Tips + Techniques

How Photographers Are Embracing Ambient Light

April 20, 2018

By Libby Peterson

Photo © Sullivan & Sullivan Photography

To embrace the ins and outs of shooting with only available light is to understand not only the irreplaceable dynamism of sunlight, but also the unforeseen circumstances that can strip a shoot of artificial aid when a photographer least expects it. Across the fashion, portrait, wedding and editorial spheres, eight shooters dive into how they have flexed their natural-lighting muscles by simply sculpting what was in front of them.

Photo © Brinson + Banks

Brinson+ Banks

11:43 a.m., Los Angeles, CA

We photographed musician Pearl Charles as part of our ongoing personal project of female, Los Angeles-based creatives in their homes. It is not only a time to connect with new, amazing women, but also a time for experimentation. We walk into these homes having not seen them before and set about finding the magic.

On this day, we had shot some environmental lifestyle images of Pearl and wanted to contrast those with something abstract and simple in a room full of busy backgrounds. We first spotted a beautiful, old-fashioned hand mirror and noticed it acted as a perfect reflector, bouncing the harsh window light into a sharp and controlled beam. We had Pearl lay her hands on this yellow desk in the pool of window light and directed her to hold the mirror at just the right angle to cast a spotlight on her face. We also positioned a small disco-ball (also found in the room) in the same flood of direct window light, which added the dapples of light onto the background. And voilà—a simple, striking portrait in a room that you wouldn’t know is full of décor.

Tip! Look around; use your environment. Maybe there’s a tree branch casting a shadow for a more cinematic look, or blinds that can be drawn just enough to lend an array of striped light. The world is your light modifier.

Photo © Alessio Albi

Alessio Albi

7 p.m., Perugia, Italy

This fashion shot was pretty tricky to achieve; it was shot on a spinning carousel. I laid down on the base of it, pointing my camera up to the model, Runa Hansen, as she stood above me in the middle. We spun it as fast as possible to get this warp effect, and the sun was lighting the scene from all angles as we spun. I tried to focus on the front-facing light, but it was really difficult for me to keep the camera steady and for the model to pose and keep her head still so that it would be in focus. The stabilization of my cheap 24-85mm lens helped—I shot this at 1/10th of a second to achieve the circular lines. We made many attempts to get it right, for at least 15 minutes, so afterward our stomachs felt horrible, as you can imagine.

Tip! Sunset lighting is great for playing with complementary colors. As the sky turns orange, yellow and red, I look for blue and green elements to incorporate into the photo.

Photo © Sullivan & Sullivan Photography

Sullivan & Sullivan Photography

2 p.m., Durham, NC

One of our favorite things about Durham, North Carolina, is the endless tobacco factories that have been converted into apartments, restaurants and makeshift photo studios (well, at least one was converted for us last month). Right when our wedding couple had scheduled portraits, a cloudy day was met with a harsh, pre-storm sun. The old brick walls surrounding us made portraits a lobster-toned nightmare, and this particular factory was mostly locked up, except for one magic door, maybe the tenth one we tried, that lead to this room. We had our bride look toward the light—which was still quite hot, but more workable at this point and without any red casts—and toss the end of her gorgeous dress in the air.

Tip! Find neutral reflective surfaces below or near the subject to act as fill light, and slow down for micro-adjustments to create Rembrandt lighting.

Photo © Angela Marklew

Angela Marklew

1 p.m., Venice Beach, CA

We had spent the morning test-shooting some summer beauty portraits, and at the end of the shoot, I wanted to go out to the beach and try this sandy look. There is a certain quality to sunlight in L.A.—during the late morning and early afternoon, it’s brighter and more intense than anywhere else I’ve lived before. There is nothing to provide shade out on Venice Beach, so I knew I had to deal with the harsh midday sun, however, I wanted soft, even lighting for this look. I realized that I had to first block the sun completely, so I built a three-sided structure out of black foam core, which essentially provided the subject with a roof and two walls (the front and back of this “cube” remaining open). I positioned her closer to the front opening so I could bounce a little light back onto her using a round white reflector.

Tip! Keep the back of the foam core structure open if you want the background to blow out and eliminate distracting elements—Venice is one of the busiest beaches in L.A. For a dark background, simply close the back with another piece of black foam core.

