A Natural Light Tip That Will Have Strobists Selling Their Lights

A Natural Light Tip That Will Have Strobists Selling Their Lights

One of the most noticeable differences between portraits taken outside using natural light as opposed to artificial light is the background. Images using artificial light tend to have darker backgrounds. This is crucial in catching the eye of the viewer and allows him or her to focus on the subject. This article is a guide in achieving this look using natural light only.

 

In most cases when shooting portraits with natural light only, the background comes out very bright. Technically speaking, when taking a photograph using natural light, the exposure is generally set for the subject’s skin tone, which is typically darker than the background. If achieving that dark background and having perfect lighting on the skin is important, the key is to underexpose the image. This will not only result in perfectly lit skin but it will also help retain the most detail. It is a lot easier to recover shadows than highlights. Contrary to popular belief, bringing out details from an underexposed RAW file does not mean creating noise when it’s done properly. In this day and age, any DSLR on the market can handle bringing out details from the shadows without creating noise. Using the following steps, it is guaranteed to walk away with phenomenal results.

Before I get to the steps, it is important to address a popular concern. Have in mind when looking closely at the final results; the subject continues to look underexposed. Parts of the skin were lightened to make it appear properly expose. This draws the viewer straight to the subject’s face, as it is the brightest part of the portrait.

Why Not Just Get the Exposure Right in Camera?

Technically, underexposing IS getting it right in camera. If the goal is to achieve that dark background that generally only comes with artificial lighting, it is less work in post-production to lighten the subject. There is no argument here; the skin makes up 10% of the image and the background is 90%. Lightening the skin is undoubtedly easier than darkening the background in post. Read on to learn why.

When shooting, it is important to shoot RAW. This file type contains all the extra information in the shadows. It’s possible to using Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom, to brighten the shadows and make light pop. Personally, the main slider I use is the Shadows, Whites, Clarity and Luminosity ones under the HSL tab. Remember that underexposing the image and not properly lighting the subject are two completely different things. In order for this process to work, it is essential that the subject is properly lit. If the light hitting the skin is soft and evenly, brightening in post will be absolutely no trouble at all. When capturing the image, stay conscious of the light and the direction it is coming from. Once the subject is properly lit, underexpose the image SLIGHTLY. 

Underexposing an image is no specific science. It varies from image to image, subject to subject and background to background. The best suggestion is to look at the images as they are taken and concentrate on the highlights. The goal is to avoid any blown highlights. If the highlights are blown, you can kiss the skin detail goodbye. Unless having overexposed Barbie skin is the objective, blown highlights should be avoided at all cost. In some cases, the background might have blown highlights like a sun flare or the sky. In instances such as those, overexposed pixels are fine.

An underexposed image makes dodging and burning three times easier. It’s a lot simpler to lighten the highlights on the skin than to darken the entire skin. When working with a darker complexion, shaping the skin and structure of the face is so much simpler too. Dodging and burning is vital if you want to have the perfect light in the final results.

I find the best setting for this method is to use Aperture Priority. I then override the camera’s auto settings by using the exposure compensation and underexposing with a few clicks. Every DSLR has this setting. I prefer to concentrate on the composition, light, pose and expression instead of wasting time and effort shooting in manual.

Using strobes is a fantastic method for lighting. I applaud all those who do it and do it well. However, I believe that when using strobes there are extra complications that can override a lot of the creative process. There is always a time and place for strobes. But when using natural light there is no need for an assistant, time is spent on composition, expression and communicating with the subject. As always, the methods used depend on a variety of factors. With this method of underexposing, using lights, reflectors and assistants is unnecessary to achieve amazing results. Natural light is quite powerful, one must take their time to master it and apply the correct methods for mind-blowing results.

Other before/after combos can be found on Dani Diamond Photography

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185 Comments

Ryan Delos reyes's picture

Nice article. I will try this method on my next shoot.

Isaac Ruiz's picture

Thanks for posting, will give this a shot

Menx Cuizon's picture

Great article, Dani! Do you mainly use Photo shop for post? Thanks!

albert radford's picture

Most likely, using lightroom is like playing basketball in a wheelchair.

Jayson Carey's picture

I strongly disagree, they both have their uses. Lightroom excels at this type of work.

Nice article Dani and nice work too.
I would like to know that how you manage to get a catch light in eyes without strobe Or you add that in post?

I think when he recovers shadows the catch light in the eyes is more visible, after that, he only enhances it. I think this way because I've done it before.

