Here comes the sun, little darling, here comes the sun, and I say….thank goodness, cause I’m really up a creek without ittttt! I have to confess something to you, I used to be a natural light “snob”. What’s that, you say? It’s a person that believes that the best and purist light is that which comes from the sun or natural sources, like moonlight or harnessed diamond light refractions. What doesn’t fall in this category? Flashes or strobes. What I’ve since come to find is that people who are natural light snobs are usually just overwhelmed by lighting gear.
After studying light for a few years, I began to realize that it was just nearly impossible to ever get the kind of evenly or targeted light scheme that I wanted without a flash, but I just hated the way that horrible flash looked. You know what I’m talking about: You line up your shot, push the button, and an awful blast of white light pounds the room and pancakes your subject’s face, rendering him Casper the unfriendly ghost, and simultaneously darkening everything else in the room. This is a pic of my buddies, good sports I might add, that was taken by a point and shoot and as you can tell, it’s just awful. The color balance is way off and the light blew out all the details. It’s horrifying.
Why do flashes do this? We’ll cover that in the next section, but for now I’ll agree with you that natural light is the best source…if you can control it. What you’ll come to discover is that it is usually just one ingredient of a big Long-Island Iced Tea of light, if you’ve nailed a great image. That being said, if you have a bad camera that has on-camera flash (the little flash is built into the body), you’ll need to beg, steal, and borrow to get some natural light on a person if you want a good picture.
Let’s talk about a couple mistakes that people most often make when using natural light.
1) Staring into the sun – Making your family stare into the blinding sun so you can get a nice, evenly lit image. This is a huge mistake that keeps being repeated over and over again throughout time and, I’m convinced, is the reason that most people hate having their picture taken. From the time they are children, their parents ritualistically demand them to expose their retinas to sun-fire so that they can have a 4×6 family memory of the time they went to Six Flags.
2) Light Dappling – This is when you take a picture of someone and they have splotches of light and shadow on their face. It’s a big no-no in photography. Mainly, it’s distracting to the eye and it doesn’t make your subject’s skin look nice and even, which is especially important with ladies. Let me qualify this one, though. Sometimes it can be done really nicely in an artsy kind of way. Black and white treatments looks best with these, but then you’ve shifted to where you’re trying to emphasize shapes and patterns. That might not be where you want to go with it. Just be aware that it usually doesn’t look good and avoid it as much as possible. I recently took some photos of some friends and I had to go with the dappling just because of the circumstances of the sun, shade, and time of day, but I loved the images so much that I went with them anyway. Hey, that happens. Here’s one that doesn’t work so well, though.
3) Raccoon eyes – The high-noon picture is the main culprit of this, but it can be caused by any direct overheard source of light. It’s called raccoon eyes, because the rest of the face has light but the sockets are dark. Thus, raccoon eyes. The light source is coming downward in a way that puts no direct light into the subject’s eye sockets, which are sunk in a bit. The lower the angle of the sun, the less likely that you’ll get reflected and/or direct light into the eye sockets. This is critical, because the eyes are always the most important part of the face in portraiture. 99% of the time, if your eyes aren’t in focus or don’t look good than your shot isn’t going to be truly professional. There’s a concept called, “catch light”, which is by definition the reflected gleam in someone’s eye from a light source. Go look at any magazine right now in your bathroom. In just about every picture of a model where you see his/her eyes, you will see a small circle, square, or sliver of light reflected in the models’ eye. This catch light is critical for giving the person’s face a realistic breath of life. Subconsciously, we expect to see this gleam in real life, so pictures of people seem a bit off when we can’t see someone’s eye in focus or with a gleam. This is a picture of my friend, Matt. He’s a handsome guy, but his lack of eyeballs are creepy. The light source is from the high, overhead auditorium lights, and I’m getting no flash or natural light reflected into his eyeballs. Just awful….sorry, Matt!
Well, I’m not going to present these problems to you and not present solutions. I have a few suggestions that will help you avoid these problems.
1) Find the shade – When it is at all possible, go up next to a building or under a tree (where there is preferably no dappling) and get out from underneath the harsh sun. When light is “diffused” it will be even and will give your camera a chance to not have to work so hard to create a properly exposed image. In other words, you won’t have extremes of light and dark that will confuse the sensor.
