Natural Light Portraiture; Why One Photographer Loves The Sun!

For years photographers have extolled the virtues of taking portraits on overcast days or during the "sweet light" that occurs near the beginning and end of every day. On cloudy days, the contrast range is reduced, allowing you to capture detail throughout the image, from the brightest area to the deepest shadow. Near sunset, you also get a reduced contrast range, with the added benefit of directional lighting, a wonderful bonus. And while I won't argue that the beginning and "tail end" of each day's light offers us perhaps our best lighting conditions, I can tell you that I actually prefer sunny days to cloudy ones when shooting. Here`s why:

Like most photographers, I have to shoot all day. I can honestly tell you that I don't care if I have a session at 9am or noon, I can make the light work. One more thing I should tell you: I never use a flash outside in individual portrait work. I use a reflector perhaps 5 percent of the time, usually when it's cloudy, and I'll use a "gobo" to block splotchy light, but only occasionally. Most of the time, it's just me, my camera, and a light meter.

This shows me shooting in the middle of the city, finding good light in many places. Not visible in this image is the big yellow building across the street that is bouncing the light back on the model (note my shadow on the wall). Trees also block overhead light. This is one of my favorite shooting locations. The final image shows the loop lighting pattern (see nose shadow). It was retouched and softened, using Kevin Kubota's "Hot Fudge" Action for the brown color. (Model: Alyson Perreault.)
All Photos © 2006, Steve Bedell, All Rights Reserved

It's not that this is the only way to shoot. You can use flash outside, and for weddings always carry a flash. With portraits, if I use a flash, I want it to be on a light stand with a softbox, acting as a main light. "Fill flash" requires a very precise amount of fill or the result looks unnatural. Add to that the fact that I am usually working very quickly and it's easy to see why I have learned to "see" my light. That's what I did on a typical senior portrait recently.

The Studio
I don't have a special outdoor area for shooting. My studio is located right in the middle of a small (25,000, big for New Hampshire) town. I'm in a big old building with no place for an outdoor shooting area. So I walk out the front door and the town becomes my outdoor studio. Like anyone who's been in business longer than six months, I've learned to make a disadvantage an advantage. Come to my studio and you won't see the same background that's in everyone's photos--it all depends on lighting conditions and time of day. I tell clients we're going to go on a little adventure and find some nice spots for them. We have a great time!

The Light
Once we leave the studio, the first thing I do is check out the light. If it's overcast, I know my strongest light is directly overhead, so I'm either going to have to block it somehow or "add" some back in with a reflector. I'm very picky about having light in the eye, although it doesn't always have to be at 10 or 2 o'clock. I do need a sparkle in there though, and I won't add it with a flash. Perhaps it's just personal preference, but I like a very natural look in my portraits, and I'd rather find good lighting conditions then try to shape them with external forces. Let's assume we've got a brilliant sunny day with no clouds and see what we can find.

I even like it when it's sunny at the beach--but only late in the day. This image was taken after the sun dove behind a row of trees and allowed me to shoot toward the water while using the strong bright sky behind me. The light is "flat" since it comes from behind me but look at the nice glow and "sparkle" it has. This look cannot be attained when it's cloudy. (Model: Camilla Breitholtz.)

The Sun: Advantages
I'm a self-proclaimed sun lover. When I use the sun, I feel I am harnessing its power, and carefully shaping it, to create a wonderful portrait. Portraits taken using sunlight have a wonderful energy and color that is not attainable on cloudy days. You can also get a great light in the eye that makes them really sing. I call this combination of forces "sparkle light" and I love using it.