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Natural Light Photography

Lesson 3 of 7

Natural Light Backlight

Sue Bryce

Natural Light Photography

Sue Bryce

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Lesson Info

3. Natural Light Backlight
Work with backlight from a window simply by using two V-flats to bounce light back to the subject's face. Sue explains why backlit portraits are her most requested types of shots and how simple they are to tackle. Learn the set-up and how to adjust the camera settings to create backlit natural light portraits.

Lesson Info

Natural Light Backlight

Okay, so, next, what I did was, I went to the backlight. So, before I get away from the backlight, what I just showed you, after the backlight, I go to what I call silhouette light which it really hard, directional natural light. So, don't worry, I'm not gonna go away from there. What I just showed you was everything that was 90% of my scenario which was shooting into that beautiful window light. Is everyone cool with that? Any questions, feel free to ask. I'm gonna get rid of this backdrop and set up to, Kenna? Alright, we do have some questions. Everybody just let me know if you have any over there. Just to clarify, Sue, because you were talking about overexposing or underexposing based on metering, got a lot of questions in where people were saying, so, you're not spot metering on her skin, right? Are you doing evaluative metering? I'm spot metering on her eye but what the meter is going to do is, let me actually show it to you. Although, the hardest thing is, is if we get a bla...

ck v-flat here, John. The hardest thing about showing this to you is, unfortunately, what happens is it's my tether is going to a plasma screen and the plasma screen doesn't look like my camera but you'll get an idea. I'll break it down and make it easy. And then combined with that, Sue, when you're saying you're going up or down one stop, are you a whole stop Yes. or a third of a stop there? Yes. A whole stop. Great, thank you. So, what you can't see is inside my camera. Alright, so, if the spot meter is on her eyes, what's gonna happen is, take a step just to your left, thank you. What's gonna happen is, I'm reading right on her eye and it's saying to me that the perfect reading for this photo is, I'm at 2.8, f/2.8, I'm at 640 ISO and it's saying the perfect shadow speed is 100. That's giving me a perfect exposure down the center in the meter in my camera. So, let's say I take the photo and then I look at the back of my camera and it's too bright. On the back of my camera, it's blowing her out. Can you see how it's blowing out in the face? And the reason it's blowing her out is it's reading her eye but it's reading all this black around her and so, it's telling me, the camera is telling me, I need more light, too dark. It's reading the black as being darkness and so, it's telling me, more light, this is a perfect reading. But if I override what it's telling me and I just drop it down, let's go, I'm gonna go one full stop. I'm gonna go right down, so, one full stop is at 1/60th of a second, 200th of a second. So, I've sped up my shutter and so, technically, I'm letting in less light 'cause my shutter's getting faster. Then, it's showing on my meter that it's a stop underexposed but on my camera, it looks perfect. So, exactly the opposite to overexposed in the backlight. It's going to say, there's too much light and it's going to underexpose it and you need to take it up and over zero to get in more light. You're going to override that meter. That's how I do it. Now, that's how I do it with natural light. There's no other way. 'Cause you can slow down, all I'm doing is shooting on manual, I'm keeping my F-stop at 2.8 and all I'm doing is speeding up and slowing down my shutter. Now, obviously if my shutter gets too slow, then the first thing, in the backlight if my shutter gets too slow, I have to up my ISO. And that's it. Basic. And it looks really incredible. We have one question in the audience. Sure. Good morning, Sue. Good morning. Can you talk a little bit about depth of field and small spaces? Because I can tell that you're shooting pretty wide open and I know when you get closer to your client, the depth of field becomes very shallow when you shoot wide open, so, can you talk a little bit how you keep a really clear, um? So, 2.8 really works well for me, although my next camera will be the 5DS and I shot the 5DS at 2.8 and because of the information in that camera, 50 megapixels, you can see the depth of field on a nose hair compared to an eyelash, like, I realized on that camera, I can't shoot at wide open like that because it just has too much, it's too incredible. But the 5D Mark III, at 2.8, it's a good, sharp camera but it's not so much information that it's that real obvious depth of field where the nose is out of focus and the eyes aren't. So, at 2.8, as long as her eye is sharp, her nose is not that soft, it's certainly not sharp but not compared to the 5DS but I don't go below 2.8 unless I'm doing a dancer, an arty shot, a moving shot, a nude or filming. 