If you’re a natural light portrait photographer, your photography life is wrapped around wishing for good light, in the right place at the right time of day. If you’re in the UK, where the light is just dull for much of the year, it is even more of an obsession. So, here are some tips that will help you find and use the direction of light.
We’re going to look at finding light in two parts.
- The first part is about figuring out where the light is coming from when you can’t actually see the sun.
- The second part is how to take that really dreary light and channel it so that it makes beautiful, soft, directional light that is perfect for portraits.
1. Actually finding the light
Needless to say that when the sun is shining, you know where the light was coming from. So, we’re not talking about sunny days. Not even cloudy days. We’re talking about those days when you probably don’t think you’d get a decent photo. The days when the clouds are so thick there isn’t even the slightest shadow to be seen and, no matter how hard you inspect the sky, you cannot make out where the sun might be.
You might think on these heavily overcast days that the direction of the light doesn’t make a difference. Just because you can’t see a shadow, doesn’t mean that the light has no direction. You just need to look harder.
Or maybe you don’t know the hand trick. Here’s how it works…
Using your hand to find the light
- Stick your arm out in front of you with your hand flat, but turned so that your thumb is towards the sky and your little finger is towards the ground.
- Now twist your hand slightly so that your palm is angled up towards the sky. Slightly. About half way to palm up to the sky.
- Turn in a circle and observe how your palm gets lighter and darker as you turn.
You don’t need to be outside to try this. Give it a go now. As long as you’re not inside a pitch black room, you’ll be able to make out the direction of the light.
Now that you know where the light is coming from, you know how the light will hit your subject – from the front, the back or the side. So you can decide where to place your subject for the shot you want.
Download our handy cheat sheet for helping with light direction for portraits.
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Now you just need to know how to take that very soft light and make it beautiful.
2. Channelling dreary light
If I’m shooting with natural light on heavily overcast days my favourite trick is to use locations that are ideally suited to channelling the available light. This way I’m using the natural light like a softbox on studio lighting. Instead of the dull light just being everywhere, it is blocked and directed, which changes everything. The play of light and shadow across my subject takes what would otherwise be a dull photo to the next level.
As it happens, those days also tend to be quite wet and windy, so I like to find locations where we’ll be protected from the elements.
Perfect natural light locations for dull days
To explain what I mean, let’s explore one of my favourite natural light bad weather locations.
This is the spectator stand at a local sports ground. As you can see it is open at the front only, with windows on the sides. What this means from a light point of view is that the light will enter mainly from the front, with a diffused light entering from the sides. The roof and back wall prevent light from entering the structure, so the closer you get to the back, the darker it will be.
What this means to me and my camera is that the light coming from the front is going to be strongest and that will be the light that I will use as the main light on my subject. The light coming from the sides isn’t as strong, so that will make a nice backlight or sidelight, depending on where I place my subject.
Instantly, even on a really dreary day, I will have interesting, directional light.
And, as a huge bonus, it won’t matter if it starts to rain, because we’ll be sheltered.
Here is another location that I really love. Like the spectator stand it is open on three sides, except, because it is a long tunnel the light at either end is far away.
Close together structures
Lastly, here is a location that is simply a series of black wooden huts close together. The light channels through the narrow gaps between the huts so beautifully, even on the dreariest of days. In this location there is no roof overhead, but because there is so much black, this is a great advantage, because the light from above adds a nice hair light to the subject.
Narrow alleyways with tall buildings either side would also make great locations. It would be similar to the above, but with a more diffused light, because the space would be bigger.
The trick is to look out for locations. They’re everywhere and now you know what to look for! So, on a day when you’re not feeling all that inspired, go search for these unlikely locations. They’ll get you excited and eager to photograph.
You’ll probably find this article really helpful too: How to take great photographs in bad weather
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