How to Get the Natural Look of Sunlight—Anywhere

September 28, 2016

Many photographers prefer to shoot au naturel, using sunlight as their light source. But the nuclear strobe in the sky can be tricky to use on an assignment, where the pressure is on to deliver the right shot. We’ve talked to many photographers about how they adapt, shape and even fake sunlight to deliver the image their clients want. Here we share some tips and tricks for getting the sunlit look in a variety of environments and circumstances. PDN subscribers can read the full articles on PDNOnline, and also check out interviews with more photographers who share their secrets for recreating sunlight in the studio.

How I Got That Shot: Recreating Afternoon Light

To illustrate a Real Simple article on “easy summer entertaining,” photographer Joyce Lee needed to create a fun image of a backyard party taking place in dappled sunlight. “With the photo editor’s request for a ‘summer light’ look, I knew we needed bright colors and natural light if possible.” She brought strobes as a backup, but by the time the stylists had prepared the set, it was 1 PM, and Lee had plenty of sunlight—too much, in fact. After doing some test shots, Lee determined the sun was too bright, making the food look unappetizing. She used a scrim to soften the light, and two 42-inch reflectors—one gold, one silver—behind her camera to take full advantage of the sunlight as fill. On a shoot for Esquire, however, she wanted the controlled setting of a studio as she photographed electronics. She recreated window lighting using three lights—one with a grid, one with a soft box, and one with a reflector. “A 4 x 4-foot wood cucoloris was placed on a C-stand about two feet in front of the light with a reflector,” Lee recalls. She says a cucoloris “is great for creating a window-light feel by adding shadows and depth.”

Amanda Marsalis on Recreating Southern California’s Natural Light

A native of California, Amanda Marsalis didn’t set out to make “California sunshine pictures” her calling card. “It was, ‘My photos look this way because I was out with a camera and this is what really excited me.’” Her images have also excited commercial clients that include Adidas, American Express, Apple, Discover, FedEx, Microsoft, Nike, Sony and Visa, among many others. She notes, “In every single creative call [with clients] we talk about it: How are you going to get this if it’s not perfect?” If a client is looking for a backlit shot with sun flare, “you throw a head in the background, put gels on it and then you’re shooting into the light so it’s flaring.”

It’s not a technique that works in rain, however. When shooting on dark days, she has a technique for shooting in shadow, then blowing out the highlights in post.


Working in a daylight studio on an overcast day for a Crate and Barrel shoot, Alec Hemer supplemented natural light with an HMI bounced onto the walls and two more heads near the window of the set. © ALEC HEMER

How I Got That Shot: Mimicking Sunlight for an Interior Shot

Commercial assignments for furniture and bedding have to strike a balance between the believable and the aspirational, says New York photographer Alec Hemer. “It’s always my goal to make it look real and inviting,” says Hemer, who shoots interiors for magazines such as House Beautiful and Country Living and advertising for West Elm, Macy’s, Home Depot, Armstrong and others. Shooting in a daylight studio for Crate and Barrel, Hemer needed to create a warm, sunlit scene of two young girls playing in a bedroom, but the day was dark and gloomy. To light the area where a little girl was running by the bed, which was closest to the camera, he set up a Profoto ProDaylight HMI 1.2K light on a C-stand and bounced it into the walls, adding flags to make sure he didn’t cast too much light to the back of the set. To add drama and interest to the back of the set, where one little girl was kneeling, he set up two Profoto heads with reflectors. “One of the heads shot away from the set window and bounced into the actual window and wall of the studio,” Hemer says. “The other head was boomed out about a foot from the set and shot straight down through the set windows to emulate daylight and create some bright patches of light on the floor.”

5 Apps for Tracking the Sun (and the Moon)

It used to be that photographers who wanted the right angle of light on a location shoot had to rely on sun charts. There are now a number of sun (and moon) tracking apps, from the relatively simple to the sophisticated. We shared five and listed their capabilities.

