Painting with the Sun – Masters of Natural Lighting – Beth Jansen

Back in June, we sent out requests to select photographers to be part of a new series on X-equals regarding the use of natural lighting in their work.

We specifically asked them:

  • How you approach using natural light
  • The challenges you face when working with natural light
  • Special tips and tricks you can share for getting great images using natural light
  • How you prepare for and work through a shoot using natural light
  • Equipment especially suited for working in varying natural light settings

The response has been great, and it gives us all a chance to delve into the thought processes and techniques some of the masters use in their work!

Next up is Beth Jansen, who has a keen eye for light and color – and a gift for getting both of them to work together in pure harmony!

Masters of Natural Lighting  – Beth Jansen

I approach natural light using soft light principles – indirect flattering light is best. Most photographers are aware that sunrise and sunset are the most optimal times to shoot but because I work mainly with children sunrise and sunset aren’t the most optimal time for children so I have found a way to find the best light when the kids are best (behaved).

When I shoot outdoors I look for wide open shade (although even wide open shade mid-day is too blue for me).  In shade, I always have the subject face the sun or at least have them at the edge of the shade for as much light in the eyes as possible.

I LOVE indoor natural light.  Any window with decent indirect light provides the softest, creamiest glow to skin.

Eyes are our focal point so when a subject is in deep shade and their back is to the sun you will have dark/contrasted eyes.  Turning your subject around on the edge of where the open light begins will provide beautiful catch light in their eyes.

I LOVE indoor natural light.  Any window with decent indirect light provides the softest, creamiest glow to skin.  I position my subject at a 45 to the light so the catch light is right on sides of their eyes and gives you that great cross-soft light across the face.  Most homes have good windows to allow for optimal shooting.

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All photos © Beth Jansen

When I shoot into a window indoors, I overexpose the subject just enough to provide some soft back lighting but avoid a silhouette of my subject.

I prefer natural light because I love my subjects looking natural.  There is nothing worse than entering a dressing room with harsh artificial light.  Soft light makes everyone look and feel pretty.

My biggest challenge when using natural light is not having enough.

Knowing how to approach the best light will allow the most flattering lighting on my subjects.

My biggest challenge when using natural light is not having enough.  Often indoor lighting is not adequate.  The capabilities of digital cameras now make it possible to shoot in most situations.  I use the Canon Mark II 5D and I often have to crank up my ISO in order to provide enough light.

Ideally I don’t like to shoot over ISO 800 but when I have a dark house I will utilize the high ISO capabilities of the Mark II to capture the situation.  Shutter speeds are compromised and with moving children sometimes fill light would be nice.

When shooting into the sun, meter skin tones up close first so when you pull back you have proper exposure.

Regardless, I never like what fill light gives the image.  I use ONLY ambient light. I shut off all lamps and overhead lights to avoid shadows and color casts. In return, sometimes my images are a bit noisy and/or I may miss a shot due to too low a shutter speed.

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All photos © Beth Jansen

Tips and Tricks

  • Shoot before 10:00 AM or after 7:00 PM outdoors.  If shooting indoors find a big open window with indirect light and position your subject at a 45 degree angle from the window.
  • When shooting into the sun, meter skin tones up close first so when you pull back you have proper exposure.  Your camera will NOT read the light right if you to meter from 50 yards away!
  • Be careful when shooting on white with natural light.  Typically you have to overexpose a stop or two to soften and lighten skin tones.
  • When shooting on black you may need to underexpose by a stop or two to not overexpose skin tones.
  • Watch your highlights in your histograms at all times to make sure you’re not blowing out you whites! When lighting is soft enough outdoors you can have subject facing the light.  If you can’t see shadows you will have a warm light glow that will lighten eyes and provide great warmth.

You can shoot the same way for back lighting.

Back lighting can work as long as it’s not mid-day light.  If you overexpose by a stop or two when shooting in to that soft setting sun you will have warm skin tones and a beautiful glowing halo behind your subject.

Picking the right time and place

Depending on where I’m shooting is when I schedule my shoots..

For indoor shoots I like to shoot in the AM, from approx 9-1.  I find I have the best light during these hours.

Four outdoor shoots I like to be done shooting by 10:00 am.  In the evening I don’t like to begin until an hour and a half before sunset.

For urban shooting I will pretty much shoot all day.  Often a tall building will provide enough shade and bounce enough light elsewhere to give good light.  However, shooting before 11:00 am and after 5:00pm is best for urban shoots.

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All photos © Beth Jansen

Beth shoots with

  • Canon 5D Mark II – amazing ISO capabilities with relatively low noise
  • High aperture lenses – 50 mm f1.4 is my never fail lens!  If you get used to shooting wide open you’ll never go back!
  • Bring a reflector – they can be used both to bounce light and to block it if you don’t have natural shade.
Beth Jansen

Beth has been featured on Photovision, taught in Australia and Brazil and shot all over the 7 continents for clients and on special projects. She only uses available light and has become extremely efficient at creative styling and composition and using her best light tricks to get the best images.

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