With the right approach, natural light can deliver unparalleled visual results with gorgeous hues and striking contrast.
However, with poor technique, frustrations and lackluster results are almost inevitable.
Many people mistakenly believe that natural light provides an easier shooting experience, but that couldn't be further from the truth. While shooting in natural light can have some tactical benefits – namely, less equipment and faster set-up time – it creates more complications.
With controlled lighting, you can adjust your contrast ratios and color balance with scientific precision and capture exactly what you're thinking … or at least something very close.
In natural light, it becomes a lot more difficult. The elements are out of your hands and everything is in constant flux. Changes in the angle of the sun, cloud cover, ambient lighting (which leads to temperature shifts), and more can dramatically complicate your process.
My rule of thumb is always as follows:
Regardless of how much time natural light saves you in production, this is made up for in pre- and post-production.
In other words, shooting in natural light can make for a less cumbersome experience on set, but that doesn't make the overall process any easier. You still need to fill the void in pre-production to make sure you plan for every possible situation and post-production to fix any possible bugs.
However, we're not here today to talk about preparing your shoot or coloring your pictures in the mail – although these are key factors in successfully producing natural light.
Rather, we will investigate what an optimal workflow on set looks like under these conditions.
Below, I'll explain the exact strategy I use to evaluate natural environments and visualize shots that make the most of the available light.
Everything I share here can be applied to the most basic setups – even for solo shots without lighting equipment, springboards, or on-set support.
Knowing how to make natural light work for you means any shooting scenario is manageable, and environmental challenges can often lead to creative opportunities.
So here's a step-by-step breakdown of my natural light workflow on set –
Step 1: Assess the environment
The very first thing most people do on set is turn on the camera, look through the viewfinder and take some test shots. But that almost always came last.
The first step should simply be a naked eye assessment of the environment, which will give you an idea of how natural light can work for your needs.
Let's take a hypothetical example and let's say we're taking photos on a bright, sunny beach that's partially in shadow thanks to a large cliff on one side.
Upon arrival, we would first identify the lightest areas around us (likely the sky) and the darkest areas (possibly the cliffs or some nearby shrubs).
We would then ask key questions about the quality, source and intensity of the ambient light to assess which areas are best for our needs.
What is the range between the darkest and the lightest part of the beach? How much natural contrast do I see? Are there other unique ways that the light bounces around?
A quick mental note of these things is always the best place to start. It gives you a global overview of your work environment with all its challenges and opportunities and leads directly to the next step –
step 2 :: Identify the point of optimal contrast
This is probably the most important step of all and the skill that is the hardest to master. But once you have it, it's like a secret weapon.
You want to develop the ability to look at your surroundings and instantly know where to take a photo based on the natural contrast ratios you identified in the previous step.
A key factor here is that you have a strong vision for your shot beforehand. You need to know what to look for or you will be wasting time trial and error when you can catch the best light of the day.
Do you want a soft, low-contrast look? Or something more intense and rich in contrast? Would you like to outline your subject? Or is a glamor look more your taste?
You may have less control over your images in natural light than with proper film or studio lighting equipment. However, that doesn't mean you don't have creative authorship yet. You just have to know what you want.
The stronger your vision, the easier it is to identify the point that I call the optimal contrast for your image.
This is the specific and precise point within your location that creates (by natural forces) a lighting dynamic that can serve your creative intent.
Let's move on to our beach scenario so I can give you a more specific example.
We assume that it is getting light and there is little to no cloud cover and you are trying to photograph an actor or a model (not just a landscape). You have just arrived on site and quickly assessed the natural ambient light. Where are you going next
It all depends on the creative intent.
If you prefer a silhouette look, you need to find the point with the maximum contrast. Your subject can be somewhere in a dark area that is on a very light background. Perhaps the cliff on the beach is casting heavy shadow and that will allow you to expose for the sky / background and underexpose the subject.
Or maybe you want a softer, more dreamy aesthetic. This can be a challenge at noon with no gear, but it is quite possible. Ideally, you will find an area of moderate contrast, like a patch on the sand that is partially shaded by a tree. The soft shadow can potentially act like an overhead silk, taking the sharp edge off the sunlight and still allowing you to backlight your subject. Alternatively, find a corner of the beach with cliff walls that reflect light everywhere and act like a natural softbox.
