Ever wondered how some people can take beautiful photos with no extra equipment? What’s their secret? What’s the magical combination of settings they use on their cameras? Here’s the skinny – there’s no magic. It’s as easy as learning to read and use natural sunlight. If anything technical freaks you out, I got you. I won’t be talking about cameras or lenses or any scary stuff. Use this guide with your smartphone camera or a $5K DSLR.
The secret to taking pictures with natural light is placing your subjects in open shade and using skylight as your light source.
Open shade + skylight are the two halves of the beautiful light puzzle. Open shade means shaded from harsh sunlight and open to ambient light. This can be the shade of a tree, awning or anything that provides shade.
And what is skylight you ask? Skylight is a patch of sky that’s clear of buildings, trees or anything that might block the natural light. And we don’t mean the sun itself. We mean sections of the sky.
If you’re confused it’s ok, we’ll work through examples and everything will become clear.
When you’re out taking pictures you’ll be looking for open sky + skylight. Say to yourself – I’ve found open shade, now let’s look for skylight to light my subject. Repeat after me – open shade + skylight, open shade + skylight, open… yep you get it.
We’ll discuss finding skylight + open shade in a park and the city. But the skills you’ll learn can be applied to any location with natural sunlight. Once you master reading and using natural light you’ll have the confidence to take great pictures anywhere.
Open shade + skylight produces a large, soft light source. What does that mean? In photography the larger the light source the softer the light. It’s the most used type of light in photography as it’s very soft and flattering and makes skin look great.
Soft light evens out blemishes, reduces wrinkles and makes you look ten years younger. No surgery or needles required. OMG! Once you’ve mastered this trick get out and practice practice practice. And pop #naturalphotoform on your Insta posts. I’m dying to see what you come up with. I’ll be all up in your comments cheering you on! Let’s get to work.
Step 1 – Open shade natural light
To achieve soft light in our pictures, we’ll be combining open shade + skylight. Place your subject in open shade with a direct line of sight to a patch of skylight. Remember, open shade + skylight = beautiful natural light. What is open shade? It’s shade that’s open to a good section of skylight. Look at the picture below. You can see the shaded area. We need our subjects to be close to the edge of the shade.
The further your subject is away from the edge of the shade, the more the light quality deteriorates as it’s getting less light. Let’s look at another example. Here you can see an area shaded by a building. Like the previous example, our subject needs to be close to the edge of the shade.
There’s something else we need to consider. Cloud cover! If there’s light or heavy cover it makes our life easier. Why? Because clouds soften sunlight and reduce harsh shadows. When there’s cloud cover don’t worry about finding open shade. But we still need to make sure our subject has good skylight.
The other time you don’t need to worry about the harsh sun is golden hour. Isn’t that a delicious little combo of words? Beloved by photographers, it’s the time just before and after sunset. It produces yummy, soft, natural light. In an ideal world that’s the time you want to be shooting.
We’ll talk more about golden hour in ’tying everything together’ at the end of this guide. Sunrise is also a great time to take pictures and has similar light to sunset.
One last thing while we’re talking about open shade – hotspots. What’s that? There might be gaps in the shade allowing the sun to shine through and hit your subject. Camera sensors only handle a smallish range of brightness so you’ll see a big bright spot on your subject in the picture. We want to avoid this. Look out for it and reposition your subject a little if necessary.
If that’s not possible and you have an extra person with you, you might be able to hold something like a piece of paper above your subject to block the spot.
Step 2 – Skylight
Look up! See that sky? That’s where we find our light source. Imagine you are in a park. There’s a few trees dotted around. What we are looking for is a decent gap between the trees. The section of sky in the gap will be our light source.
To nail natural light pictures we’ll be using sections of sky unobstructed by trees or buildings or anything else. We call this skylight.
The previous example shows finding skylight in a park. Point your subject standing in open shade directly at the patch of skylight and we are half way there.
