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Behind the Lens: Using Natural Light

As a professional photographer, I’m often asked what studio lighting equipment I use.  The truth is I don’t care for studio lighting and have always been drawn to more natural light settings.  I love the simplicity and the softness of natural light from my studio window during my newborn shoots.  I adore the hazy, dream like state the sun gives me when photographing families just before sunset.

The downside to using only natural light:  you’re limited on when and where you can shoot.

With that being said, I’ll share with you a few thoughts on finding that perfect light from the windows and doors of your very own home.  We’ll talk about using a gorgeous Texas sunset as a backdrop for your images.  These easy tips and will make a huge difference in the quality of of your images, regardless of your level of experience or what camera you’re using.

Tips for shooting INDOORS:

1.  FIND YOUR LIGHT SOURCE.  Look for a window or door that provides ample light into your home.  That will usually be a north or west facing window, but not always.  Take the time to watch how the light from that window or door changes throughout the day.  Once you have an idea what you think looks best (this can be subjective based on your individual taste), you’ll know what time of day you can use that area.  If you find the light is a little too bright, throw a white sheet or frosted shower curtain over the light source to diffuse and soften the harsh light.  I do this ALL the time and it works miracles.

When I photographed this beautiful newborn below, the light streaming through my window was too harsh.  I clipped a frosted shower curtain over the window and voila!  The new diffused light was much softer, which emphasized her creamy skin texture, while still allowing soft shadows.

mel marie photography

2.  DRAMATIC VS. SOFT.  The closer you place your subject to the light, the stronger the shadows will be.  If you’re looking for a dramatic effect, you may want them really close to the window to play with the shadows.  If you’re shooting for a softer, less dramatic look, move them away from the window a few feet until you get the desired look.  Then just play around with different angles (we discussed that last month!) and positions.  Your little one can face the light directly, sit sideways to the light source, or maybe have their back to the window.  Which angle, position and shadow effect look awesome to you?  That’s the one you’ll want to go with!

The images below show the difference between being close the the light source (window) or several feet back.  Photographing the little girl near the window provided more dramatic shadows, while the image of mom and baby has fewer shadows because she’s standing several feet away from my studio window.

mel marie photography

Tips for shooting OUTDOORS:

1.  BEST TIME OF DAY.  The number one rule for shooting outdoors is to avoid the middle of the day!  The hours around the 12:00 pm sun provide harsh lighting which can create heavy shadows under your subjects’ eyes and noses.  No thank you!  In addition, getting the exposure correct can be difficult since you’re working with such drastic contrasts in shadows and lighting.  Try shooting one-two hours after sunrise (hello early birds!) or one-two hours before sunset.  The light during these “golden hours” is magical.  You’ll have long, soft shadows as well as a beautiful golden light.

The family portrait below was taken about an hour before sunset.  You can see the long shadows in front of the family and the golden light I mentioned.  If the sun is providing too much light and your subjects look dark, diffuse the sunlight with a tree or bush.  Here I used the tree behind the family to diffuse enough of the sunlight to still give me the soft “outlining” light around the family.

mel marie photography

2.  USING THE SUN.  Unless the sun is really low, you’ll want to place your kiddos with the sun behind them and off to the right or the left. This will give them a back-lit effect which will lightly illuminate the edges of their hair and body.  Now, if the sun is close to setting, you can have your subjects actually face the direction of the light.  Avoid having them look near the sun or you’ll get squinty, watery eyes!  Instead, angle them in a way they can look at you comfortably, while still having the golden light in their direction.

Below I placed the family so that the sun was above the top right corner of my frame.  You can see how the sun illuminates the boys adorable blonde curls as he’s running towards me, as well as the left side of the family as they’re sitting down.  (I got the biggest bear hug from this little guy about 5 seconds after this shot was taken.  It made my day!)

mel marie photography

Again, with about an hour of sunlight left at Klyde Warren Park, I found an area where I could have the sun in the top right hand corner of my frame creating long shadows.  Notice how the light around the little girls hair and dress gives the image a even more detail.

mel marie photography

GENERAL TIPS:
– Once you’ve decided where to shoot, turn your subject to different positions, walk around your subject and shoot from different angles.  Why so much work?  Because the more you shoot images you DON’T like, the closer you are to discovering what you DO like.

– Practice, practice, practice!  Use your kids, your neighbors kids, your family pet, your coffee mug.  With each click of the shutter you are one step closer to creating images you love.

– Make mistakes!  Intentionally overexpose and underexpose your images.  Get way too close or way too far from your subject. You’ll learn quickly how to correct these mistakes, OR you may discover a photography style you love!  You may find you like the dark, moody images over the bright, crisp ones.  Or having a wide angle shot with your subject really small in the frame instead of close up.  Very often these “mistakes” can help guide you in the direction of your unique style.  What may be a “technical mistake” in someone else’s book could be a beautiful canvas wrap in your home.  I love this quote by Scott Adams, “Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes.  Art is knowing which ones to keep.”  

I want to hear from you!  Shoot me an email at [email protected] or comment below with questions or suggestions for future blog posts.

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