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How-To: Tips for Finding the Best Natural Light for Your Portraits
by Chris Gampat -  11/14/2012

Portraiture can be very fun. When we look at a photo of someone, we often see something that tells us a lot about them: whether in that single moment or as a while. When you'e starting out though, it can be a little tough. Most people get into portraiture after they grab a nifty 50 lens. But once you have it, what do you do? Well, part of portraiture is about finding the right light.

Here are some tips on how to find the best natural light for your portraits.

[click to view image]The Golden Hour

When you're getting into portraiture, you'll hear a lot about the Golden Hour. In vernacular terms, the golden hour is essentially sunrise or sunset; and it doesn't last that long at all. This is the time when the sun is low in the sky and gives off a radiantly attractive warmth that translates beautifully into your images. As the sun goes down, the intensity of the light also diminishes and therefore causes less harsh shadows on a subject's face.

Many portrait, wedding, engagement, and commercial photographers will only shoot at this time because of just how beautiful the light is and how easy it is to work with.

So how do you find this light? Well, you need to wait for it first and then figure out what kind of portrait you want to take. Do you want to shoot your subject in golden wheat fields? Or maybe you've fallen in love with street fashion and you'd prefer a cobble stone streets in a city nearby. Wherever your location is, your environmental factors can affect the image and the light accordingly and it's important to take careful notice of this.

[click to view image]The Blue Hour

While everyone raves and swears by the Golden Hour, a little known secret amongst many photographers is just what potential lies in the Blue Hour. The Blue Hour generally falls right before sunrise (Dawn) and right after sunset (Dusk/Twilight). This is an extremely short period of time when the sky is still very blue and illuminated with some sort of light but there isn't any sunlight at all visible on the horizon. Lighting specialists would say that it is extremely indirect light; that's the same type of light that one can get from an umbrella or a beauty dish. So if that's the type of look that you're going for, then you'll need to grab your subject, your camera, and get shooting!

A major characteristic of the blue hour is indeed the fact that the light is very blue in hues. In contrast, the golden hour of light has hues that tender to render more warm or orangish in color. Both can do wonders for skin tones depending on the angle of light and environmental factors.

Your Answer Lies in the Shadows

Don't want to wait for the narrow time slots? Well, prepare to do a little bit of trekking. The person that said that the middle of the day is the worst time to shoot hasn't looked hard enough for the right light. Tall buildings, trees, and other things that create shadows can work wonders for your lighting because of the fact that those items take the naturally harsh light and soften it a bit.

[click to view image]As a rule of thumb, look carefully at the types of shadows you find. Here's a short guide:

- Light shadows: Aren't very dark, but can provide very nice light. Almost all shadows have it; it is usually where the shadows start to go from very dark and begin to fall off into the light.

- Moderate shadows: Are darker: think about under an awning on your front porch. This light can actually be very easy to work with if it is nearer to the lighter edge and closer to the light source. Otherwise, it can be a bit tougher to expose for.

- Dark shadows: These shadows are very harsh and extremely apparent. Think about raccoon eyes on your subject.

For the best results, try combining shooting in the shadows with spot metering off of your subject's eyes.

Overcast Skies

Overcast days are one of the absolute best times to shoot because of the fact that the entire sky essentially just becomes a giant softbox. During this time, anywhere outside will give you generous amounts of light and the highest you may need to raise your ISO to will be 400 at max. This is due to the fact that there is sun somewhere in the sky but layers and layers of clouds are covering it. With that said, it will provide you with enough light that is similar to the golden hour or blue hour, but more neutral in color tone. The neutral colored light is an essential for many photographers that want to spend less time in the post-production phase trying to mess with white balancing.

If you're going to dare to go out and shoot during an overcast, be sure to bring an umbrella and perhaps a plastic covering for your camera and lens if they aren't weather sealed.

[click to view image]Natural Reflectors

The environment has many natural reflectors. By the conventional photography definition, a natural light reflector is anything that takes light and reflects it back at a subject. Here are a couple of examples:

- Brick walls take light, give it a reddish hue, and bounce it back onto your subject's skin.

- Bodies of water with direct sunlight can take the light and shine back onto your subject; therefore illuminating them with light that looks similar to a silver reflector used by many professionals.

- Tarps take direct light and soften it to give you very beautiful and professional looking light. In fact, there are entire natural light studios that utilize tarps and move around with the sun's rays to create an image.

These are just some of the ways that you can find the best natural light. But in the end, we all will need to go out there and explore it for ourselves. Don't be shy; because with enough shooting experience and dedication you'll be masters of the natural luminescence that Earth gives us.


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