If skylight is confusing think of it in a simpler way. Say your subject is standing directly in front of a black wall. You’d understand that there wouldn’t be much light hitting their face because the wall is blocking all the light .
Let’s head to the city now. Same principle, different location. We are looking for sections of skylight not blocked by buildings or anything else.
Don’t forget, your subjects in the park and the city need to be in open shade as well as getting skylight.
In the open shade and skylight examples I explained the two parts separately. But the two must be used together. This is tricky to illustrate in one image so I’ll cheat and show a mockup:
Here you can see the two elements together. On the left is our subject standing on the edge of open shade. And on the right is our trusty photographer with the patch of skylight behind them shining directly on the subject’s face.
A few sneaky natural light tricks
Another trick for making your subjects look good – wear a white t-shirt or shirt. If you are close to your subject the white will reflect soft fill light into your subject’s face. Avoid wearing strong colours (lime green, blues etc) as they reflect unnatural colour onto your subject.
One more trick for checking whether your subject is in good light. I’m full of tricks! First position your subject in open shade + skylight. Have them face the skylight and then get in very very close (oh hello!) and look carefully at their eyes. If they are in good light you’ll see big shiny reflections of the sky in their eyes. In the photography world we call this catchlights.
Look at you learning another new thing, go you. Not only does it mean your subject is well lit, but it adds sparkle and life to their eyes. If the eyes are dull and flat with no reflections you’ll need to tweak their position until you can see catchlights.
Step 3 – Tying everything together
A summary of what we’ve learnt:
- Open shade + skylight = beautiful natural light.
- Open shade is shade in the direct path of skylight.
- Your subject should be on the edge of the open shade where the light quality is best.
- Watch out for hot spots – gaps in the shade where sun peeks through. Reposition your subject to avoid.
- Use skylight as your light source.
- Skylight is a clear patch of sky not blocked by anything
- Cloud cover takes open shade out of the equation but you still need good skylight hitting your subject.
- Sunrise and sunset are perfect for shooting, again just look for skylight to hit your subject.
- Look closely at your subject’s eyes for big bright catchlights. If their eyes are dull and dark reposition them.
You can use the open shade + skylight technique anywhere. And if you can’t find shade you can always make some if you have a spare person handy. A large piece of cardboard above your subject will do.
The technique we’ve learnt produces soft light but there’s so many other styles of photography you can experiment with. Photography is about learning a bunch of tricks to draw on as each job requires. I can’t stress enough though how valuable this technique is.
I had a bit of a backwards, round-about career path in photography. When I got the bug I photographed everything and didn’t think too much about technical stuff. Which I highly recommend. Put your camera on auto and go for it. Become comfortable with the camera and look for interesting subjects and good light.
A family portrait session with Skylight + Open Shade at sunset
Let’s wrap up with a family portrait lesson that wraps up everything we’ve learnt. Below is the sort of result you can achieve if you nail the natural light technique. It’s the image used as the cover for this story.
And no it’s not done in Photoshop! I did very little retouching on this photo, just a little contrast.
Have everything ready half an hour before sunset. Google sunset time and your location and you’ll get the exact time. Look for a clump of trees with the sun setting behind them. I’m also looking for a clear area in front of the trees to place my subjects. Behind the photographer is open sky.
Your subjects are in the open shade of the trees and lit by skylight behind the photographer. The sun will peek through the trees and hit your subjects with the most magical light. It will highlight their hair and bathe them in heavenly light.
Get your subject to lie back and relax!
One last tip if you’re struggling to find good patches of skylight. Place your subject in open shade on the ground and have them look up at the sky, stand over them and photograph them there. Easy peasy!
That brings us to the end! I hope you’ve found it useful and developed an itch to learn more.
About the Author
Myles Formby runs a headshot and personal branding photography business in Melbourne Australia called Photoform. His style is bold and clean and he has a reputation for getting natural performances from his subjects.