Many years ago while looking at the amazing portfolio of a friend who was assistant to Irving Penn for a number of years, I commented, “Amazing lighting quality, how did you get that?” “Daylight”; came the simple reply.
When taking portraits or still life, it is all too easy to imagine that the best photographs require a fully equipped studio with studio flash and all the trimmings. This is far from true. We must remember that photography was invented long before the electric light bulb and as such, early photographers had nothing other than daylight in their studios which were usually equipped with a large, north facing skylight. Why north, you may ask. Well the best daylight is diffused or ambient daylight, and a north facing window never receives direct sunlight, which would cast hard, unwanted, clock driven shadows and highlights.
The ideal daylight source is a bright overcast sky. Many years ago when I assisted car photographers on location, we would pray for an overcast sky as this was far more flattering for cars, creating smooth, clean, reflection free images that emphasised the clean lines. Bright sunlight meant all sorts of unwanted clutter would reflect in the glossy paintwork, clouds, sun, buildings, trees – and there was no Photoshop in those days!
Next time you have a portrait or a still life to take, try using a large north facing window as your light source. Back as close to it as is practical, and let it shine directly onto your subject. You will be amazed how it flatters your subject with its gentle soft quality. If shooting still life subjects such as food, you can shoot facing the window so your subject is partially backlight. You will also need to reflect some light back into the shadows which you can do with a meter square piece of polystyrene. For specific lighting attention to detail, you can use small mirrors to reflect light – held wherever they need to be with Blue-Tac.
It is a fact that large studio soft boxes and reflector umbrellas were designed to try and emulate the quality of natural light. You can have all of that for free – just by using daylight as your lighting source!