2) Use a diffuser – I’ll give you some examples of this in future lessons, but diffusers are what we call fabrics or other materials that go between the direct light source and allow a lesser amount of spread-out light to pass through. it’s softer and more flattering, as it will reduce the amount of sharp light coming through. The all-time classic, el-cheapo diffuser is a white bedsheet or t-shirt. If you were inside your house and you had a good window that let a lot of light in but the sun was pouring in too harshly to get a good exposure, you could tape, nail, or secure a sheet across the window and it would instantly even out the light and make for a very pleasing light source. In the pic below, you can see that the assistant is holding up a diffuser so that the light from the window on the right will be softened as it falls on the face of the subject.
3) Shoot in the early morning or during “Magic Hour”. Magic hour is the time of day about an hour before sunset when the sunlight is warm and most diffused. It’s the absolute best time of day because your subject can often look in the direction of the sun as it is setting and will not see direct sunlight. Instead, they will receive beautiful glowing light on their skin. If you’re going to shoot natural light, this is your best best.
4) 45 Degrees – When you’re shooting with professional lighting gear, one of the most common setups is to put your main light 45 degrees in front of and to the side of your subject and about 45 degrees above their head. This mimics the sun coming in and bathing part of their face in light. Now, if you’re shooting outdoors and it’s anytime except when the sun is directly overhead, try to get your subject to look about 45 degrees to the right or left of the sun. You can play with the angles on this. Maybe have them lay in the grass so they are looking up while you stand over them, hang from a tree, or defy gravity and float. The key is to have them not look at the sun, but rather at an angle to it. You’ll get a nice shadowing on the other side if you do it right.
5) Cloudy Days – You will learn to love cloudy days for photography. They are a blessing, trust me. Clouds do an amazing job of evening out light. Embrace them!
Let me elaborate on “contrast” a bit. As I’ve mentioned, contrast is the difference of light and dark in a photo. The human eye has an amazing dynamic range that no camera can match, remember that. Let’s do an analogy to describe, cause these are fun: Have you ever walked out of a movie theater in the noonday sun and felt like your eyeballs would be scorched away? It takes a few minutes to see, doesn’t it? Conversely, you just walked into a theater after being outside in the sun and can’t even see your feet? This same type of confusion occurs but at a much smaller level with you camera sensor. The sensor is trying to determine the average or normal light when you’re about to take a picture. When you compose a shot and there are pieces of the picture that have incredibly bright lights, the sensor says, “Oh, this must be the standard light level.” So then, it darkens everything else to be able to take an average picture of that once-bright light source. By pulling that part of the picture back to normal, it has radically darkened the rest of the picture. The sensor is just trying it’s darndest to take a picture that records everything with some detail. But if it falls outside of the range it can capture, then details will be omitted, and you definitely don’t want that.
So it stands to reason that when you’re taking a picture you want to really watch everything in the frame to make sure that nothing is too bright or too dark when you’re taking the pic with natural light. If you’re using modifiers or flashes, you can work with this, but that’s the next level of composition and we’re not there, yet. You can practice seeing real scenes in your life like this. Imagine a camera frame out in front of you. You could even do that thing that movie directors do with their hands to picture a frame. Move your hands around and look for images that might have pieces of excessively bright spots. You want to avoid that. Shadows can really be your friends, so worry more about things being too bright (blown highlights).
My standard disclaimer. Every one of these rules can be broken. Here’s an example of photo where I intentionally shot into the sun. Truth be told, I had to use a flash to get light onto the tree from the underneath, but the point is that rules can be broken. Learn them first, though.
Assignment: Go outside and take a picture of a friend about 30 minutes before sunset. Try to angle them to where they get some light in their eyes from the setting sun. Alternate assigment: Stretch a white sheet across a window and have someone pose in front of it. You’ll want to have them positioned about 3 or 4 feet away with their face slightly angled towards the window (45 degrees). Get up next to the wall and shoot back into the room towards their angled face. Check out the quality of light on their face. Pretty great, huh?