Design, Photography, & Fashion

Annie Leibovitz’s Photography Tips for Using Natural Light

Written by MasterClass

Aug 26, 2019 • 6 min read

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A well-composed photograph requires the synthesis of many elements, including perspective, linear orientation, appropriate depth of field, and artistic nuance. Yet all of these are secondary to the most crucial element in all visual art: light. Whether you derive your lighting from manmade instruments or the natural light of the sun, it is important to develop reliable techniques you can use whenever the moment of inspiration strikes.



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What Are the Benefits of Using Natural Light in Photography?

Natural light photography attracts professional and amateur photographers alike. Among its benefits:

  • It’s affordable. There’s no need to purchase expensive artificial light sources.
  • It offers variety. Natural light photos vary depending on the time of day that they are shot. A photo taken during the golden hour will look markedly different from one taken in the middle of a sunny day, which in turn will look different from a photo at dusk, or even at night (with a very long shutter speed).
  • It can be used for landscapes and portraits alike. Many people associate natural lighting with bucolic landscape images, but it is also used for portrait photography. By managing your white balance and experimenting with different exposures and settings on your SLR or DSLR camera, a natural light photographer can create outdoor portraits that are just as compelling as something shot in an indoor studio.
  • It works indoors as well as outdoors. Natural light enters buildings through windows and doors, and it can be exploited for photography. For instance, window photography combines the natural lighting of the sun with interior decor. This form of ambient lighting can be easier to work with than direct sunlight since window light comes from a fixed direction.

4 Tips for Using Natural Light in Your Photography

Here are four photography tips to help you take great photos with natural light.

  1. Sunlight changes color over the course of the day. The soft light of dawn and dusk is dominated by oranges and yellows. Midday sun contains more blue light. Sun shining through a layer of clouds on a hot day produces a particularly blue light and may be too harsh for many applications.
  2. Use a reflector. If you’ve ever seen a film crew working outside, you’ve probably seen someone holding a large, floppy, silver-coated screen. This is a reflector. It bounces sunlight toward the camera’s subject and makes sure they’re always more lit from the front than from the back. This is what allows photographers to produce detailed, high contrast photos of their subjects.
  3. Embrace side lighting. One way to harness sunlight is to limit its direction. By placing your subject indoors, beside a window with an open shade, you can control the flow of light and prevent undesirable backlighting or washouts.
  4. Use a mixture of natural and artificial lighting. Most professional photographers don’t have a purity rule when it comes to natural lighting. A camera flash can enhance an outdoor photo if it’s coming from an effective distance. Films may use a few stationary lighting instruments to augment the sunlight—again with the goal of having more light in front of the subject than behind it. At the end of the day, having great photographs is more important than having the purest technique.
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How Does Lighting Position Affect Photography?

There are three ways to position light sources with respect to your subject: from the front, from the side, and from behind.

  • Front lighting is the method of choice for most professional portrait shoots, as well as most filmed entertainment. It casts shadows behind the subject, rather than in front or to the side. This makes front-lighted photographs the easiest to shoot, although perhaps the most predictable from an artistic perspective.
  • Side lighting involves placing a light source to one or both sides of a subject. Open windows are often used as a natural source of side lighting when the subject is photographed indoors. Compared to front lighting, side lighting tends to invoke a more artistically complex visual palette, but the shadows produced by side lighting can be hard to wrangle. The slightest change in lighting position or the subject’s posture can greatly affect the character of these images.
  • Backlighting can be used to great artistic effect, but it is by far the most challenging of the three techniques and is generally not advised until a photographer first masters the technique of front and side lighting. Poorly composed backlit photos result in a nondescript silhouette of your subject. But with experience and proper camera technique, photographers can use backlighting to surround their subjects with a glowing halo-like frame.


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What Is the Difference Between Soft And Hard Light?

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The choice between hard and soft lighting may come down to available resources and the constraints of one’s location, but it is important to be able to confidently work under both conditions.

  • Hard lighting shows a powerful contrast between lit and unlit areas. Think of the light produced by the sun at high noon, or the halogen flash of a camera. Hard lighting can be used in a wide array of contexts, but it is favored by photographers seeking to convey important information. Newspaper photographs and sports coverage tend to favor hard lighting. And while hard lighting is sometimes derided in artistic circles, it also has a place in abstract portraiture when used properly.
  • Soft lighting produces a more gradual transition from the lit areas of a photograph to unlit areas. Details like lines and shadows are less precisely pronounced. This makes soft light photographs somewhat warmer and classically “artistic” than a typical hard lit photo. Soft light is also easier for an amateur to work with, as the muted level of detail is quite forgiving. While soft light is aesthetically pleasing, few in the photography community would offer their full esteem to a photographer who only works in this style while eschewing hard light scenarios.
  • As a general rule, larger light sources, like the evening sun or a flashlight, produce soft lighting, while smaller more intense sources, like a camera flash or a TV lighting instrument, produce high-contrast hard lighting.

6 Lighting Tips From Annie Liebovitz

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Annie Leibovitz started out as a photographer by studying natural light. It helped her learn how to see and it is what she still studies when she goes on a shoot. Here are 6 photography tips that Leibovitz has used to wrangle the properties of light in her photographs.

  1. Try to emulate natural light. Leibovitz uses ambient light and adds a small key light on her subject, usually in the direction the natural light is coming from.
  2. Adding too many lights to a room will often take away what the natural light offers.
  3. With a digital camera, you can get away with shooting in lower light, but it changes the image. It can make your photograph diverge from the ambiance of the actual setting of the photograph.
  4. Keep your equipment kit small so that you can be flexible and adapt to the moment.
  5. Uses different techniques to manipulate light. Leibovitz’s goal is to achieve a balance between her strobe and natural light.
  6. Leibovitz favors working on overcast days when she will mix the strobe with flat ambient light. She doesn’t like to wait for the “golden light” at the end of the day. She likes to start working in the early morning when she has soft light and the option to work longer if she needs to. Even so, “You hardly ever get the right time of day,” she says. You just have to learn to deal with what is available.

Whether you’re just starting out or have dreams of going professional, photography requires plenty of practice and a healthy dose of patience. No one knows this better than legendary photographer Annie Leibovitz, who has spent decades mastering her craft. In her MasterClass, Annie reveals how she works to tell a story through her images. She also provides insight into how photographers should develop concepts, work with subjects, shoot with natural light, and bring images to life in post-production.

Want to become a better photographer? The MasterClass All-Access Pass provides exclusive video lessons from master photographers, including Annie Leibovitz and Jimmy Chin.