Shooting with Natural Light

People often ask me about my post-processing when they look over my photography. To be honest, the post-process I’ve developed has been a combination of small tutorials I’ve taken over the years from artists I respect. I’ve since developed my own style from these tools, but the most important part of post-processing is having an image that will take it on well. In this article, I will be talking less about the post-process and more about how to utilize natural light. In order for proper digital development, the shot has to be versatile for the final result.

Do you want something dark and soft? Do you want something bright and warm? These are just a few questions to ask yourself when setting up a portrait session.

The greatest joy for me, as a photographer, is utilizing light to produce a moving image. This can come in any number of forms, from the smallest single strand of light against a face or a subject in a field mid-afternoon. It’s imperative to train the eye to the spectrum of natural light. The only way to do so is to shoot constantly.

Screenshot

In this first photograph, I shot my subject near the doorway of her apartment complex. Amazing light seems to find itself in doorways, or under the shade of a tall building, especially under an awning. I had her move directly to her right, away from the entrance, so I could bring in some reflection off the window. If you do this, you’ll have to watch closely to your reflection and also her shadow, especially if she has dark hair. I love shooting subjects in this light and it appears, no matter what time of day, to have that golden hour feel. It’s great for headshots, especially. Since this shoot was just an impromptu one with a friend, and our first time working together I had decided to leave the reflector at home. I try to keep my portrait shoots as basic as possible so I can get to know the model. I can nitpick this image and wish I had reflected light onto her back and her jawline (her right side), but expression and composition are all I’m focusing on here. I feel there is something pleasant about imperfect lighting, it makes the image feel less staged or forced, more natural, like a moment in this person’s life.

For this image, I photographed her with a Nikon D3s at f/1.8 using a Nikon D-series (f/1.4) lens. I put auto-focus aimed with a single-point at her eye closest to me (her right one). Since it was afternoon, light was enough to allow me to stay at 1/400s shutter speed and 200 ISO. I like trying to stay within 200-400 ISO when doing outdoor portraiture. I like having some feel of grain there, rather than opting for low ISO ranges to make an image crisp. That is just personal preference.

At this stage, the photograph I’ve captured has enough detail overall to make for a digital RAW. None of the shadows are too harsh, allowing me to find small details there if necessary. I can see it by the histogram clippings telling me there are no red (blown out highlights) or blue (darkened shadows) on the image itself. I know I can have full control over this image in Photoshop later and that is the first step to a solid post-processing workflow with natural light.

Natural Light #4

Now, we aren’t always going to be so lucky and have ample light, the chance to pose a subject, or even have an option to be outdoors. In this situation, a subject’s environment can lend extra details about who they are. So having a vision for your composition is important.

Natural Light #1

Your best friend as a photographer using natural light is any source that allows it in. This indoor photograph has plenty of brilliant light flooding in through the right hand side. Sometimes moments are setup for you and being conscious of how to expose the image is key. The other thing to keep in mind is the quality of your images at different ISO. Older, less expensive bodies will start to get grainier faster when you surpass 800 ISO. I knew this was the case when I took this photograph, since I was using the Nikon D90 body. In order to maintain a crisp image I kept it at 200 ISO, forcing me to shoot at f/1.4 (on the Nikon 50mm f/1.4 lens), with a shutter speed of 1/60. At this shutter speed it is difficult to have it handheld and maintain focus. I had no other option, however, because any elaborate setup would make this a non-candid portrait session, and I knew the subject would not be interested. So being limited in my setup, I had to improvise the kitchen table as a tripod and take a few shots to get the composition in check. Once I had her perfectly framed, I waited until the moment she went in between thoughts, before she spoke again, to capture her in this pose.

Natural Light #2

This next image for me is what really started making me think about window light in portraiture. The glass on a window really diffuses light so it pleasantly falls onto a model’s face. It also offers a dreamy, thoughtfulness if the model is less engaged with the camera/audience, and is more in her environment. I’ve framed her in a way that really pulls her out from the background by letting shadows engulf her left side. I also love how the post-processing technique I use rolls through and lifts blacks/shadows, giving them that hazy look. In this image we see a variety of shadow/light play, from the almost over-exposed window area to the under-exposed shadows on her left. These flow nicely over her face, giving her face some dimension with the shadow on her jaw, and leaving her eye bright and in focus. Generally a window will provide as much light as you’ll need, depending on how close the model is to it. In this image I shot her on a Nikon D700 using the Nikon 85mm f/1.4D at f/1.4. I kept my ISO at 200, despite being indoors. This allowed me to shutter her at 1/200s.