As a third example, imagine you want to capture a twilight aesthetic where the face of your subject is in shadow on one side and the other. With the sun right over you this could be a big challenge. However, if you can identify something in the area that can act as a natural crack (or negative fill), you're in luck. Perhaps you will place your talent next to a structure painted white and have it at a 90-degree angle to the camera. Or do the same, but next to a dark bushy area that offers negative fill. In either case, a strong contrast can be achieved even with the sun shining over you.
Of course, these are only a few examples and are not an exhaustive list. No two productions in natural light will ever be exactly alike, so you're always at the mercy of the environment you are in … Another reason planning / preproduction is so important.
Step 3: place your talent without using the camera
With the previous step, you are almost ready to start recording. However, before you pull out the camera and get lost in the technical details, I strongly recommend placing your subject in the area and seeing what it looks like to your eye first.
If you land in your seat and just pull out the camera for test shots, you will inevitably slow down.
It's easy to tell yourself that all you are going to do is take a test shot. Before you know it, you have spent 10 minutes changing settings and fixing camera issues. Then you finally sort it out, but the lighting has changed and you have to start over.
Don't let your camera hold you until it's actually time to take a picture.
The goal should be to do 90% of the heavy lifting / deciding before you even look through your lens. This includes not only finding the best location (as described in the previous step), but also finding the best placement for your subject.
So really, this part is very easy –
Just place your talent and take a look. What do you see?
Is there too much contrast? Possibly divide the difference between your current location and a lighter (or darker) area.
Not enough contrast? You may need to rotate your subject a bit to really move the light sideways.
You may be able to dial your "lights" in just a minute or two by making minor adjustments to the placement of your talent. If you try to do this while arguing with your camera / monitor / rig, adjusting settings, etc., you may never get the shot before the light changes.
You still need to adjust the camera settings before you start recording, but at least you now have an ideal starting point to work.
Step 4: design it with your camera and make technical adjustments
With the other steps completed, you can now start the camera and take a look at your frame. And once you do, your camera's limitations will show up.
Your eye always sees more dynamics than your camera, and so does color contrast and other important variables. So if you look through the viewfinder you will see some issues that you want to adjust – the shadows may be too heavy or the image may still be a little too contrasty.
In that case, you can enter your camera settings, exposure, and picture profiles to get them just right. And by the time you've done step 3 (and you're comfortable with your camera) this part should come together very quickly.
This is also the time to make final frame changes before you start recording.
As a quick side note, I strongly recommend shooting with zoom lenses in natural light. If you're not shooting at night and need the fastest prime you can get your hands on, or if you plan to shoot it all with a single prime lens (so you don't have to stop to switch), zooming in will keep you going faster and faster .
Step 5: shoot quickly, go to the next location, repeat
As soon as you take your first shot (or before you're done) the lighting will change. Maybe a cloud is shifting or the sun is going down a bit. Or that beach sign that you used as a makeshift reflector is no longer at the perfect angle and now you've lost your light.
This happens roughly every 20 to 30 minutes if you are shooting in daylight and only gets more extreme at sunrise / sunset.
This is another reason why speed is your friend on set. The faster you get what you need, the better.
For example, when you set up your recording, suppose you only have a few minutes to grasp what you need. Always avoid unnecessary additional recordings when recording films / videos or when recording still images, limit yourself to a set number of recordings so that you do not keep running unnecessarily.
Once you've captured a specific area in your environment, quickly move on to the next area and start the process over: scan the area, find the optimal contrast point, place your subject, adjust the frame, take You up, repeat.
The great thing about working this fast is that it creates a sense of urgency that, despite the limitations involved, drives new creative ideas. You won't always capture exactly what you're thinking, but sometimes what you discover is even better.
And that's all part of the fun of taking photos in natural light. When you want everything to be 100% planned and controlled, a light-controlled studio allows you to take photos right at your fingertips with all the equipment you need.
But personally I have a lot more fun working like this …
How about you? Leave a comment below.
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