The Things They Carry: Christa Renee’s Sun-Chasing Kit

Advertising clients such as Motorola, Roxy, and T-Mobile hire Christa Renee to capture natural, outdoorsy lifestyle imagery, usually at a beach, on a boat, or on a remote hiking trail. She has a “go-to” bag packed with what she needs to make the most of the available light. She carries two 6 x 6 Scrim Jims and two California Sun Bounce modifiers to shape the sunlight. “They are small enough to travel with and big enough to actually help,” she explains. As a backup, she brings a Profoto 7b with batteries and an extra head. “You never know when it will be raining or awful out and that shoot that you had planned to do in sunlight outdoors now is suddenly inside a house in the middle of an island and there is nowhere to rent equipment.” Because she shoots a lot of swimwear and sports campaigns on boats, she carries a variety of gear that will help rescue a shoot when models are splashing around, unaware of the damage moisture can do to photo equipment.

Håkan Ludwigson on the Influence of Sweden’s Unique Light

A travel, fine-art, architecture and automotive photographer, Håkan Ludwigson says Sweden’s light is among his primary influences, inspiring his practice of “learning the light” of each particular location. When traveling, he says, “I’m not looking for the same light [as in Sweden], but I’m aware of the light and I enjoy it so much.” In his advertising work, Ludwigson prefers to build his images using available light, even when he is shooting cars. Natural light “makes the picture more believable,” he says. But, he adds, “I’m not a fundamentalist. I light photographs as well, but I don’t start out thinking, ‘What kind of light should I bring out?’ It’s not the beginning of the solution, it’s the end if nothing else works.”

The Things They Carry: Daniel Russo’s Surf Photo/Video Kit

Surf photographer and filmmaker Daniel Russo has to react quickly to surf conditions, so he has to hit the road quickly with gear bags that can be lugged through airports and on lengthy boat rides in places like Fiji or Tahiti with “water splashing everywhere.” Many of his clients are often looking for a combination of still images and video work. And while he might leave his RED camera at home on certain assignments that don’t require video, he’s never left his still cameras at home. His film cameras, which include a Minolta Panoramic and a Canon Demi EE17 half-frame camera, are essential—for personal reasons, for his clients’ catalogues, and for magazines. He also uses a NIKONOS all-weather camera on both land and in the water to get personal shots. But digital equipment, including his smartphone and digital audio recording devices, have their uses, too.

How I Got That Shot: Tal Roberts Captures Free Skier Trick At Dusk

When outdoor photographer Tal Roberts collaborates with skateboarders and skiers to make images he can license to the athletes’ sponsors, or his commercial and editorial clients, he strives to make photos that look spectacular. “You want to show what the athlete is doing in the best way possible, and do justice to how difficult or stylish [it] is,” says Roberts, who has shot for Smith Optics, Orage, Specialized Bicycles, Redington, Snowboard Magazine, Outside, Powder and Sun Valley Resort. “That’s the first goal. Then you use lighting and composition to make a unique image.” For a shot of ski surfer Karl Fostvedt doing a trick in midair above a custom-made jump, he shot at dusk, using strobes to freeze the action of Fostvedt in mid-air. He also needed some hidden strobes to give contour to the shape of the jump. His shutter speed, ISO and flash duration worked together to help him get the sky as he wanted it without missing the action.

How I Got That Shot: Mixing Light Sources to Mimic Sunlight

Though Sang An typically shoots still lifes, food and interiors in a studio, he sounds like a natural light shooter: “Every time I do a photo shoot, I want to know where the light is coming from, and what time it is.” On assignment for Architectural Digest, he had to shoot new products from RH Modern, a new furniture line recently launched by Restoration Hardware. The challenge was one he’s familiar with: To make images that look “clean and modern,” but “not clinical.” As he often does, he started with a broad light source—a 1K HMI in the location a skylight would be placed—and used a smaller bounced light for fill. He reversed the formula when shooting a still life for one of his frequent clients, Shape.

See the story in the digital edition (for PDN subscribers; login required). 

Anders Overgaard on Creating Natural-Looking Lighting

How I Got That Shot: Versatile Beauty Lighting 

How I Got That Shot: David Westphal Captures California Sun for GMC