Natural light is essential to me when I take a photograph. It is everything.
Five years ago, I decided to get serious about shooting with a DSLR, and learning how to use light has been a huge (but enjoyable) challenge. I realized that if I knew how to use light in my photography, I could make what I envisioned in my head come to life.
Over the years I have perfected the way I use light in my photography to better reflect my style and the way I want to tell stories. For me, I always have emotive images with depth on my mind. They are what I aim for when I decide my location, the time of day I will shoot, my camera settings, and what kind of light I want.
A few of my favorites that I will be touching on are: the golden hour, overcast skies, and window light.
Cue a big sigh.
Who doesn't love those glowy, dreamy photos with their golden hues and beautiful skin tones? Golden hour is the magical time right before sunset or after sunrise where you get those incredible warm tones and is the best time to snap photos with a backlight-effect. I use backlighting in my personal and client work the most because of the drama it brings to an image.
When shooting a backlit photo, I pay careful attention to the direction of the sun so it doesn’t blow out all the important details of my photo. I always make it a point to have a way to diffuse the light (unless it’s those crucial 30 minutes or less when the sun is the softest). Adding an object between the subject and the sun - I’ve used trees, a building, another person - helps cut out some of the harsh sun rays and, in return, helps retain the details in my image.
With this kind of lighting, I like to shoot wide open, around f/1.4 to f/2.8, and expose for my subject. In an effort to keep richness to my image I tend to underexpose a bit. My ISO during golden hour starts at 100 and goes up from there as the sun sets.
Don’t miss out on the amazing shots you can get during the golden hour! I’m always moving around my subject to capture all those different angles and, well, sometimes I get bored shooting from one spot. Practice makes perfect when shooting in this type of light and that is the truth of it. But it is so worth it if you get it nailed.
After obsessing and learning how to use the golden hour, I used to be bummed on cloudy overcast days. Over time I learned to embrace it and have fallen in love with what this type of light can create. Overcast skies produce photographs with atmosphere, deep tones and amazing detail. The clouds create a beautiful consistent light that makes everything and everyone look good.
Keeping my ISO usually between 400 and up to 2000 on super cloudy days later in the evening allows me to underexpose my subject. This helps to keep the richness I want and makes post
processing a breeze. If there are cloudy skies take advantage of them, it adds dimension and layers to an image.
Window light is my go-to when I want to create an image that feels intimate and cozy.
One of my favorite techniques is to illuminate my subject as if they were the only one in the room. To achieve this look, I expose for what I want to be the focus of the photograph, For example, if I wanted to focus on a girl’s face, I would expose for her face and allow the background and inside of the room to fall into shadow. Bingo, she pops right out of the frame.
Your ISO inside will completely depend on how much natural light brightens the room. I’ll shoot anywhere from ISO 100, directly on the skin, up to and well over 1000 ISO. Don’t be afraid to crank it up to get the shot you have envisioned. Grain just adds another dimension to a photo, and I am so fond of it.
Golden hour, overcast skies, and window light are the types of lighting that give my images the feel and consistency I am aiming for in my work. However, they aren’t the be-all, end-all for photography.
A few years back I attempted a Project 365. While I didn't finish it, the six months that I did complete taught me an incredible amount: how to see the light, how to use light, and what my camera could do in the different situations. As soon as I learned this I was able to get my images as good as I could straight out of the camera. That meant more time spent taking photos and less time trying to fix bad photos with poor lighting in post processing.
I still shoot almost everyday and continue to learn new ways to use light. It is something I hope I never tire of. I hope you donʼt either.
Stephanie Carlton is a natural light lifestyle and wedding photographer living in the mountains of western Colorado with my firefighter husband and two sweet girls. I am a lover of light, movement and details. My favorite thing to photograph are my daughters and I do almost everyday. Other places you can find me besides behind the camera are… in the mountains, the gym, the coffee shop, or listening to music (currently loving Andrew Belle and Cloves).