052. Photography Tips: Chasing the Light

I'm a hunter. A hunter of good light.
Over the years I've played with many artificial lighting techniques, including strobes, umbrellas/reflectors, and even timed flashes. 

They served me well in different scenarios, especially weddings, where the lighting is often unpredictable, and the party stretches late into the night (darkness).

However, nothing has ever quite captured my fancy like natural light. The power of the sun.
No batteries, no extra equipment. Just me, the camera, my clients, and the incredibly flattering natural light. For most photographers, the thrill of capturing a beautiful image is hard to top. And for me, doing that with pure natural light was the ultimate joy.

Dori & Philip's engagement sessions, 2015.

While artificial light has its uses, the beauty of natural light is hard to beat.
There's something exhilarating about chasing and finding the perfect light. 

For most photo shoots, I would tell my clients to be ready 3 hours before sunset. I'd pick them up, drive out to whichever location I had in mind, and we'd just have fun following the sun! We'd walk/hike/drive around, finding awesome backdrops and great angles to capture the sunlight. It was a very relaxed way of shooting, and I wasn't worried about lugging equipment around. The heaviest thing I brought were my lenses! My clients enjoyed the "freedom" of this style and in turn, they were more relaxed and natural in front of the camera.

Bridal Portrait Session, 2014

The "golden hour" is the best time, as the sun is low on the horizon, casting it's yellowish/orange rays. The golden hour takes place approximately 1-2 hours before sunset.
Noon is the worst time for outdoor photographs, because the sun is directly above us, creating harsh, unwanted shadows on faces, and the color of the light is much more "white" (not ideal for skin tones).

However, relying on nature has its downfalls. Weather, for one thing, is unpredictable.
I would often provide a backup date to my photo shoots, in case it was suddenly too cloudy or rainy. However, it was always worth it!
Being flexible meant we were able to capitalize on the best weather.

So, you're out there in the golden hour, your clients are looking great...now what?

Mountain wedding, 2013.

As the photographer, it's your job to know how to utilize the surroundings and angles (based on the sun's location) to capture the best photos. When women are involved, you better be aware of those shadows!
Women are famous for being extra critical of how they look. You'll want to avoid any angles that make them look "larger" as well as unflattering shadows under the eyes. 
It takes practice, but in time you'll get a feel for which angles work the best.

Engagement Session Portrait, 2013.

In order to really take advantage of the natural light, I always include a few stylized shots involving direct sun and sunspots! These often end up being our favorite images. Why? Because they tell a visual story, and are special. Set your client directly in front of the sun, so it's barely peaking around them. This creates a lens flare for dramatic effect.

The dreamy lighting allows the viewer to get lost in the FEELING of the image.

Wedding Portraits, 2015.

Alas, one can get so addicted to using natural light, that they almost develop an aversion to using any artificial light! (This totally happened to me for a brief time in my career, but I eventually got over it).

Without my handy flash, I never would have captured this image of the bride & groom leaving the reception, soluting the moon, which ended up being one of their favorites!

To recap, here are a few tips!

  • Know your location! Research and/or visually document when the golden hour is at it's prime in whichever location you want to shoot. This is called "scouting" your location. Go there a few times a week before the photoshoot to get an idea of when the light is low on the horizon.
  • Don't wait too long! I occassionally made the mistake of pushing a start time until only an hour before sunset. This is a mistake because if there are trees, or mountains, or tall buildings nearby, the sun might dip behind them waaayyyy before the scheduled sunset time! Don't miss out on light due to poor timing.
  • Try to avoid photographing your clients in direct sunlight - this usually just leads to lots of squinting, unflattering shadows, and sweat.
  • When positioning your clients relative to the sun, always start with the sun behind them, or slightly off to the side. If the sun is in front of them, again you may run into squinting and shadows. Once you get them in place, you can then have them turn a little bit to one side if the lighting is more flattering. 
  • Use natural "reflectors." Anything reflects light, except for extremely dark objects. You can use sidewalks, walls, even cars to bounce light onto your subjects. They can be really useful when you're trying to photograph someone who is back-lit (when they almost become a silhouette). Take a friend out for a test photo shoot and try illuminating them with natural reflectors. You'll quickly learn to look for these (or avoid them) during your photo shoots!
  • Watch the grass! I can't tell you how many times I have done a photo shoot, felt really excited about the results, gone home to my computer and realized all of their skin is tinted GREEN! Yikes! This is because the sun reflects the colors in your environment, and if your clients are sitting or standing near one large color source (like grass), that is a LOT of color being reflected! You can waste hours in post processing fixing the colors, or you can just avoid it in the first place!

006. Photography Tips: How to Tell a Visual Story

I want to do at least one weekly post that specifically touches on a photography tip or technique. For today I thought I would start with the most basic idea - how to tell a visual story with your photography.

Mountain Wedding on a Horse Ranch, 2014..

Mountain Wedding on a Horse Ranch, 2014..

As a wedding photographer, I was required to not only capture the important moments of the day, but to capture images that when viewed individually or as a whole, told a story. This was probably my favorite part about shooting weddings, because it allowed me to use my artistic voice in a unique way. Anyone can take a photograph of a dress, so what sets your image apart? What makes it special? Perhaps seeing it as more than a dress. It's the one piece of clothing the bride chose for the most special day of her life. It not only holds up the tradition of wearing a beautiful dress, but it represents part of her that she wants to share with her friends and family. So finding some special or unique about it, or hanging it somewhere that incorporates other elements of the wedding will enhance the meaning of your image.

You can apply this same idea to any genre of photography. 

My favorite genre is travel photography, and my approach to it is the same. To capture a landscape, you can take the obvious approach -  a wide angle view of the most interesting part of the scenery.

Wide view, showing the vast landscape. Scotland, 2016.

Wide view, showing the vast landscape. Scotland, 2016.

OR, you can think about what makes the place special - what elements are unique and have personality?

Closeup of grasses with the same mountains in the distance. Scotland, 2016.

Closeup of grasses with the same mountains in the distance. Scotland, 2016.

The example above approaches the landscape in a different way. It captures the mountains in the distance, giving it context, but focuses on the tall grasses blowing in the wind in the foreground, telling a story. Showing the viewer a small glimpse of what the terrain is like. 

The first step, is taking lots of photos (practice). The more you experiment, the more you will develop your eye for composition and exposure. Not every good image is perfectly exposed by textbook standards. Always ask yourself, "what am I trying to say with this image?"

The Bride, taking a moment to herself after an overwhelmingly emotional ceremony, 2015.

Tip for beginners: shoot in RAW format in order to capture as much data as possible. That way you can edit the exposure after the fact. This will give you a little breathing room when you're starting out! It is also a lifesaver for wedding and event photography, when the fast-paced nature of the day leaves little room for learning on the job.

It's easy to get caught up in buying new equipment, obsessing over clarity and levels and grain of an image. But don't ever forget, much like painting or sculpting, it is your unique vision that will make your images special. The stories you tell are what set you apart.