Free Light!

Today's post comes from the book Minimalist Lighting: Professional Techniques for Studio Photography by Kirk Tuck. It is available from and other fine retailers.

The final choice to discuss is the free choice. In the early days of both movie-making and photography, natural-light studios were widely used. In fact, movie production moved from New York City to southern California early in the last century mostly to take advantage of the ample, and reliable, free sunlight. Even now, many rental studios in major cities boast about their large banks of north-facing windows and bill themselves as great “available-light studios.”

The advantage of building a studio with windows that face north is that there is no direct light through the windows, instead there is a continuous supply of soft light that can be quite flattering for portraiture and some kinds of product photography. The natural-light studio forces one to become proficient in the use of reflectors and little mirrors to modify light—and it’s pretty much useless once the sun sets. Still, the natural-light studio might just be the ultimate green solution for a “low impact” working space.

A European photo magazine, called Photo Technic, ran an article back in the 1990s about a very-well- thought-of portrait photographer who only used the “northern light that cascades through my thirty-foot-high bank of windows.” He also photographed exclusively with 4x5- and 8x10-inch Polaroid instant film.I suppose it can be done, but my clients expect things to happen two ways: repeatably and on schedule.

Practical Example. My assistant, Amy, and I were doing portraits of Heidi and I thought it would the perfect opportunity to see what we could do with the sunlight bouncing around outside on a 100°F day in Texas.

The studio window faces west and we wanted to used 11:00AM sun that was high but still to the east. Up goes the Chimera light frame with silvered fabric.

The raw light streaming through the window illuminates Heidi with a sharp, crisp light.

Shot from Heidi’s right side showing the light through the window and the blue paper set up behind her.

The view from the camera position.

View from Heidi’s left side, showing the addition of a fill card and the shower curtain to slightly diffuse the direct sunlight from the bounce board.

Here’s what it looks like from camera position. Notice how the light from the window doesn’t fall off from one side of the studio to the other.

It was around eleven o’clock in the morning, and the light from the sun was still angled away from the big bank of windows on the west side of my little studio. We put a thick, silver reflector on a Chimera 48x48-inch frame and attached it with a Manfrotto stand clamp to the top of a very rugged light stand. I went in the studio and left Amy outside to adjust the light for maximum effect based on what I saw from the camera position. Getting the most efficient blast of light is really easy, you just have your assistant move the reflector around until you get a huge chunk of light right in your eyes (it’s definitely a case of “you’ll know it when you see it”).

The contrast is lowered with the introduction of the fill card, while the light is softened with the introduction of the shower curtain.

I turned Heidi so that the window would be on one side and shot this image before adding the fill card. It is wonderful to see the range of styles that can be done with just semi-available light.

With light streaming through the windows, we set up our $12 (USD) shower curtain to diffuse the illumination just a bit. Then, since we couldn’t reposition the sun, we moved Heidi and our background around until we got the desired angle for the main light. Finally, we added a white panel on the opposite side of the subject to provide fill.

This is the shot I had in mind when I started. She is angled to the window to give the light a bit of direction.

Here is the overall shot from behind the subject.

The neat thing about using the sun’s light is that the photons have traveled 92 million miles, so the fall-off is almost nonexistent from the edge of the window to the opposite side of the room. We can also run this light for hours with no hit to the electric bill!

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