means a lot of squinting or the need for sunglasses. Squinting is obviously not desirable, and sunglasses tend to diminish your connection with the subject. Not to say that there’s no appropriate time for sunglasses, but in a lot of cases, it’s usually best avoided. The reason the sun from behind works so well is that the blue sky acts as a giant softbox. It lights the subject pretty evenly with not many shadows while the sun gives a beautiful rim of light separating your subject from the background.

Have you ever seen marketing materials for a city where there were lots of smiling faces having fun, but the background seemed generic? Did they look like stock photos? In the case of photographs for destination marketing efforts, we feel strongly that you should have something in your background that gives your subject a sense of place. If you are making the effort to capture photographs of your destination, be sure you can tell they are actually taken in your destination (not generic).

We want our subjects to feel (and look) like they belong to the city they’re representing.

Background composition can give your subject a sense of place.
Background composition can give your subject a sense of place.

So with that in mind, we’re usually looking for three things; an attraction, a focal point (a smiling face?) and the sun a little lower in the sky behind our subject. How do we plan our shoot so that these three things line up? Well, the simple way is to remember what we all learned in elementary school – the sun rises in the east and sets in the west (if you carry a smart phone, you can use the compass to help visualize the sun’s location as it rises and sets). If you’re not going to be able to scout the situation prior to shooting, then this should get you in the ballpark. But if you can possibly get out beforehand and scout your shoot, you can get a better handle on where the sun will be at different times during the day and options for positioning yourself . One way I deal with this situation is by using an app that I have on my iPhone called Helios. It allows me to put in a date and time and then look at the sun’s (future) position on a map or ideally, to scout the location and physically see where the sun will be in the sky at every time during the day (or whatever future day you select in the app). This is one of the most useful scouting tools I have found.

Best Time for Architecture

When photographing architecture, the sun position is a different story. You want the light on your building, and you want lots of long shadows. Architecture, in general, has lots of details that a soft light just does not make stand out. Direct sunlight raking across your building highlights every little detail with stunning contrast.

For architecture, use sunlight to show every little detail with stunning contrast.
For architecture, use sunlight to show every little detail with stunning contrast.

If you’re using a DSLR, I would suggest getting a circular polarizer. A circular polarizer is a filter that fits in front of your lens that redirects and minimizes certain reflections. But what it can do for the sky is pretty dramatic. While looking through the lens, simply turn the polarizer and you’ll begin to see the sky get darker and more saturated. Be careful, because this can be overdone, but it’s an effect that can be done as you are on location and can help your subject stand out even more.

By using a polarizer you can get the sky to appear darker and more saturated.
By using a polarizer, you can get the sky to appear darker and more saturated.

I hope these tips will help you get the most out of your natural light situations. We would love to see what you’re working on, and if you have some tips that you’ve discovered, please share them with us!

Have fun!

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