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Breaking the Rules to Get the Most Out of Natural Light

Tips & Tricks

In photojournalism school, students are taught to underexpose when out in the field in order to achieve the richest colors and most intense contrast possible in a photograph. The trick, conventional wisdom explains, is to bring the exposure back up in post processing. I shot this way for years and it always treated me well. I’m still a big fan of the ‘underexpose method’ when shooting landscapes and documentary stories. The technique brings out the drama of what you’re trying to capture; old, wrinkly faces look like they belong to lost souls with millions of years of stories to tell, a canyon or mountain scape appears to be straight out of a dream with rainbow-like colors and dark, cloud-filled skies seem to hover over every crevice of the earth. Depth and drama are what this technique creates  — perfect for telling stories with a ‘wow’ effect.

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After starting my own wedding photography business, I slowly learned how to bend and, even break, the rules. My focus shifted from news stories that break your heart to telling the happiest stories imaginable — family moments of pure joy and love as young couples prepare for their next stage of life together. When photographing a wedding, you are trusted to document one of the most precious moments in a person’s life. I wanted to do these people justice by focusing on the beauty within. By capturing them in just the right light, I knew I could help them see their own beautiful depth radiating out.

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With this new goal in mind, my style began to morph. I no longer cared as much about the technical rules of photography but more about finding and capturing beauty. With it came finding and capturing beautiful light. Natural light is one of the most important aspects of my current shooting technique. At this point in my career, I’m as comfortable shooting into a setting sun as I am using it as fill light. Here are a few tips to help you find a method that works for you and your natural light style.

Hunter McRae Photography

Tip 1 – The Importance of Positive Communication

Make your subject feel comfortable. If she/he doesn’t feel comfortable, she/he won’t look comfortable. It’s plain and simple! Nobody can control the weather but if it’s very cold or too hot then it’s up to you to move quickly and keep your subject relaxed and happy. Be friendly and spend time chatting before you even take the first picture. Reassure your subject constantly throughout the shoot about how great she/he looks. Remember, most people (apart from the selfies that they take and have control over) are not accustomed to having their picture taken. On top of that, many people are self-conscious about some part of their body or feel like they are not photogenic in some way. Be conscious of this and learn to work through a subject’s insecurities. It is always my personal goal to encourage a subject’s spirit to shine through in the image. Your reassurance of how great she/he looks will actually give her/him the confidence to feel great.

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Tip 2 – Setting The Stage and Placing Your Subject in the Right Position

Now that you have your subject feeling comfortable, relaxed, and beautiful, it’s time to position them in a flattering way so that the light may cater to their best angle. Time of day is important. If you have a choice, schedule your session during the hours near dawn or dusk. This time of day produces a golden light that photographers dream of. You can position your subject facing the sun in order to have the golden light glow on her/his face. The sun should be soft enough that your subject will not squint. If you wait until the sun goes down completely, you can capture the soft, blue light (or even a silhouette) as the sun sets.

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If you simply do not have a choice regarding the time of day (for instance, if you’re shooting a wedding all day long) then you will have to learn how to work with what you’ve got. In the middle of the day during the brightest sun hours, look for shade. Position your subject under a tree or in the shade of a building. Be sure to avoid any strange shadows and keep the shade even on their skin — especially faces. If you can’t find shade, go inside and find a window. Soft window light can produce spectacular images. I usually look for a solid background to keep the composition simple and clean. Generally, if the subject is looking out the window you can catch a pretty glow on her/his face from the light streaming in. If you can’t find shade AND you can’t find an inside spot with a window, do not fear! Here’s where that “breaking the rules” idea comes into play. Go ahead and shoot into the sun! I never used to do this but when shooting weddings and family portraits, a photographer is often forced to work in less-than-ideal light conditions. When you are expected to take great pictures regardless of the lighting situation, you quickly learn to break convention and get creative.

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I have grown to absolutely love the look and feel of bright sun shooting. It’s bright and happy. Position your subject directly in front of the sun so that she/he (or another object like a tree) is blocking the sun from you and your lens. Keep your lens in that shadow area and shoot away. I’ve learned to overexpose more than I think I should, to bring up the shadows in the subject’s face. In post processing I might add some contrast and depth to give the image more definition. This technique can produce a nice, warm, sometimes ethereal glow to your subject.

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Tip 3 – Knowing What Equipment To Use

If I only had two lenses to bring with me on a portrait shoot I would bring the Canon 50mm f/1.2 and the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8. And I wouldn’t forget the lens hoods! These are important to use when shooting directly into the sun or, really, any time of day to avoid an unintended sun flare coming in from the side. The 70-200mm lens is perfect for portraits. When you shoot at 2.8, the background blurs nicely to highlight the subject in focus and you don’t have to be close to someone’s face to get a really great shot. However, my favorite lens is, without question, the 50mm f/1.2. Be sure to get close to your subject (maybe even closer than you thought you could feel comfortable with) to really capture powerful, intimate images with this lens.  The 50mm is magic when shooting portraits outside using the techniques mentioned in tip 2. When shooting at f/1.2, your subject is in focus while the background light is transformed into butter. That’s the only way I know how to describe it — soft, buttery light.

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As photographers, we are continuously morphing, changing, and improving as we learn to grow in our trade. My own style changes slightly depending on the type of project I am working on and everything I have learned over the years comes out in some way or another. Content will always rank as my top objective but coming in at number two is the way a photographer uses light; it has the power to make any visual aspect quite striking.

Now it’s your turn! Hopefully these tips have helped inspire you to try out some natural light portraits of your own. I’d love to hear your stories and see examples of your own creative uses of natural light!

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Hunter McRae is an award winning photojournalist and wedding photographer based in Charleston, SC. Her editorial and wedding work has been featured in numerous national publications including The New York Times, Style Me Pretty, Weddings Unveiled and Charleston Weddings Magazine. Hunter’s career as a photographer has taken her around the world. From witnessing the poverty and hardships in the townships of South Africa to documenting the most extravagant and beautiful weddings in her own hometown, she has loved every second of the journey.

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