Natural Light #3

Another image of this subject, we shot after quick clothing change and went outside. We had nothing overhead to make even light across her face, but as the sun was going down, we were able to make use of that golden light. There is still a strategy to use here to make sure it is even though. I had her stand in the middle between two tall buildings, so it could reflect the disappearing light onto her from both sides. Early on in my photography I was primarily shooting wide-open outdoors, while it offers great flexibility in shooting portraits, it’s equally over-exposing the background. This typically happens when shooting with only sky behind a subject, so if you’re able to find even light where the background isn’t so transparent, a more comprehensive image can be produced.

As you may gather from this introductory post on natural light, there are never any certainties. It’s about adapting to what you’re given. The best you can do is to understand how light looks at different exposures, and the only way to find what you like is to shoot. I started my photography exploration by going into downtown Denver once a week, at least, any time of the day, and shooting. Once I felt comfortable with low light situations in broad daylight, I moved my work indoors to practice. Understanding how natural light works is the foundation to not only producing an image of any kind, but it’s also essential for strong post-processing. The two go hand-in-hand.

Comments

  1. 1
    ) Daniel Michael
    February 24, 2014 at 2:10 pm

    Great article Charles!

    I love learning about natural light photography, since most of my shooting is the more candid type. Seeing the light is the biggest hurdle though and it’s taken practice! Could I ask if you have any tips for metering the light in these situations, especially if there is more contrast in the situation?

    Thanks!

    • February 24, 2014 at 4:37 pm

      Daniel,

      Take a few days and shoot in the few hours before the sun goes down. Study how that light looks. Study how even it can be if the subject is positioned correctly. Notice how there are no harsh highlights or deep rich shadows – everything is one even shade (for the most part). This is easy to witness if you’re using a prime lens (with an aperture capability of f/1.8 or f/1.4). From there, you know the most flattering light on a subject and can expand your experimenting with an eye for it.

  2. February 24, 2014 at 2:27 pm

    Great first post Charles, the light in your portraits make your photos pop up. Really amazing!

  3. 3
    ) Jon McGuffin
    February 24, 2014 at 2:29 pm

    I’ll second that request on any tips you can provide in how you come to the exposure settings you do. Do you spot meter off the subjects skintones? Matrix meter the entire scene and add or subtract exp/comp as desired after chimping the LCD?

    I would also add, from my own experience, that turning the subjects head into the light when you’re dealing with a left right or top down over/under exposure scenario can help tremendously in adding that “mood” you are speaking of. A particularly good example of this is the model sitting with her head tilt toward the window.

    Lovely images indeed, thank you very much for sharing! (But we still want to know more about how you post process ).

    Jon

    • 6
      ) BTam
      February 24, 2014 at 2:49 pm

      great tip. I’m also interested in the exposure settings.

    • February 24, 2014 at 4:31 pm

      Jon,

      You’ve said a few things in your inquiry that you could probably teach me about! My process is very simple, as I like it to remain. I meter on what I want to be visible. In most cases it is the model’s eyes, as that is where I am directing the focus. I then try to make sure the subject of focus is in a position, in terms of the available light, to be visible. If she’s not, she may need to lean in closer to the light source, or be somewhere else. I then take a test shot, based on what I see, and adjust my shutter speed accordingly. I typically like to stay within f/1.4 – f/2.8 if applicable, so for me, the most that changes is the shutter speed. I hope that helps in some way!

