DCR Workshop: Setting Up a Natural Light Studio

by Reads (26)

Many photographers opt for natural lighting if they can for many reasons. Some prefer its look over that of strobes, and others were just trained to use natural light over other types. If this sounds like you, you’ll be glad to know that there are ways to harness natural lighting to help you capture better photos. So what does it take to set up your own natural light studio? Check out our basic guide on getting started.

You’ll need:

  • A backyard or rooftop. In general, any open space will do.
  • A background. Muslins can be easier to transport but they wrinkle easily (and those show up in the photos). Paper looks amazing, but has reflective properties and also may not be the easiest thing to lug around. You may even want to have two background setups, with one acting as an artificial wall to block any extra light from coming in and tweaking the need to re-meter your subject.
  • Stands for the backgrounds.
  • Light stands. Though you’re not using artificial lights, these will come in handy. Trust me.
  • A Scrim Jim. (That’s a frame with a collapsable, light-diffusing “scrim.”) Westcott makes a great one. Alternatively, if you’re the DIY type of photog, you can hack a brand new shower curtain to do the exact same thing.
  • Rope, or lots of Gaffer’s Tape (a photographer’s best friend). Sandbags wouldn’t hurt either.
  • Your camera, preferably a DSLR because you’ll want something with a better dynamic range and amazing color depth to take advantage of the soft diffused lighting.
  • Reflectors. Alternatively, you can use a large, single five-in-one or seven-in-one reflector. These can be used for anything such as diffusing light (with the transparent configuration) or adding warm, cool or neutral light to the subject.
  • Two stools (one for you, and one for your subject).

Setting Up Shop
Now that you’ve got the raw materials, it’s time to get to work. As a word to the wise, this is best done with two or three people to assure that everything goes smoothly and efficiently.

First you’ll want to take note of where the sun’s position is and you’ll even want to track its movement carefully. Figure out which spot you want to shoot in. Quickly set up the background of choice and adjust its height to work with the subject you intend on photographing.

Trust me, that isn’t always as easy as it sounds. Sometimes you may only need to assemble one background: such as in the case that your backyard has a wall of bushes that can block out any extra light from affecting the image. Otherwise, you’ll need to set up a temporary artificial wall (hence the need for the second background).

Next, set up the Scrim Jim so that it’s positioned above and angled towards your subject. The Scrim Jim should diffuse the sun’s natural rays. To put this more clearly, imagine having your subject face into the sun (with the sun behind you) and have the Scrim Jim raised above and angled so that it diffuses the light hitting his or her face. The Scrim Jim should diffuse the light enough so that your subject doesn’t need to squint. When you’ve set that up, you know that the lighting will be soft enough.

Winds can get the best of even the sturdiest outdoor studio, so you’ll want to use some of the following:

  • Sandbags, to weigh the stands down and keep them in place. Certain types are even designed for use on photo and video sets.
  • Rope or lots of gaffer’s tape to hold the Scrim Jim in place. What I’ve done is tied one end of the rope to the top end of the Scrim Jim and the other end to a pole or something of the sort.
  • More sandbags, weights or gaffers tape to hold the background down and in place. It can either flap around like a flag in the wind or it can fly up and hit the subject you’re photographing in the back. Neither one is a great situation.

Your results may vary, but the final product will look something like this:

Natural Light Studio

Now you’re ready to shoot. Shoot one exposure, and then add a reflector to the side opposite of the Scrim Jim. Take note of the effects on the subject. Your best bet is to shoot with a normal or medium telephoto focal length. I typically use an 85mm or 135mm lens with a fast aperture. Keep the ISO settings down low and stop the lens down as well.

As the sun moves (which is important to note if you’re shooting for a couple of hours) you’ll want to reposition or move the Scrim Jim accordingly with the sun so that it keeps diffusing the light hitting your subject. Take careful note of the background. At some points, the sun may hit it and make a black background suddenly start looking gray.

When you’re all done, pack up everything very carefully in case you want to use this setup again another day.

Additional Tips
Sometimes, scenes like this can have high contrast between bright and dark areas. In a situation like that, you can either use the reflector to ease the problems with your camera’s metering or get your hands on a handheld light meter of some sort. If you don’t want any of these, consider the Sunny 16 rule (set your aperture to f/16 and shutter speed to the reciprocal of your ISO). Most smartphones have access to free apps that will offer you a calculator to set your exposures. If not, you can always find it online and print it out.

You’ll also want to pay close attention to the shadows. If you’re having your subject look into the Scrim Jim, his or her face will be bathed in very soft light. However, there may be shadows under the chin that you’ll want to fill in with the reflector. Overexposing the image will mean extra work in post-production and you may not be able to get as great results as you can when using a reflector.

I’ve found that setting up around 10 AM and shooting at around 12:30 PM gives the best results with this setup. Typically, shooting in the middle of the day isn’t ideal but with all the soft light that you’re getting from this set up you’ll think twice.

Depending on how many layers you attach to the Scrim Jim, you’ll diffuse the light more or less. If the sun is intense and you’re not diffusing the light enough, then consider using something thicker but still relatively transparent (like a nice, clean, plastic shower curtain).

This whole setup is best done in the fall, summer or spring. Shooting winter weddings has taught me that it is much too cold to do this outside. However, Spring and Fall are ideal temperature and light-wise. Summer is also great, but you and your subject may end up sweating a lot.

Get into the great outdoors and give it a try! Stop back here, leave a comment and let us know how the results come out. And for more tips on harnessing light, check out our guide to external flash accessories.

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