Natural Light Portraits
Every morning, from the Scottish Highlands to the Cape of Good Hope, we are gifted with natural light from the sun. From pole to pole, sunlight has a million faces. It changes temperature and intensity like a moody king. It is, without question, the cornerstone of photography and something that is best appreciated in tiny sips, rather than big gulps.
There is no such thing as artificial light. All light is the result of something burning and giving off a temperature, an intensity and a level of measurable lumens. From an LED diode to the sun … it’s all light.
Types of Light
American artist James Turrell is one of the few artists in history who works almost exclusively in light. For almost forty years he has experimented, modeled, and shaped light for his installations. While Turrell is not a photographer per se, he does have a tremendous command of the medium of light and offers photographers sound advice.
“The Light Inside” 1999. Houston, Texas. © James Turrell
In an interview with the curator of his retrospective at the Guggenheim, Turrell says something that most people never consider. There is no such thing as artificial light. All light is the result of something burning and giving off a temperature, an intensity and a level of measurable lumens. From an LED diode to the sun … it’s all light.
“The Fighting Temeraire” by JMW Turner
This unifying view of light will help photographers uncover some of the mysteries that lie in the subject called ‘natural light.’ When we talk about natural light, it usually means that the light is not the product of something we plug in or can carry around. It is the omnipresent glow that we refer to as daylight. So why is a light that is available everyday, all over the world, so difficult to figure out?
“Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains” by Albert Bierstadt
During a trip to Venice, I arranged for a model shoot. I have also had model shoots as part of my one on one and destination photography workshops. While most people think model shoots are strictly for fashion photographers, keep in mind that almost every artist in the last 2,000 years tried their hand at portraiture. It is a useful practice, even for the abstract artist. Portraiture requires us to be sensitive to two things at the same time … the first is light and the second is our subject. The better we get at juggling the two, the easier it becomes to spot good light on the street anywhere in the world.
- If you are not sure about your lighting, look at the shadows. If the shadows are harsh, with strong lines and look more like black cardboard cutouts, the light is probably not good.
- If you want to see what great light looks like, the kind that fascinated Rembrandt, Vermeer, Turner, and Bierstadt … get up early in the morning, grab yourself a cup of coffee or tea and pick an object in front of you. Watch the sun come up and wrap itself around that object. You will be seeing light, and the delicate way it crawls across the surface of the earth.
- For shooting in the middle of the day, find an overhang … the light that comes in just under a roof ledge is perfect for portraits.
It’s worth remembering that without light, a camera is nothing more than a paperweight with a bunch of buttons.
Photography is a fun member of the art family. It is the only one where the tools get so much attention. And while I like my camera as much as the next photographer, it’s worth remembering that without light, a camera is nothing more than a paperweight with a bunch of buttons. So when the sun creeps up tomorrow morning, remember to look first and shoot second, because without that big ol’ lantern in the sky we would all be out of business.