2.8 is the shallowest depth of field I shoot a portrait and if there's two people in the photograph, I go up to four or I make sure their eyes are on exactly the same plane. Yeah. And I love 2.8 because 2.8 at 640 ISO replicates the first 16 years of my life shooting film and in natural light, with this camera, at 640 ISO, at 2.8, looks like I'm shooting on the Hasselblad, as in the film, Hasselblad, that I spent the first half of my career shooting on. It is the sexiest result, to me, that I could find that looks like a film camera. Absolutely beautiful. Okay, so, let's turn this into the white. So, Danielle's gonna stand in the backlight and what I'm gonna do now is, I'll go back to my keynote, Eley. And there's my natural light backlight. Now, you'll see, in the white side, the behind the scenes photograph is me sitting on the floor, the window goes all the way to the floor. But today, we're gonna stand and do the shot. On the bottom left is the backside of seeing me from behind and then the bottom right, I'm actually using an Omega Reflector, so, Jerry Ghionis designed this reflector with a hole in the center, genius. And sometimes you can't always have v-flats and I actually just saw the most hilarious shot, James Day, a photographer and Aussie, was shooting a wedding with the Omega over his head, like this, with his hands a face through the hole, walking around like a human reflector and I was like, I would so do that 'cause I have no shame in my game to get good light. I am so excited by light, I'm like, yes, I would definitely stick my head through a reflector. So, basically, I think it's genius and so, I got some examples of all the different light to show you. So, what I do, is I put my v-flats like this and I turn them as little Vs like this. Now, remember, this is a light source but I'm gonna explain why I go to all this effort. Over here. So, you may need to bring a camera around. Over here. Oh. Yeah. Towards me, yeah. And so, Danielle's gonna be in the center, stop. And I leave a very small gap. Open it up so stays put. No, it's gotta mirror this. This one? Yeah, so turn around. Sorry. There ya go. Right there, leave a hole for me. Kate, walk it around. Yeah, there you go, now it's gonna stand up. Okay, now, it's gotta go that way 'cause she's off the center. That's it. So, look at Danielle now. Danielle has all this light hitting her. I should have taken a before shot. Okay, what have I got here? Let's have a look. So, that's my backlight shot. Now, I just want to explain why I do go to all this effort. This is the most requested shot in my studio and it has been for 15 years. It is, by far, the single most requested photograph that I get and for photographers, if I photograph photographers, they're like, anything in the backlight. When I photograph non-photographers, they're like, I like all the white ones, you know, when they're white. And here's the thing, it's actually an easy shot to get once you learn to control the light. So, it's really quite sexy. Before I do it, I just wanna show you this. This is the first backlight image I ever took. This was shot in 2000, no, that was in my new studio. So, that was 2003, it wasn't the first backlight I ever shot because the very first image I showed you was in the backlight. This was the first one where I hadn't used, like, she's literally standing in a window and I shot it and this was against everything I was taught as a portrait photographer but do you know what? Mario Testino shot Lady Diana in natural light with two poly boards on that, you all know the shoot right? She's wearing a black polo neck and she's on a white couch and he shot her straight into the backlight? I cried when I saw that shoot. I cried and Mario changed my life. And I went home, I bought a white couch for my studio, a white fake vinyl leather couch, I put it in the window and I started shooting on it and my sales just went boom. Everybody loves it. And it's a shot that not an, well, backlight, now, is definitely more relevant. 2003, I'm shooting in the backlight all the time. It's light, it's beautiful, it has a magical feel to it and the camera I had back then, the 20D is not as remarkable as the camera I have now but it was still handling it really well, although, you will notice in both these image, the skin is completely blown out. Like, there is no detail in these faces but that was 2003 and we're 12 years ahead now, I have a camera that picks up every pore, every freckle, every line, so, clearly, the advancement is amazing. I started to shoot just about everything into the backlight to some degree and it really is, in studio, something most people don't think to do. You look for the light when you're out on location and I've got an example of that. But in the studio, not many people think of just shooting everything into that backlight and it really is quite beautiful and it's so extraordinary. And, of course, if I'm outside, which is very rare, I look for that light, I look for that backlight no matter where I am because it brings a magic to your shots that, you know, is just really hard to nail down. I'll show you how I do it. Now, basically, right now, Danielle is, and let's take a reading, I'm not gonna change my ISO, I'm still at 640. So, let's take a reading and I'm gonna expose it to where the camera is telling me that it needs to be exposed because it's reading all that light and it's going, oh, we need to underexpose this. So, it's 800th of a second at 2.8 and what's gonna happen if I listen to the camera and I don't listen to the fact that there's way too much light, it's gonna go underexposed straight away, okay? And that's not sexy, gorgeous light. So, I'm gonna do two things, I'm gonna step Danielle towards me, one step, stop. Okay, I'm going to bump up my shutter, sorry, slow down my (laughs). Whenever I put my camera up, I swear, I have a misfiring synapsis. I'm going to slow down my shutter which is going to lift up. It's going to put me one to two stops over, so, I'm gonna override what the camera is seeing and let's