Natural Light Photography: Illuminating the Beauty of the Basics

As expressed in my previous articles, those of us who were born before the “new millennium” have witnessed the transition of technological progress. In the course of this development, photography stayed with mankind and improved with the help of more sophisticated gadgetry and enhancements readily available in the palm of our hands. But where do we draw the line from refinement to over-embellishment?

Before I go ahead and focus (pun intended) on our topic, let me introduce my good friend, Jessie Villegas. We both met in 2011 and worked together in the local fashion industry with a group of artists. Jessie is unlike many of the mainstream shutterbugs who prefer edgy, avant garde, editorial fashion photography. Although the Vogue-ish thema of most of our beloved photographers will always be admired, Jessie’s love and passion for Natural Light Photography is  a breath of fresh air. She has helped me in this article with her experience in fashion, event, boudoir, maternity, newborn, engagement and wedding photography.

What is Natural Light Photography?

Didn’t we all begin with natural light photography? Even now, no matter what iOs or android version (or GoPro) (or WiFi camera) (or what do you have?) we are using, when we whip out our cameras, do we not rely on natural light to capture life as it is? Meaning, no matter how sophisticated your gadget and its filters may be, we will always go back to the basic and readily available.

Your best friend as a photographer using natural light is any source that allows it in.

That is according to photographer Charles Hildreth from his “Shooting with Natural Light” article. Jessie agrees and shares that she prefers natural light because it is FREE! “I don’t have to invest on lighting equipment…and make use what is available to me all the time.” Though there will always be patent downsides; like the uncertain weather, location conditions, and you may also need to buy fast lenses suited to capture natural light, which can be quite expensive – many remain to be enamored by nature’s own filters.

Charles Hildreth, who specializes in portraiture, says that he loves exploring natural light. He mentions in his article that the “natural light proponents” find heavy studio lighting to be intimidating. However that may be, advocates of natural light photography will take on the challenges of the sun, a task equally daunting to photographers who prefer studio light set up. Jessie says it is difficult to be at natural light but then again, that is the beauty of it.

I love natural light, especially when I shoot outdoors. Light is linked to location. As you become aware of light, you will come to see that the quality of light is linked to location and season. When you take a portrait of somebody outside, the light provides a link between the subject and the place they are in; tying the two together. Light, location, and subject are entwined. It is only possible to take a photo of that person in that place with that type of light at one particular time. It is almost impossible to reproduce the effect afterwards – the uniqueness of the light becomes part of the image…

Jessie Villegas

Admittedly, Jessie prefers to exploit natural light source 99.99% of her time. I can certify that she approaches her subjects and themes in photography with the patience and discipline needed when using sunlight or the lack thereof. We have prepared a couple of her photos and we will go through each subject and explore the merits of the photographic method.

Fashion Photography and Natural Light

wedding photography


Like Jessie, there are countless fashion photographers around the globe who employ available or natural light. Quite surprisingly for those who are not really photography savvy, famous photographers whose works are featured in popular fashion magazines produce breathtaking shots without the calculated studio light setup.

Alexander Neumann is one popular example. He is an internationally published fashion photographer for Vogue, GQ and Saks, all of which are primarily distributed in Mexico and for Dazed and Confused Korea. He humbly began as an assistant to no less than Mario Testino, “one of the most influential fashion and portrait photographer of our time”. The writer of Alexander’s feature in observed how he manage to capture light and awesome fashion shots even without the assistance of a simple lighting device. Not even a reflector.

Natural light is my big thing. Reality is beautiful, I want to recreate reality like it is. I want something beautiful and I love the graphic of that light, and you can create great effects using natural light.

Alexander Neumann

Although an Alexander Neumann (even more so a Mario Testino) can be quite a leap for newbies to pull off, there are three simple natural lighting techniques for fashion photography beginners.

  1. Direct Sunlight. The most desirable schedule to shoot using sunlight are the first two and the last two hours of daylight.
  2. Window Light. Be aware of placing your model in relation to the light and the window because these will greatly affect the outcome of your photo.
  3. Shade with Reflector. Combining depths of the shade and redirecting light with a reflector will produce varied effects as you want them because you can control how the shadow and the light will play together.

You can read more of these tips from Apogee Photo Magazine. The author also included some technical examples you can try out yourself.

Maternity and Newborn Natural Light Photography

newbord baby and maternity photography

I have had the honor to work with Jessie in both maternity and neonatal photography – as a model (and provider of the little model for the latter). It was an opportunity to be a firsthand witness to the nitty gritties of going solar. After those sessions and the succeeding ones I played as Jessie’s set/creative director, I can say that the struggles and snags are all well worth it when you see the outcome.

Newborn Photography. Although not exclusive to natural light photography, Anne Geddes is a celebrated photographer known for her unique depictions of babies and mothers. The whimsical and iconic representations of her newborn photos show how much she has mastered the careful art of manipulating tiny and fragile human beings. Her token style has opened new possibilities in photography and earned her scores of merits.

