When taking portraits with natural light, often times, there is one key aspect that is overlooked. This facet of naturally lit photos is far more important than things like shooting at a specific time of day. Before diving into what makes a naturally lit photo a spectacular one, it is important to know and understand the difference between artificial lighting and using natural light.
The biggest difference between using strobes and a natural light source (i.e. the sun), is the directional light. Directional light is when you have a powerful source of SOFT light coming from one specific angle. This is often called the key or main light. The reason this is important to have in a portrait is the depth it gives the skin and the way it highlights features. Without that directional light, your subject's skin and features will look flat and unflattering. While the sun is technically considered a directional light source, the lighting is often direct and harsh on the subject. When using artificial light, a photographer can use things like modifiers to perfectly illuminate the subject’s skin in the proper areas. The light should wrap around the skin smoothly and evenly. In most cases, when using natural light in the open, the subject’s skin can appear to look flat because there is light bouncing off surrounding areas from all directions. If you are in direct sunlight, well it's a given that the light will be far too harsh with unwanted harsh shadows.
Contrary to popular belief, although the sun may be harsh during midday hours, if you are conscious of directional light, chances are you can find it any time of the day. Obviously, it will not be in an open corn field or in a park midday, nonetheless, there are far more opportunities then you can imagine. Personally when I’m walking the streets looking for that perfect spot to shoot I’m concentrating mainly on that perfectly soft and directional light. One example is an alley, they are dark and deceiving but the light coming from either end is extremely soft.
A quick note before I show you a few more examples of great locations: just as it's important to find softer, directional light, it is also just as important to find an enclosed space that will block the light from the sides. This enclosed space could be nearby buildings, narrow alleys or right inside a doorway entrance. The subject needs to be lit properly however, it is crucial to cast shadows on the sides of their faces in order to add depth in lighting. Shadows are important because it accentuates the directional light source.
Here are a few examples of my personal favorite locations. All these locations have one thing in common: the light is coming from one or 2 NARROW directions and the surrounding area around my subject is casting a shadow on their sides.
This one tip cannot be stressed enough and I will not even turn on my camera until I find that light I’m looking for. Other examples of naturally lit images can be found on Dani Diamond Photogaphy.