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Natural Light In Photography – Your Best Friend And Worst Enemy

The sun is a great light source is awesome twice a day for about a 1/2 hour total.  The rest of the time it's up to you.
The sun is a great light source is awesome twice a day for about a 1/2 hour total. The rest of the time it’s up to you.

Light has two roles in photography: One as your best friend and the other as your worst enemy. When it comes to bad pictures, with modern post-processing there is very little that can’t be fixed. Whether it’s cropping, maybe the camera was off level just a tad, there’s a space alien in the background (space alien photobombed!), any of that can be fixed. But if the lighting is bad, I mean like really bad, that’s something you can make better but never entirely fix.

The best photographers I’ve known are not necessarily the people with the most expensive camera or gear. The best photographers are, almost without fail, the very best at lighting. They don’t accept the light that is, unless it’s perfect, which is rare. No, no. These are the people who bend light to their will, make those photons dance like a circus pony to the tune they, as the photographer, are directing. Stick with me after the jump for a few of their secrets.

Probably one of the most used light sources in photography is the helium-ion key light located 96 million miles from the subject and filtered through a 150 mile Sky 1A water vapor filter. As a light source it’s non-existent half the day and then shifts from too dark to too bright in a matter of minutes. The sun is an optimal light source exactly twice a day, for about an hour in total. If Paul C Buff (http://paulcbuff.com/) sold the sun as a light source, I would return it. Luckily there are few other things you can do to bend natural light to your will.

Great photographers go overboard on lighting.
Great photographers go overboard on lighting.


If you want to see scrims, go to an outdoor film set. I’ve seen them scrim entire streets. You probably won’t want to do that, luckily you don’t need to. Most of the time all you need to do is scrim over your subject’s face. That’s the detail you care about, not the plants in the background which are going to be out of focus anyway. Almost every cheap reflector on the market has, at its core, a scrim that you can use to diffuse the light on your subject’s face. Scrims are also cheap to buy and can be made cheaply. On commercial shoots it’s not at all unusual to see two-man scrims on a frame that can be moved around.


Since it’s tough to get the sun to move where you want it, it’s sometimes helpful to use a reflector to move the light to where you need it. Soft metallic reflectors make excellent fill light to soften the shadows around a face. You can also use reflectors to change the color of reflected light as most reflectors offer silver and gold tinted reflective surfaces.

Windows with shades are better than any light you can buy.
Windows with shades are better than any light you can buy.


Windows and skylights make great natural filters for sunlight. In my experience, indoors by a window is better than outdoors in open shade. You can also add drama and interest if the window has a shade by using it like louvers in or a cookie to add dramatic lines. Light through a window can make even a cheap camera look good.

Fill Flash

Sometimes you just can’t fix natural light. It is what it is and if you don’t like it, your options are limited. If I’m at an event, taking photos of people, I’ll often supplement natural light with a powerful external flash. In this scenario natural light takes a backseat to the key, which is on top of your camera or on a light stand. Calling it a “fill flash” isn’t technically correct, but that’s the common use of the term. In reality your flash is the key and natural light is supplying fill and highlights.

So, when you head outside to take pictures, you just point to that bright blob in the sky and announce to world, “You are mine!” That’s not only the right attitude for a photographer, but it’ll really get the neighbors wondering about you.

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