just try it 'cause at the moment, it's saying it's two stops overexposed and I'm shooting raw, so it's gonna give me a beautiful backlight image. And that's how I shoot it. So, I basically just bump up that exposure, I slow down that shutter speed to, there, I'm at, what am I at? Let's see, it's 320th of a second, so, it went from 800th of a second underexposed but the reading was, this is perfectly exposed and then I bumped it up two stops. And I can get to 40th of a second before I change my ISO. I know I'm such a badass. But I can handhold it a 40th of a second. Okay, absolutely, anything lower than that, no, I can't but I drink a lot of coffee, too, it's quite remarkable. If you have criticized me in the past for flat light then you definitely have criticized me for soft images. Again, don't really care. It's what I do. I like to have a better movement in my images. I'm okay shooting on a slow shutter and I love it, I love the result. Okay, Eley, go back to the light source for me. Anything else you want to talk about natural backlight? Yes, there's a question behind you, Kenna. We can get rid of... Hi Sue, question about the hair. Because in the red hair lady shot, it looked very crisp and very straight. Do you Photoshop the little pieces of hair that, The flyaways? yeah. Do you know what? And also the ones where the holes come through in the light. I don't actually spend a lot of time, I got it, I don't actually spend a lot of time reattaching hair. They've got to be black. But if there's something on the face, I use the healing tool and get rid of it. But stray hairs don't really bother me. I've seen some people get very lost. They need to be flat and black. Exactly what they were for the backlight but just the black version, that's it. Cool. And towards me, all the way, Kate. Okay, watching a new assistant work their way in your studio when you've got v-flats always cracks me up 'cause they're so awkward and they hit things and they, you know, it's like having two right feet until you learn how to use it. Kenna. So, I did have another question before we move on, this was from AkelMike, who said, can you do proper high-key with just natural lighting? So, would you consider, sort of, what you were just showing us, proper high-key? Again, proper high-key, see, the word, proper, annoys me because, obviously, high-key is an artificial light thing to do and so, can I replicate it? I will get as close as I can to anything you can do with high-key light but no. I don't want my light to look like artificial light. And high-key is a beauty way of shooting, it's not a portrait way of shooting, so, I kinda, I'm like, I got the point where I was just like, whatever anybody can create, I'm gonna learn how to do it with natural light. I don't care what anybody, I can get pretty close and if I can't get it in camera, I'll get it in Photoshop. That was my mentality and that's against the purist mentality of learn how to light properly and learn your craft. I mean, I still get criticized for not knowing how to use artificial light, even now I'm now shooting with strobe and constant light and, again, it did not hinder my portrait business. It has not changed the fact that, you can call me whatever you want, I still make money from being a portrait photographer and I take beautiful portraits of women that love the images, so, it doesn't matter what you think is right or wrong. So, no, if you gave me an image and said, this is a high-key image, can you replicate that, yeah, I'd give it a go but that's as high-key as I shoot, really, in the backlight. Yeah. I get a bit defensive, but you know what? You know the worst thing is, I didn't get an education when I grew up so, you know, I'm not that smart, right? I left school when I was 15, I didn't get an opportunity to get a tertiary education and then I went to work and I did graphic design and hair and makeup and at 18, I found photography and I had been out of school for three years. And no, I didn't get a high school education or a tertiary education or a university education and I realize, you don't need any of those educations to run a business and you certainly don't need them to be a good person but I spent my life feeling criticized about my lack of education and I really felt, for a long time, that it's a really hard thing 'cause it's a really judgey thing, it's a very big stigma to hold. And then, when I started my business, I suffered the same criticism. You can't use light, you don't know how to run a business, and so, I learned how to do all of these things. And, to me, I get defensive because the idea that there's a right way and a wrong way is incorrect. The right way is, whatever works for you is going to be the best way but if there's a fast way to do something or a cheap way to do it, I've found it. Because I had a business to run and the way you run a business is to get through the largest quantity of work you can in the fastest amount of time 'cause that's smart. Not taking hours and hours and hours setting up lights. In the time it takes Felix to set up a commercial shoot, I could've photographed two portraits. And I love the craft of it but it does not interest me. I would rather have spent that two hours connecting with the woman that I'm about to photograph. I would rather have spent that two hours knowing her story so I can then communicate beautiful images.

Class Description


  • Manipulate available light to create a flattering light source
  • Eliminate harsh shadows using simple accessories
  • Create multiple types of light from a single window
  • