Introduction: The Natural Look: Portraits Without Flash

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I love natural light. For a while, I worked as a freelance photographer specializing in natural light portraiture and loved the opportunity it afforded to experiment with natural lighting in a variety of contexts, from family portraits to pet images. Maybe it's simply that I never mastered the nuances of using a flash or accent lighting, but I've just never cared for flatness of artificial lighting in photography. Artificially lit images imply staging of some sort - everyone or everything forcefully stopped in a moment.

The soft tones of natural lighting, on the other hand, seem to invite the viewer in, and provide greater context for the image at the center of the visual story. Natural lighting gives you a sense of looking on together-- peering over a shoulder, being part of the group, sharing in the moment-- as opposed to being a distant spectator.

Here we'll look at some different situations and how to put natural lighting to the best use to illustrate scenes and stories.

Step 1: Capturing a Moment

Learning to use natural light in a variety of circumstances helps you capture significant moments without disturbing the subjects creating those moments. The shot of the mandolin player was made with a long lens (250 mm) on a bright day, casting the background into a soft blur, something you'd lose with a flash, and highlighting the musician's hat, shoulders and right hand with sunlight in a way that places the experience in a particular moment of place and time.

The shot of the Cracker cowboy and his son, made during a living history event, was also done with the long lens, during the middle of the day with sunlight pretty much overhead, providing a sort apropos sepia tone to the image.

Bright days are best for natural light images taken with a telephoto or long lens, which have a narrower field of view and need more light for illumination. You can adjust shutter speed or aperture to make up for the lighting limitations. But bright days give you more latitude to work with a long lens, principally because the more light you have the faster you can shoot and the less camera shake you'll experience, which is magnified in long lenses.

Step 2: Capturing a Scene

Although I don't like using artificial light, like flashes or supplementary light, the fact is that sometimes artificial light is the natural light of a scene. In the restaurant scene, the servers are lit by the bright lights at the buffet, making them stand out clearly. In the Palm Reader and Tarot Card window view, the red lighting from the neon sign, with the solitary figure at the table, is what creates the impact of the view.

Step 3: Humanizing Details

Sometimes you just want a small but personal detail from a scene, and natural lighting is perfect for those humanizing details like hands at work or holding each other.

Step 4: Softness of Being

Natural lighting is ideal for photographing children. Flash is distracting, but firing off shots that capture a natural moment in natural light create powerful and enduring memories. Natural back lighting, like in the image with the girl and her guinea pig, focus attention on the subjects. The little girl in the field of flowers is a soft, innocent moment, and the shot of the little girl regarding the mermaid in the tank, with the reflection of the girl, along with all the other spectators, is well illustrated by the natural light of the moment.

Especially when photographing children and moments of sweet innocence, take a moment to look at what surrounds your subject and consider if you want to isolate your topic, or capture everything around it for a different context.

Step 5: Light and Shadow

One of the greatest things about natural light is the ability to play with the contrast of light and shadow. In the red hatted and caped cosplayer, the bright light coming down from a skylight threw everything below the wide brimmed hat into deep shadow, providing a striking image.

The second image, of the couple on the bench, with their nearly matching white hats and white shirts, was set off nicely with the board wall in front of the them and the boards of the bench upon which they're sitting. This one was a natural black and white image, because of the contrasts.

Step 6: Natural Action

Often, people use flash in an attempt to capture "action" shots. But in well lit arenas and other venues, it's usually not necessary. All three of these photos, taken at FIRST robotics competitions, were made with a 55mm to 250mm zoom lens, in high school gyms.

It can take a little practice to cultivate a steady hand at active events, but after a while, you learn to see those still instants where you can fire off a great shot. You can also use a monopod, if desired, but learning how to steady your hands, gives you a lot more freedom of motion to capture those special action shots.

So - ditch that flash and give natural light a shot. You'll be amazed at what you can see in the sunlight!

You can see more examples of natural light photography at my Fine Art America gallery.

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