Photo © We Are The Rhoads

We Are the Rhoads

4:30 p.m., Los Angeles, CA

This was the very last shot that we got of Rachel McAdams for The Hollywood Reporter. Her publicist told us that we literally had 3 minutes before she had to be somewhere else. We were shooting with large-format cameras, which don’t exactly make snapping a quick shot very easy, so we found a spot that had some beautiful natural dappled light in the background to sit Rachel down in. We used a white fill card from camera right and just a touch of negative for the other side of her face. We only had one shot to get the frame, so we all took a deep breath, focused the camera, and this was the shot we walked away with. We’re really happy with the outcome. Timing for a shot like this is key—with it being at the end of our session, we had earned Rachel’s trust, and that wonderfully unguarded quality shows in the final image.

Tip! Find a location that has some life to it when shooting with only available light. A background that’s flat isn’t going to give you the depth you need.

Photo © Mark Blake

Mark Blake

7:30 p.m., Joshua Tree, CA

With Guillo and Joanna, we decided that we wanted something warm and desert-like with jaw-dropping backdrops. We planned to go to Death Valley for their engagement session, but after seeing that it was going to be over 100 °F there, we decided to avoid stepping into an oven. Instead, we headed for Joshua Tree and found this spot after about an hour of driving. It was a complete 360-degree view of the mountains and valleys below. We had always wanted to express a dramatic feel for these two as they ventured off across the arid mountaintop. Since all we had was available light, some creative posing was key for this dramatic, backlit embrace while they stared off into the hazy sunset. When forming a composition, I find it important to not only build an image from a technical or emotional standpoint but also in terms of the available palette of colors. I absolutely love photographing couples right up until the last moments of available light during sunsets. You get this amazing look when the sun begins to soften and expand across the horizon.

Tip! One of the essential approaches for shooting in available light is to shoot with the sun on your subject’s back. You’ll have a 180-degree plane for a variety of flares and rim lighting that will separate your subject from the background.

Photo © Quinn Wharton

Quinn Wharton

10 a.m., Chicago, IL

For a fashion piece, I was asked to photograph Fabrice Calmels, who—at 6 feet, 6 inches—is the tallest ballet dancer in the world. I make sure to look for light that elevates the subject and allows them to dominate the focus of the frame. On this day, we were shooting around midday, and I knew that harsh light was going to be an issue but I wanted to stay nimble and flexible as we moved about town. Chicago has some amazing, tall buildings sheathed in dark glass that do really interesting things with light. I wanted to find a narrow alley that would filter and concentrate the daylight. By placing Fabrice against a darkly painted parking garage entrance, it allowed him to stand out against the background, with the reflections off the building across the street creating the rim light against his side, and the ambient light providing enough fill to get the detail I wanted.

Tip! Shoot with the key light behind the subject or off the shoulder for a more cinematic look. Carrying a small spray bottle with you to mist the corner of your lens will create light refractions on the edge of the frame. Anything that creates a little randomness in the image balances the sterility of a setup.

Photo © Eric Fischer

Eric Fischer

3:30 p.m., Hollywood, CA

Reflections can be tricky. After shooting some studio portraits of actress Ellen Monohan, I thought it would be a cool idea to shoot her through my third-floor apartment window from the outside. I had never shot through it before, so I had no time to scout the spot for lighting or reflections, and we had to shoot right away. It faces south, receiving direct daylight for the majority of the day. My immediate instinct was to go for my polarizer filter, which helped reduce some reflection but darkened the image too much for me to manually focus on her eyes, which were already in the shadows. I couldn’t use autofocus because it kept locking onto the window instead of on Ellen. My next instinct was to box off the window with silks or flags to reduce the glare, but my terrace wasn’t big enough for that, so after a few minutes of rotating a collapsible, 32-inch reflector around the window to observe its effects, I had my answer. My assistant held the reflector directly above Ellen’s head, just outside of the frame, to mimic an awning. It reduced enough glare for me to capture rich skin tones without revealing myself or the reflector in the shot. The light strip across her forehead is the sky, the shadow across her eyes is a tree line, the light across her mouth is a rooftop illuminated by the sun, and the dark area across her neck is the shaded back of a building.

Tip! For a backlit portrait, try putting a handheld light meter right up to the subject’s nose, which should be in complete shadow, and adjust your exposure from there until you’ve achieved the desired effect. Repositioning yourself can also invite in some beautiful lens flare, which can add a golden-hour cast to an image.

Related: 6 Portrait Photographers Share Their Biggest Lighting Challenges

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