If handling the baby safely is not enough challenge, consider that babies can be too fussy or too fun. Such are the trivialities of newborn photography and if you do not have the patience for random and spontaneous baby (mis)behaviors, you will have even more difficult time shooting with a rather changeable light source – the sun. Luckily, nowadays we have websites that provide sound suggestions for budding photographers who want to try out newborn photography. Many sites offer tips as well as tutorials for ideal outcome, whether you opt to use natural or studio set up lighting. Natural light, however, gives a soft focus on the baby’s skin rather than sharp edges. So if you prefer a subdued and muted effect, natural light but not direct sunlight, will help achieve this. Light coming from the window is said to be the best filtered natural light, which refines the light and the baby’s exposure to it.

maternity photography

Maternity Photography. Studio set up? Or solar power? No one will tell you here in the internet. I tried to check if anyone like me, who has been pregnant more than once and had one too many maternity photo shoots would agree when I say, I prefer natural light. I have not come across a website or blog by a photographer or a pregnant woman that will differ with me or support me. But interestingly, when I searched about “light source and pregnancy”, Medical offered a little enlightenment (pun intended, again ).

Light pollution is defined as excessive, misdirected, or obstructive artificial light…can cause hormone imbalances in humans. Some have even linked these light-induced hormone imbalances with certain cancers like breast cancer, which require the spread of hormones.

Though the article may not necessarily speak about studio lights, photography, and pregnant women, I found an Easter egg in there. The article emphasizes the importance of melatonin production to fetal growth, a hormone secreted by the pineal glan. Darkness plays a key role in stimulating melatonin. Take note that disturbance of melatonin production has been linked to children born with autism or ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder).

When I was pregnant with our third child, I found it easier to sleep with less light, there is no question about how much sleep and melatonin I was getting. Though our baby turned out fine and normal, she appears to be a little bit tinier (nearly underweight) than expected. This is due to pregnancy with vertigo, which I suffered (trust me when I say suffered) increasingly countless bouts. Some of these episodes were triggered by light sensitivity. Owing to these attacks, I have had little or none to eat because I was vomiting a lot. This is the contributing factor to our third child’s weight problem.

On photography, Jessie took photos of my husband and I when I was pregnant with our second child. We did an outdoor shoot, luckily, during a “golden hour“. It was humid, the sun was a little too friendly but that was bearable (and enjoyable). During my third pregnancy, I did a photo shoot by a young albeit experienced fashion photographer who is also a great friend. He came from New York of which his style is greatly influenced by the art and life from. It was a studio set up. Like any artificial lighting arrangement indoors, I had to wait a couple of minutes in a dimly lit room and be exposed to brief periods of shockingly loud lights. I would not say it wasn’t enjoyable but I will not advise it to other pregnant women. Without vertigo, I would still have a splitting headache after that. Sensitive as we are on these months, let us wait until we give birth to experience a full-on studio photo shoot.

Wedding and Engagement Sessions with Natural Light

Allow me to share my view (I warned you about the puns). I have been a witness to engagement sessions through Jessie as a creative director for several years but far longer as a host for wedding parties. There is a misconception that the more intimidating and sophisticated the gadgets look, the better the outcome. I am sorry to disappoint you but that is not necessarily true.

engagement session

Engagement Sessions. Jessie and I would move from an outdoor set with natural light to indoors with artificial light (per client’s request). I have noticed that when you place people, especially couples in a more natural atmosphere with less props involved (lights included), the more they are likely to respond to direction. Their actions will be more casual and candid. KISS – Keep It Simple, says where they will tell you that basic poses work best, only bring the gear you need, and allow rain to happen, among others – to nail a beautiful engagement photo shoot.

Wedding Photography. Travis Lawton, The Phoblographer says,

Using natural light whenever possible is a no-brainer to give your images that beautiful, natural, dreamy quality that is synonymous with Weddings.

Natural Light Photography for weddings is fairly new and it comes with the responsibility of taking photos of lasting memories and the demand for drama with a lot of action involved. Accompanied with a flash and a reflector for when natural light is insufficient or absent, you have to be very creative to nail breathtaking, memorable, and beautiful photographs.

beautiful couple in a beautiful photograph

If you ask me…it has been inspiring to re-learn and read more about what people, photographer or not, think about natural light photography. There are professional photographers who snub natural light photographers as beginners who don’t know how to use light. But once that is sorted out, the legitimate natural light photographers apart from those who do not know how to use flash, are more honest photographers, better attuned to reality and purer in motive. I know so and I am blessed to be a friend of one awesome natural light photographer.

Jesse Villegas and Arlyn May Bongay, the author

Image credits:

All photos, including the featured photo, are copyright property of Jessie Villegas, except for the first and the last photos with Jessie and I, which are taken by another dear friend and a great photographer, Charissa Joy Akut.