It's no secret that I just love
shooting in that even, golden, soft (dare I even say buttery?!) sunset light. It's just pretty darn gorgeously ah-mazing. I make sure to discuss with our couples the benefits of shooting in this light as they plan their wedding day timeline and shoot their engagement sessions during this golden hour. However, many times especially on wedding days we don't always have the luxury of shooting in this perfect light... Sometimes it's in the middle of the afternoon when the sun is harsh and bright, there are hot spots and spotchy patches of shade everywhere or there is direct sunlight with no shade, and so on. This kind of light can be challenging but it's not impossible to achieve gorgeous images using the light to your advantage!
As a primarily natural light photographers (we leverage existing natural light and use flash when necessary, like indoors if need be) we look for the best light and direction to shoot in at the location we are at. This is typically the FIRST thing I look for before setting up the photo and giving direction to the subjects being photographed. Yes, before backgrounds, surroundings, or anything else. Usually I can just see where the light is that I want to shoot in, but sometimes I will hold up my hand in front of myself to see how the light is falling or other times I will use Chris as a stand in to see how the light is looking. Clearly it's definitely not a super complicated or fancy process, but a super important one. Once I identify the light I want to shoot in, then I will look at the background, surroundings, colors, etc and go from there. This is because for me, the lighting is one of, if not the most important elements to me technically.
Many folks have asked how I know how to identify great light to shoot in. Okay, ready for the boring but totally true answer? Practice. And then more practice. Along with some practice, practice, practice. Practicing and training myself to see how light falls on subjects, how light reflects, and how it changes through out the day were things I did from the very beginning and I still constantly do. When we were living in NYC, on my walk to work I would see how the light would reflect off buildings and where I would position a couple to photograph them in that light. When running errands, I would point out spots that had awesome light falling on it. When riding with Chris in the car I would look out the window while we were stopped at a red light and think where would the best light be and direction to pose a bridal party in that spot. I would then think about what the background would be, what my settings would probably be, etc. It was this constant training while not shooting along with lots of hands on practicing that has strengthened this tool and confidence to shoot gorgeous images in any light.
Sometimes finding the best light isn't that obvious, like when shooting in open shade. It can be hard to know which location and direction to shoot in is the best. Below is a perfect example... We were setting up for family portraits at a wedding and I was testing the light using Chris as a stand in. There was a ton of open shade so I had Chris stand where I thought I wanted the family to stand. I wanted him to stand facing the clouds illuminated by the sun. The clouds were acting like a huge diffuser, casting down a soft beautiful light. However after taking a test photo I realized that the sun was more to my right then I thought (not in back of me) and the sunlight was falling across Chris's face from his left to right side. There were dark shadows around his eyes and there was no fill light on his face. This wasn't the look I wanted to achieve. I didn't want to use the light in a super artistic way for these photos, but really wanted the families faces to be clearly seen. For me, it's important for everyone's face to be well lit and clearly visible especially in these more traditional family portraits. So I had Chris turn 90 degrees, facing more towards the illuminated clouds. The light softly filled his face eliminating the dark shadows. I then looked to make sure the background was what I wanted and set up the family for the photos in that spot. All of this took less then 30 seconds, so by the time the family walked from the limo to where we were standing we were ready to go and went right into setting them up and shooting.
I encourage you to practice identifying great natural light even when you don't have a camera in your hand! Train your eye to see how light falls on a subject and how changing your viewpoint changes the direction of the light and overall look. Then do some hands on practicing again and again. And again. Practice seeing how different light photographs. And know that sometimes it's just a matter of adjusting your subjects or your position slightly in order to use light in a dramatically different way!
And because who doesn't love a good 'ol horribly drawn stick figure diagram.... ;)