Natural Light Portraiture; Why One Photographer Loves The Sun! Page 2

The Sun: Disadvantages
In the interest of full disclosure and for those of you who think I have a screw loose, let's look at some of the drawbacks of shooting on sunny days. Yes, there are some, but I prefer to see them as simply obstacles that must be overcome to complete a successful portrait.

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.)

Shooting in the sun does have its challenges, but they are neither huge nor insurmountable. The brightness range of the image must be watched carefully. Most digital cameras do not have the ability to capture the wide dynamic range of negative film. And while I can't quote you specific numbers about how great a range your camera can handle, I do know from experience how my sensor reacts in different situations, and you should get to know yours, too.

What this means to you is that you have to be very careful about backgrounds. If there is a three stop or more difference between the light on the background and the light on your subject, kiss the background goodbye! That goes for parts of the background, too, like that open area through the trees. Watch especially for "splotchy" light that peeks through the trees onto your client's shirt, causing overexposed hot spots that will kill your image. Light-colored clothing and blond hair are especially susceptible to hot spots that may pass on darker colors.

You can get great directional light plus the warmth of the sun just by observing the light direction and using natural modifiers. The tree blocked any direct sun from striking Darci and the branches blocked the overhead light, giving us a wonderful "wall of light" coming from camera right. Note how bright the sky is and that I'm carefully lining up my model where the light is good and the background is not overexposed. The classic "short" lighting pattern is obtained by first finding my light direction and then using it to shoot into the shadow side of the face. (Model: Darci Morrell.)

The "Wall Of Light"
My objective is to have a huge "wall of light" that becomes my main light source. That's nothing new. But I strive to make sure the light has energy and color, two of my favorite qualities. This energy and color is usually the result of some sort of direct reflection of the sun. For example, if we place our subject in an area where they are out of the sun but the light source comes from the open sky, we can get a nice light, but I aim for something more. That "something more" is usually some form of a natural reflector. Instead of just lighting with an open sky, I may use the light bouncing off a yellow building opposite my subject. I really love red brick buildings because in strong sun they will cast a beautiful warm light on your subject. Or I may combine the open sky with a "bounce fill" from a white sidewalk for a glamorous light with a wonderful catchlight on the bottom of the eye.

I also like flat light. Not the kind that's "just there," like in open shade, but that has a little "kick" to it from reflected sunlight. A favorite location of mine is under the overhang of a large bush. I'll sometimes use a very flat light aimed right at my subject. The source of the light is the open sky plus the bounce light I get from the gray paved parking lot. The sun is behind my subject and I usually stuff a large reflector in the branches overhead to block the dreaded "splotches."

This image of Lacy was lit by the sun reflecting off a huge brick building. Notice how she is front lit but the light has a beautiful energy and color to it. (Model: Lacy Folger.)

Note that if the sun was in front of my subjects, the bounce off the parking lot would be too strong and my main light direction would be from underneath, not usually a good scenario. I seek out situations where the sun is behind my subject and I get a "bounce back" from a sidewalk or building.

There are many other great opportunities available when it's sunny outside. Learn to embrace the power of the sun, and you'll truly be "makin' hay" when the sun shines!

Steve Bedell holds Masters and Craftsman degrees from the Professional Photographers of America. Bedell recently released an educational DVD about shooting in the sun called "Sparkle Light." For more information on the DVD or to subscribe to EPhoto, his free online newsletter for professional and advanced amateur photographers, contact Bedell via e-mail at: