Natural Light Photography – Not Just For Uncle Bob and Moms on Maternity Leave Any More

I will admit that I am a little snobby when it comes to anyone who proclaims to be a “natural light photographer”.  To me “natural light photographer” essentially equals “beginner that doesn’t know how to use light”.

However, with a little influence from a certain ruthless stock editor ;) some of my work has been evolving into a more natural and organic look, and I have to admit I am really starting to enjoy the simplicity!

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In this article, I am going to describe how I used natural light to photograph this series of photos of a woman practicing the cello and discuss some of the characteristics of natural light photography.

Light is Light

Before we get started, lets just take a minute to remember that light is light – regardless of how it was produced.

Remember – there are only three characteristics of light: quantity, quality and color.

The big problem with restricting yourself to only use natural light is that the quantity and quality and sometimes color are seldom ideal for the scene being photographed.

Quantity of Natural Light

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Quantity of natural light may seem simple at first since really we are just talking about exposure.

However, in this photo the exposure is not as simple as it may seem.

This natural light photo was taken on a sunny day in late afternoon.  The sun is coming from upper camera right.

The overall exposure for this photo is set by the background exposure.  I wanted the background to be light and overexposed to hide some of the details of the adjacent houses, but not too bright that it was blown out to white – I still wanted to keep some detail.

The interior of the room is mainly open shade, but there is a small slash of full sunlight cutting across the room.

Some of their rules can be bent.  Others can be broken.

Morpheus to Neo

Traditionally, it is against the rules of natural light photography to place a subject in full sunlight – but for this photo I intentionally placed my beautiful female cellist directly in that slash of full sunlight.

The composition and angle that she is sitting are both intentional and arranged to take full advantage of that bright slash of sunlight, while at the same time the exposure on the bright side of my subject matches the background exposure.

Quality of Natural Light

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It is a myth that natural light is by definition good quality light.

In fact, almost all natural light is atrocious – which is why self proclaimed “natural light photographers” (or at least the ones that know the rules) place their subjects in the shade.  But once you can visualize the quality of light, you can use those qualities to your advantage.

In the photograph on the left, you can see that the full sunlight cutting across the subject is somewhat harsh, but the angle and direction at which it falls creates detail in the light and shadow areas.

However, as you can see on our cellist’s face, the overall contrast of the image is controlled by the soft even quality of the open shadow light in the rest of the room.

The photograph on the right is the edited version of the photo on the left.  It shows the importance of editing natural light photos – as there are almost always areas of a natural light photographs that are not lit as well as they could be using artificial light.

In this case, I used the adjustment brush in Lightroom to slightly brighten the right side of her face and her hair to match the intensity of the brightest part of the photo – a viewer’s eye is always drawn to the lighter parts of a photo, and I wanted that to be her face.

Color Of Natural Light

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characteristics of natural light photography cello photo classical music cellist practising cello beautiful female cellist jp danko toronto commercial photographer

Can you see a difference between the color of natural light in these two photos?

In the bottom photo, there are two colors of natural light.  In the top photo, there is only one.

In both cases, the white window frame in the background is in open shade and was used to set the white balance.

In the top photo, the sun went behind a cloud, so our female cellist is no longer sitting in that swath of full sunlight.

But in the bottom photo, because daylight has a color temperature that is slightly warmer relative to the open shade light that was used to set the white balance, our pretty female cellist and her cello have a nice warm glow.

Know Your Audience

Speaking of ruthless stock editors, before I finished up with this photography session, I thought I should photograph something that aligned a little better with the look and feel of photography that sophisticated stock buyers are after these days.

My stock agency, Stocksy United is very big on real people doing real things, and I can appreciate that not many pretty women sit in their sun room practicing the cello wearing flawless makeup, a turquoise blue dress that matches the banding on their cello strings and gold heels – so we changed things up a bit…

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characteristics of natural light photography cello photo classical music cellist practising cello beautiful female cellist jp danko toronto commercial photographer

Big ugly glasses?  Check.

Minimal makeup?  Check.

Plain everyday hair?  Check.

Blue jeans and a plaid jacket?  Check.

OK – that was a bit of a joke – it is my editor’s job to know what style photos are in demand any my job to meet that demand…so guess which images made the cut?

Are You A Natural Light Photographer?

How do you use natural light in your photography?

Have you returned to natural light after mastering lighting – or have you never moved on from natural light?

Leave a comment below and let us know!

  • Doc Pixel

    A GOOD “natural light photographer” is surely not a beginner. In fact, they know how to use what’s available to them in far more creative and expressive ways than a “gear head”. IMHO and just sayin’ “naturally”… ;)

  • oldeintheway

    You are clearly the beginner when it comes to natural light. I have shot with Steve McCurry, and he abhors artificial light for the unnatural skin tones. .. And I’ll add dimension-less tones. Other great photographers I know all agree. Perhaps condescension isn’t the best way to build a community.

    • OsFa Urbex

      @oldeintheway: Perhapse obvious name dropping in an effort to make a point isn’t the best way either. But if I read correct: artificial light is a no-go for portretting because Steve doen’t like it… To be honest I really love his work but that doesn’t makes his opion the undeniable truth… “Other great”… oh plz keep name dropping in that case

  • OsFa Urbex

    The mayority of my photo’s are “natural light”. Just 2 simple reasons: 1… try a flashgun at a urbex location: next time just call the cops and neighbours that you comming over… 2. I just recently was able to a flash and triggers to my collection…

    When people start to self proclaim that they are this or they are that: THAT makes them a amateur in my opion… self proclaiming sux anyway anytime… (proclaiming about somebody else is the biggest compliment another can get).

    I rather enjoyed the piece. Not so much because of the subject but rather the last part. Change of props to alter the image with the same setup to some entire different..

  • The_Michael

    Light has 4 properties – quantity, quality,color, and direction. In the photos the back light (sun) has directionality and the main light (room bounce or ambient) is diffuse (no directionality). You did mention it but not call it out. Still a good article with that being the only nit to pick. Really love the title. Did get into a “discussion” with a momtographer that tungsten lights are “natural”.

    • http://www.blurmediaphotography.com/ JP Danko

      I was taught that direction is part of the quality of light – but think you’re right that it’s sometimes considered its own property. Regardless, you’re exactly right in your assessment. Cheers!

  • Mark Berry

    Is it just the processing for the web, or is her chest and hair very badly blown in that first shot?

  • Roger Lambert

    I think for 99.9% of people on the web, someone “who proclaims to be a “natural light photographer” means a photographer who hasn’t figured out yet how to use their flash.

  • jobush94

    Hey JP, Obviously you and I have very different interests and approach in photography. As a response to your questions at the end of the post, (and in place of making a lengthy rebuttal in a debatable subject) I am leaving a link to a post I wrote, partially in response to this post on my infant of a blog. http://thepoorphotog.wordpress.com/2014/07/06/why-i-do-not-use-flash-yet/ I would genuinely like to hear how you feel about how some fellows like myself may approach this subject matter.