Jarrett Hunt's picture

Very nice article and I will try this. I don't think it will have me selling my lights however.

Bader Alwazeer's picture

Exactly lol, its a nice tip for personal photography shoots but when shooting for commercial work it gets more complicated, Specially when you shoot continually for 8 hours, youll definitely need those flashes, which you just sold after reading this article.

andy holloway's picture

Yup, Dani Diamond is my spirit animal.

Richard Carter's picture

Dani, You hit a home run with this article. I will be using this technique.

Lam Tu's picture

Amazing stuff as always Dani, I always love how well your portraits draw the eyes to the face

Robert Hall's picture

While I like the idea, I think this puts you at some risk as underexposing is a lot less forgiving than overexposing in terms of recovering details. And...I'd definitely rather have the control of lighting and not be recovering at all. Still looks excellent!

Scott Mosley's picture

I usually experience the opposite; can pull far more detail from slightly underexposed images than overexposed images. Weird

Robert Hall's picture

Definitely weird, considering Digital sensors store way more information in the highlights. This is why "shooting to the right / expose to the right" is so popular. Detail is one thing, but there is always a cleaner result when correcting/adjusting highlights over shadows.

Darren Nana's picture

What I tend to experience (and I have read the petapixel article referred to a few posts below) is this: Whilst you can recover more detail from shadows they are generally noisier. You have less leeway/ room for error when recovering from highlights but the results are cleaner. I guess its a trade off as to what you prefer.

Yeah that *is* weird. Camera sensors are actually manufactured to store more data in the highlights (read here: http://www.luminous-landscape.com/tutorials/expose-right.shtml)

Perhaps you're not unlocking the full potential of your RAW converter to recover highlights, or you're overexposing TOO much. Try using your highlight clipping warning on your camera.

I disagree. Once details are clipped they're un-recoverable. The over vs. underexposed raw image test has been done many times and concludes that details are better recovered with under exposed images - http://petapixel.com/2009/06/09/underexposing-vs-overexposing/

Robert Hall's picture

Clipped is clipped in my book. And details in any clipped area won't come back. The fact is that there is more information in higher zones. So when recovering you will suffer less noise, banding, and color information if you are pulling a highlight vs. pushing a shadow.

David Vaughn's picture

Although a pulled image will look much better than a pushed image, I think he was referring to how it's easier to clip a highlight than a shadow.

3-stop pushed shadows will be noisy, muddy, and possibly de-saturated, but I can recover more stops of what information is there than I can in the highlights which clip white at around 1-1.5 stops ( with my Canon 6D at least)

Paul Monaghan's picture

It all depends on the camera I guess, my pentax k5 is awesome at pushing shadows at iso80 but the highlights can clip easy while my sigma Merrills shadows can get blotchy quick but it can store crazy amounts in the highlights (I tend to shoot the merrills at +0.7ev.)

Justabeginner photographer's picture

Aha clipped is clipped so then I'll ask you something: in real life are there details in dark areas? Do you need details in the shadows or do you want to preserve as much detail in the highlights ? You and your stupid books. Learn it by doing and then read up on some techniques to refine it. If you increase the whites and shadows in post the picture will get a glow you would otherwise not have gotten. It took me a few days to realize that by trying out some things. Maybe you should do that as well.

Justabeginner photographer's picture

Oh and I'll urge you to pull down overblown highlights to see for yourself what's going to happen. I'm coming from a landscape site and if you like a weird artificial sheen on the surfaces where the highlights are then go ahead and overexpose. recovering shadows is so much easier and it's logical that there is more detail than in highlights.

A test done on a 40D, 5 years ago. HARDLY significant today.

Reese Avanessian's picture

Robert, I agree with you. I perform this method and also take a few photos at different exposures that way I have myself covered.

Nice write up! thanks! You mentioned "the main slider I use is the Shadows, Whites, Clarity and Luminosity ones under the HSL tab" ...that gets you to a certain point then it's ready for the finishing touches correct? Are you dodging and burning? It almost looks like just dodging for the most part? That being said, do you expose to have the shadows in cam close to where you want to end up? Or...am I thinking about this wrong?

Jarrett Hunt's picture

Could you make a video showing this? I learn better from seeing it in action. It would be nice to leave my lights behind for a day.

Dani Diamond's picture

Perhaps some day I will

Jayson Carey's picture

Please do. I came into this article looking for that, or some rundown of your post process, and instead the whole article could be boiled down to "1. underexpose your shots 2. bring up the highlights in post. 3. profit"