Most of us love natural light and feel comfortable shooting with it – but how well do you really know how to utilize it effectively and to control it with precision? I just spent the day with Erik Valind, a New York City-based lifestyle photographer in his 'Controling Natural Light' workshop. Here are 17 simple ways to help get great results from better understanding and utliizing natural light.
Erik is a commercial and lifestyle photographer based here in NYC. We worked together last year when he was shooting for a client here in the city.
One thing I realized about Erik on that job is that he travels a lot, has a huge and diverse range of clients he shoots for and has a great and adaptable tool kit and knowledge set around having light work in his favor. He specializes in lifestyle, and what makes him great is he is just as happy and adept at shooting natural light outdoors as he is shooting speed lights or strobe indoors. He really loves working with natural light though, and the more organic feeling it provides for his clients lifestyle images. Importantly, he's also a great teacher and packed a huge amount into this one 6-hour long session.
The Importance Of Versatility
Being versatile when using only natural light is key. For Erik, it means he can travel with a lightweight array of gear and adapt fast to changing lighting conditions.
Erik uses an array of Sunbounce natural light modifiers which allow him to shoot even in the most challenging of times throughout the day (most of the workshop shooting took place between 1 and 5pm on a very bright, clear day.
His three main natural light tools include reflectors, diffusion panels and black panels (to act as flags or to add contrast into a shot in place of V flats).
Natural light is such a joy to shoot in. There are no max sync speeds, no strobes or electronics to damage when shooting close to (or in) water, and it allows models or subjects to move more freely (an assistant panning a reflector gives more flexibility than a subject hitting a mark for a strobe). But we don't often realize just how versatile it is, or how we can better control it.
Over the course of Erik's 6 hour workshop, I distilled down some of the key tips he shared:
- Backlighting works best when the sun is lower in the sky. Put your subject with the sun behind them and have the light wrap around and reflect back on to them for beautiful rim and backlighting
- Use covered or open shade to keep the exposure on your subject even and reduce the contrast of the light falling on your subject. Putting your subject in shade and paying attention to the exposure of the background will help you create an outdoor high or low key image, which will help provide separation for your subject and reduce distractions in the background
- For really strong overhead sun, create covered shade where you can, by simply flagging the overhead sun. You can also use a small diffusion panel and use a reflector underneath as fill. The light coming from the overhead diffuser is a great sculptor for the cheek bones and jaw, while the reflector underneath will provide fill, and catch lights. Playing with the angles of both the diffuser and reflector will change the quality of light and direction it is falling on your subject
- Under covered shade, don’t forget to move around your subject, or have them change their position to the natural light. By moving around, you can create broader light with less contrast, or shorter light, with more contrast between light and dark areas, particularly useful when doing head shots. A basic way to demonstrate this effect is to hold your fist up by the light source, and rotate your arm, to simulate your subject and their face. As more of your fist rotates away from the source of light, you get shorter light, with more contrast.
- Your diffuser becomes a light source when diffusing overhead light. The closer you can get it to your subject, the larger the source relative to your subject, and the softer that source will therefore be. This is why distance of diffuser to your subject is important
- Add small reflectors underneath your subject to bounce light into the eyes and create catch lights. You can use a V formation, with 2 reflectors either side to do the same thing by sandwiching the subject which provides more fill to carve out the face, jawline and cheek bones
- If you’re getting dark shadows under the eyes because of harsh sun, simply have the subject turn their face up towards the light source. Position yourself above them (if possible), or have them sit on an object to shoot down on them to be able to photograph more of their face. Changing angles in these small ways helps create more even exposure
- Reflector material type makes a lot of difference – silver will act more like a key light and provides much more contrast than white. White raises the level of the shadows, acting like a very subtle fill, which can be great for close up beauty work where you can crop tightly and push the white reflector closer (silver may also be too harsh for this)
- “Twerking your reflector” changes the quality of light. Pulling the center in towards you creates a spot light effect, flattening it leaves it neutral, and pushing the center away from your body spreads the light producing a softer effect. With a silver reflector, twerking the reflector like this can easily produce a difference in light intensity by two stops or so, so be sure to experiment. Be aware that when having assistants use larger reflectors in tight spaces that they may end up unintentionally bending and contorting them simply to fit - and this “unintended twerk” can change your quality and intensity of light
- Gold reflectors are generally not conducive to natural looking light. Although some might say they work nicely on darker skin tones, Erik is not a fan. Instead he uses the gold and silver weave (mix) which warms skin tones nicely without giving a very overly saturated unnatural golden look
- Oil blotting sheets are a must have when using reflectors outside in harsh sunshine and warm conditions. If you want to manage specular highlights on the face, the blotting sheets help reduce sheen while preserving make up
- Light ratios with reflectors work with your background – you can still create high and low key images, just as you can in the studio, by controlling background exposure and the ratio of your subject relative to the background. Low key backgrounds with a silver “key light” reflector on the subject can reduce background distractions by keeping the exposure lower on the background in comparison to your subject
- To remove reflections of in glasses, you have three options if you don’t want to mess about doing it in post. Firstly tip the glasses down the nose, or have the subject hold them with fingertips to change the angle. Secondly, change the angle of your subject’s head and/or body relative to the reflector. Finally you can move your own position around/up or down on your subject and simply shoot from a different position
- A moving subject is much easier to track if your assistant is tracking them when using a 4 x 6ft larger reflector compared to a strobe, particularly if you have a large modifier on the strobe head. Unless you have a human light stand, you generally will have your strobe set in one position. Reflectors allow you to easily pan and track your subject
- If you can’t find where your reflector is reflecting the light (which is more common on the larger 4x6 ft models in a large open, light surfaced space, simply reflect the light at the ground in front of the reflector, then slowly move the light towards where you need it to bounce
- Gobo's ("go betweens") or cookie-style diffusion panels can create interesting dappled light, to either fall on your subject, or a wall or surface in the shot, to add variety
- Combine everything - remember that a natural light tools amount to more than a simple reflector to push light into a scene. By combining simple diffusers, reflectors and black surfaces all at once you can diffuse the light falling on your subject, create a key / fill with the reflector itself and then create contrast by building in shadow for a more dramatic look using a black panel.
If you think of these simple natural light tools and play with them on your shoots, you’ll quickly find your ability to produce the look you want is easy to achieve, possibly without the need for additional speed light or strobe sources during daylight shoots.
Thanks to Erik for sharing the knowledge. Erik is a Kelby One trainer and you can read more of his work on controlling light for portraits in his book, “Portrait Photography: From Snapshot to Great Shots”.
If you guys have any questions, feel free to fire them over to him on Twitter, contact details here:
If you like articles on natural light, or just want more of this sort of stuff, let me know in the comments and I'll work to bring more of these articles to you guys.