Why & How Some Fashion Photographers are Returning to Natural Light

Fashion photographers are frequently criticized for their high-gloss magazine shoots that look overly posed, overly produced and overly photoshopped. It feels like every other day major magazines are being scrutinized (and often rightfully so) for completely removing a model’s hair in post-production or using photoshop to shave inches off a model’s thighs. The practice creates dangerous and unrealistic beauty standards.

But because of social media, the public can now play a larger role in the dialogue. And the public doesn’t seem to necessarily favor the false narratives these heavily processed pictures create. But the good news is, the industry is starting to listen. Many fashion photographers are at least experimenting with more natural images and that includes more diverse models and more natural light. And they’re doing it without losing any of the glamor. Here’s why and how some fashion photographers are returning to natural light:

Why natural light?

The most obvious answer is a simpler operation. Using only available light means fewer tools to lug around. It also allows a photographer to adhere to a strict budget.

One of the main appeals of natural light to all photographers, not just fashion photographers is speed and agility. Major magazine shoots often entail massive behind-the-scenes operations. By stripping down to just natural light, a photographer has less equipment to lug around. She no longer needs to carry any large light sources or flash bulbs. And she can focus on moving quickly with the model while chasing the light.

But the other major reason is a societal trend towards wanting to see more diverse and more realistic images. A decade or so ago models tended to fit a certain mold: tall, thin and gangly. But the industry is starting to break that mold. And as the models themselves become more diverse, shooting techniques become more diverse too. Check out L.A.-based photographer Donte Tidwell to see how natural light can produce interesting and glamorous shots.

Photo: Eli Defaria

Photo: Eli Defaria

How are fashion photographers implementing natural light?

The simple answer: A reflector. A reflector is magic and can fill in shadows where others may resort to a flash.

There are several tutorials online of fashion photographers utilizing natural light. This tutorial of a photographer using only natural light and a single reflector in front of a bay window on the second floor of her home is particularly helpful. The room is mostly empty and the photographer simply balances the reflector on her foot. There are no assistants running around and no equipment swinging overhead. It’s really an easy way to understand how window light alone can produce photographs that are good enough for high-gloss magazines.

Many photographers still like the interesting mysticism sometimes found in fashion photography. One simple and cheap way to create mysticism (still using natural light) is through freelensing, otherwise known as the poor man’s tilt shift. Essentially the idea is to break the plane so that the foreground and background of an image feel disproportionate.

Freelensing requires you to disconnect (Yes, snap it off.) a lens from a camera body and float it in front of the sensor to shift the plane of focus. It is not necessarily an easy trick. It takes practice, but once you have it you can create really interesting photos.