      • 29
        ) Jon McGuffin
        February 24, 2014 at 6:17 pm

        Hello again Charles,

        I think the challenge photographers face in general with situation of high dynamic range is that the in-camera metering system starts to let us down. When you have a subject in the middle of a scene with such large amounts of bright light (window) and darkness (inside room) then the camera on it’s own tries to balance the two out to some degree and yields an ugly and poorly exposed image. What *I* sometimes do, would be to put the camera into spot meter mode so that on my Nikon body the camera is only making exposure decisions based on whatever is underneath my focus point in the viewfinder. If I’m shooting a Caucasian person, I know I need to then add in a little overexposure so that the camera doesn’t turn their skin grey. If I’m shooting something with dark complexion, I need to underexpose the scene by a small amount (1/3 to 1/2 stop) to prevent the same thing. I get the exposure right on the subject, and then let the camera do what it needs to do with the highlights and shadows and then work with those values in the RAW editor later.

        It sounds like you’re shooting mostly in manual exposure mode which when I’m dealing with a portrait or a subject that can be patient while I dial in exposure, I find is the best way to go. It sounds as though you’re doing roughly the same thing but making your decisions based a little more on the results your getting on the LCD and what you’re seeing in the histograms? I think that’s a perfectly suitable and viable way to get to the shot as well. I think it’s just a matter of what works.

        I just can’t express enough just how much I appreciate your images, the subjects, the careful attention to light, composition, and of course the thing I think you really excel at; developing your images in the digital editor. I really look forward to seeing more from you here to help me be a photographer that produces work more like you!!!

        Thanks Charles!

        • February 25, 2014 at 2:31 pm

          Ah yes, this makes more sense now. I typically don’t meter, in that regard. I shoot manually always, even at a wedding. If you shoot in enough situations, getting a close setting in the first attempt becomes easier and then it’s a minor adjustment up or down from there. In terms of metering, I just study the light without the camera and then when I’ve found the best spot for it, I take a test shot.

          Thank you again for the kind words on my work and I look forward to helping out in your journey!

  4. February 24, 2014 at 2:37 pm

    Nice article, I was looking forward very much to the “natural light post”! :)

    To join Daniel Michael, how do you meter, what do you pay attention to regarding exposure?
    I liked very much the post-processing too, hope we’ll get to know a bit more about that as well.

    Besides shades, cloudy days are also good to make portraits. From a partly overcast sky to a rainy, foggy day the whole environment behaves as a huge diffusion dome.

    I also like to shoot in the shade of foliage, but in those cases extra attention has to be payed to the green color cast.

    • February 24, 2014 at 4:28 pm

      I love cloudy days as well. When I briefly lived in San Francisco, it felt perfect for those dark, moody images within all the fog.

      As far as exposure: meter what you want to be the most visible. Is it the subject’s face? Is it the window behind her? Only you can make that choice. I just know eventually I want to strengthen the blacks in my image, therefore increasing the amount of shadow detail, while making the highlights a little more pronounced. So, therefore, each image is different in terms of what we, as the artists, want to convey. Does this make sense?

  5. 5
    ) David
    February 24, 2014 at 2:44 pm

    Very enlightening. You have made me think a lot more about how I approach taking photos in natural light.
    There is a lot more to it than I realised.

    • February 24, 2014 at 4:26 pm

      There is a lot, indeed. Don’t get overwhelmed. Make it as simple as possible so you can understand your process. Just practice with one subject and your camera only, until you feel you have a vision for what you want to create. Best of luck!

  6. 7
    ) Daniel
    February 24, 2014 at 3:03 pm

    Fantastic article, Charles. I learned a tremendous amount. These little details and nuances are what make an amateur portrait into a more accomplished one, at least from the technical perspective.

    I look forward to your future posts.

    Kind Regards,

    Daniel

    • February 24, 2014 at 4:25 pm

      Thank you – it’s in those little things, isn’t it? I agree.

      • 19
        ) Daniel
        February 24, 2014 at 4:32 pm

        Thank you for your reply Charles. A more proper statement on my part would have been that it’s in the details that the photographer pays attention to that makes an average photo a very good one. Talent, of course, is the x-factor, and you have it in abundnance.

        • February 24, 2014 at 4:39 pm

          Of course – I understood what you meant. And, thank you again – I’m just hoping my work can inspire fellow photographers to find their own vision.

  7. 8
    ) Monsour
    February 24, 2014 at 3:29 pm

    Cracking images with feel and character. I like the toning too which never went overboard. Great post Charles! Looking forward to read more of your thought process. Thank you.

    Warmest Regards,
    Monsour

  8. 9
    ) Jan
    February 24, 2014 at 3:39 pm

    how did you meter for the image of the model with the soft dreamy look…looking out the window? stunning!

    • February 24, 2014 at 4:19 pm

      With digital, I know my boundaries in terms of post-processing. So in order to meter I make sure what I want to be most visible is exposed in a way I can strengthen later in post. In the window image, I had to have her close to the window so her face was exposed in this way. I then took a quick test shot, and if her face was over or under exposed I adjusted accordingly. Hope this helps!

      • 32
        ) Jan
        February 24, 2014 at 8:19 pm

        Thank you, Charles. Yes, that makes perfect sense. In reading the above comments, I do what Jon does as far as spot metering for different skin tones. I’m interested in reading your further comments based on his reply. Fantastic post today.

  9. 10
    ) dick
    February 24, 2014 at 3:44 pm

    Hello

    I see what you are describing in 1, 2 and 4.

    I do not see it in 3.

    I think I would discard # 3 due to harsh shadows. Photo sharp, pretty girl, but I am not so sure about it.

    If you have time, please expand your opinion on this one…..the B&W is beautiful. I think a great tip is: “in-between shots when your subject least expects it”….facial muscular relaxation can produce great photos. Indirect eye contact. A gazing subject. Thank you, Dick

    • February 24, 2014 at 4:17 pm

      Dick,

      Thank you for your feedback.

      The image you’d ask me to discard has been well-received by my peers for the story it provides. I feel the shadows, while harsh, add to that very element. The subject is not in any specific environment, she is just in hers. She is in a moment. The window places light onto her and all other shadows falling onto her add to the dimension of her features. While not technically perfect, nor are any of my images, I feel it belongs in this article to show somewhere in between an abundance of light and not enough.

    • 30
      ) Jon McGuffin
      February 24, 2014 at 6:24 pm

      #3 is the best image of the set IMHO ;) :)

      Nothing wrong of course with not liking it or loving but I think this is where the artistic aspects apply. For me, it’s about learning the process to get to the image. If it’s an image I don’t desire, I don’t work towards it. Personally #3 I love..

  10. 13
    ) Andre
    February 24, 2014 at 4:23 pm

    Great article and beautiful photos I love the style/look.

    In your second image the image have one “gold color” different from the first that I think it’s the RAW.
    In your fourth image the picture also have on “felling of magenta”.
    This is post production correct? Could you explain this technique or what it’s call or where it’s possible to find information.
    Thanks allot for your article.

    • February 24, 2014 at 4:50 pm

      Andre,

      You are correct the color is different in these two. It’s great you have an eye for this color change as it is crucial to moving forward on color retouching.

      I offer a more personal tutorial on this in a one-on-one session for now. At this time I haven’t written an article on how to change color in an image.

      • 24
        ) Andre
        February 24, 2014 at 5:12 pm

        Unfortunately I’m not able to pay a one-on-one session, in my humble opinion I would recommend to any one that can because It would learn allot with you. You have a really good taste and your technique and art are simply wonderful. I hope to see more tutorials from you in the future.

        • February 24, 2014 at 5:20 pm

          Thank you, I appreciate your understanding, but don’t rule out future tutorials on Photography Life of my technique or tidbits on how to recreate. Stay tuned!

  11. February 24, 2014 at 5:15 pm

    You image of the elderly woman is spectacular. A wonderful moment!

    • February 24, 2014 at 5:19 pm

      Thank you! It was a very special moment for me. It’s a portrait of my Grandmother, one of only 10 shots I got of her before she passed away a year later. She raised me, so the shot, in her kitchen at the eye-level of my youthful self, combined with all of her cook-ware really made the image for me. I’m very fortunate and thankful to have been in a position with some artistic tool to capture it before she passed.

  12. 28
    ) Keith R. Starkey
    February 24, 2014 at 5:27 pm

    This rocks! I mean, this is what gets my blood going! Charles, these pics are georgeous, BECAUSE they are so natural and in the real world…with juuuuuust enough removal of the real world to create something different. I really, really like your work here. Great stuff. And I like the kind of work you do to get this. More great stuff!

  13. 31
    ) Mischelle
    February 24, 2014 at 7:10 pm

    Beautiful Charles! Love your work! So natural and organic :)

  14. 33
    ) Akshay Mallabadi
    February 24, 2014 at 10:35 pm

    Nice article .. I Loved it , took a lot from this and would surely help me to learn and improve my skills in this art!!!

    • February 25, 2014 at 2:24 pm

      Great!! I’m glad I can help. Happy shooting, friend!

  15. 34
    ) Daniel
    February 24, 2014 at 11:06 pm

    Charles,

    When you say that you expose for the shadows, wouldn’t you run the risk of losing details in the highlights? Or are you just making a slight exposure adjustment to ensure that you have as much detail as possible in the dark tones so that you have more latitude in post?

    • February 25, 2014 at 2:24 pm

      Daniel,

      I was looking over my article and was trying to find where exactly I said I expose for the shadows to answer your question. I generally expose for what I want to be visible, in most cases it is the subject’s eyes. In exposing for those, it is up to me where to place my model so the highlights are not blown out and the shadows aren’t too dark – unless that is the way I want the photo to be. There is no right or wrong here, it is merely based on how you want to express your subject. Let me know if that makes sense!

      • 43
        ) Daniel
        February 25, 2014 at 9:29 pm

        Hi Charles,

        No, I was reading the scans from the article you posted on your website. Great work. Most of the portraits you present are of very beautiful women. Congrats on that. Do you do any “character” portraits, for lack of a better term? I don’t mean this as a criticism in any way whatsoever. Also, who are your heroes in photography, if you have any?

        Thanks,

        Daniel

        • February 27, 2014 at 8:45 am

          Thanks so much! I mean I haven’t focused on other types of portrait as much as I have women, lately, though it is definitely in the back of my head. I have a variety of other portraits I’ve experimented with on my Flickr account.

          In terms of my heroes in photography – there is no one I study or watch exclusively but I was very into Annie Leibovitz and Jaime Ibarra when I started out.

  16. 35
    ) Igor
    February 25, 2014 at 4:20 am

    Charles Hildreth, i follow you on 500px love your work! Thanks for the article!

    • February 25, 2014 at 2:21 pm

      Igor – thank you for the follow and supporting my work!

  17. 42
    ) Kurnia Lim
    February 25, 2014 at 8:23 pm

    Nice, I mostly use natural light and reflector sometimes, only 30% flash usage. I love that B/W 2nd picture and the 3rd one, I love those shadows on the face. The 1st and last picture also good but I prefer more shadows on the face if it’s about personal taste. Well, photography is market for the eye right? Just like food is market for the tongue, you might like a lobster while I hate it. Well, it maybe different if we shoot for client, because we have to produce image for our client’s eye, this is what I confuse sometimes and need advice on this. When you shoot for client, do you shoot according to your personal taste or guess what the client’s like? Or maybe ask what kind of photo, etc. Thank you, I love your blog.

    • February 27, 2014 at 8:48 am

      I agree with you! To each their own, right?

      As far as shooting for the client, it’s a tricky answer. My best advice is stay true to yourself. If the client was referred to you by your work, then you know they trust in your style. If someone referred them to you without seeing your work and they had a specific job for a photographer, then you may need to adapt to their idea. If it doesn’t seem like a good fit, do yourself a favor and take work you know you will enjoy – it will be beneficial to both parties. I hope that helps!

  18. 44
    ) Chandan
    February 27, 2014 at 2:23 am

    I love shooting with natural light myself. Some of my best results often come while shooting sans any lights/strobes. Am still a bit of an amateur but would love some you folks to check out my photography at 500px over at: http://500px.com/ChandanKSingh

  19. February 28, 2014 at 7:15 am

    Enjoyed your post and some very nice examples of what you can do with no flash.

  20. 49
    ) philippe
    March 15, 2014 at 3:55 pm

    Hello Charles,
    Thanks for the stories and detailed explanations. what’s also very interesting is the relationship you build with your models to make them pose, or to capture, “that” moment…

  21. May 22, 2014 at 9:27 am

    Thanks for the article and the examples.

  22. 51
    ) youssef
    June 1, 2014 at 10:57 am

    excuse me what is your camera

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