I am often times asked how to get good lighting for pictures. Lighting is everything. I'll say that time after time after time. You can have the coolest location in the world, but if the lighting sucks, than there's really not much you can do. Getting good natural sunlight can be a big challenge especially if you live in a state with bi-polar weather like Indiana. I never know if it will be cloudy, too dark, raining, snowing, too sunshiney, etc. OR if I am shooting a wedding and there's a thunderstorm taking place, what can I do to make a blah indoor location work well? Here are some of my best tips for getting good natural and un-natural lighting in any situation that you may run across.
Say it's a really cold day. Sunshiney, but cold and you just can't work outside anymore. Find a window. Almost any window can work well and have your model/client face the window completely or half face the window casting a shadow on one side of the face. It's a very dramatic, clean look that's timeless and requires no artificial light. Perfect for days when the sun is too high in the sky and bright.
All of the above shots were taken with subject facing or half facing window light.
Try shooting at sunrise. Sunrises usually give me the very best lighting though it's not exactly ideal to wake up before the sun to take pictures. If you're willing and your model is willing, go for it. Use the sun as backlighting for your subject. Not too familiar with backlighting? Here are some tips. The nice thing about sunrise is that the sun is low for a while and it gives you a million different looks as it rises. It starts out with that extra warm hazy light and than gradually fades to a glowy white haze. All beautiful and all worth it. Just check the weather report the night before to make sure it won't be cloudy. Nothing sucks more than to get up at 5:30 in the morning to take pictures and see that the sky is filled with dark clouds.
This shot was taken in a parking lot at sunrise which gave her that perfect subtle glow. Shot around 40 minutes after the official sunrise.
One rule that's good to loosely follow is not to have your subject face the sun when it's high in the sky. It causes faces to be shiny, too bright, awkwardly shadowed and unnatural. PLUS, your subject has to try not to squint the whole time. No fun for anyone. BUT, when the sun is lower in the sky, go ahead and try it. I recommend having your subject face the sun, but look away from it so as to not force them to squint. It automatically gives them a beachy, warm glow that's very flattering. AND it's a good way to have high contrast for a shot as your subjects face will be very lit up while the background may be a lot darker.
This shot was taken with subject facing the sun, but looking up at me. Shot around 30 minutes before complete sunset.
Have you ever considered taking pictures at night? One of the best places to get good light at night is your downtown area. Street lights, car headlights, etc. can give you some pretty amazing results. I avoid artificial light as much as I can, though it is necessary sometimes. But when I shoot downtown, no additional light is ever needed. These shots were all taken downtown at night using the light of the city to illuminate my subject. Find spots under street lights where the light is shining down on your subject or have them stand on the sidewalk facing car headlights driving by. I'm a big fan of shooting this way!
These were all taken in pitch black night time with only the lights of the city. No reflectors, no flash.
Let's say you're shooting a wedding and the bridal party is ready to take the formal pictures, but you ran of out day light and now it's pitch black outside. You can either shoot inside or outside, but the inside isn't too pretty. What do you do? Weather permitting, take them outside, bring a handy assistant and try this. Here's where most photographers would say "Use an off camera flash." I'm not into that. I've tried it, I've done it and I've never ever loved it. Too much work, too expensive, so here's my alternative. Use your car headlights or a constant light (this is a great one) to illuminate your subject. If you are using your car headlights, obviously park the car pointed towards them and throw on your brights. The result is pretty striking and dramatic. If you are using a hand held LED light to illuminate your subject, just have an assistant hold it in a position that works best for the shot. The below picture was taken of myself and Grant by my mom (Jean Loper Photography) while we were out in the Arizona desert at night. My dad was holding a hand held constant light while my mom had the camera on a tripod. The results were phenomenal! Never assume you are bound to the light of the day. There is always a way to get the shot!
What if you are shooting a wedding and you have to use the indoor location for pictures because of rain. Well, I'll be honest, if your location is really ugly or has really bad lighting, it WILL be a challenge. But fear not because a handy dandy light box like I spoke of above can work miracles. Using flash indoors for formals can be a challenge. It's hard for me to get that sweet soft appearance with flash. Even when I think I should just use flash, I try it without first. Find a spot in the building that your bride and groom can stand with low light. Or even turn out the lights. As long as you can see them a little bit, have an assistant hold up a light and shine it on their faces. It brings the attention to them, it's dramatic and takes away from any bland or boring background you may have around you because the light will work almost as spot light. Also, don't be afraid of using window light too like I mentioned above. Even if it's raining outside, there will still be some light coming through those windows. Have your bride and groom pose facing that light.
This was taken about an hour and a half after dusk using only a light box to illuminate us.
So you find yourself having to shoot in the middle of the day. Bright sunshine and all. First off, start looking for shade. Any shade will do! Go hide behind a tree, the side of a building. Anywhere that's going to get you a bit more coverage and less harsh light.
This shot was taken mid-day hiding behind the shade of a tree.
The next thing you can do if you really want to play up that super bright sun to your advantage is to pull out a reflector. You can make one yourself or purchase one for super cheap. This is used to bounce the sunlight back on your subjects face. So in essence you would stand your subject as much behind the sun as they can and then have someone hold that reflector to illuminate the front of their face. No harsh shadows and subject looks soft as if the shot was taken near sunset. I do not recommend shooting during the middle of the day. That's my one avoidance, but when you have to, there are always ways to make it work. There was no escaping it for the below shot, so I used the reflector and bounced that bright sun right on her face. As you can see, the top of her hair is very bright showing that the sun was right above us. I held that reflector down low and bounced it right back up. If you have an assistant to help you with this part, it's an added plus. I photographed and used the reflector for this one. It's not easy :P
This shot was taken around 2 in the afternoon with full, high sun using a reflector.
And last, but definitely not least is my favorite way to get the best lighting. Shoot at sunset. I shoot 90% of my sessions at sunset especially during the spring-fall. There's nothing to compare to that glowing sunset backlighting. A lot of the perks of shooting at sunrise while not having to get up at the buttcrack of dawn. I shoot in the 2 hour stretch before sunset and unless it's a cloudy day, the results are wonderful. If you ever have a choice, shoot later in the day. Use the sun as backlighting. Allow it to pour through the cracks in the trees, around the corners of buildings or radiating down a street. Perfection!
P.S. The winner of the of the Jolly Chic $100 Giveaway has been announced! Congrats to Melissa! I will be contacting you shortly so you can claim your prize! Big thanks to everyone who entered and stay tuned for more giveaways to come.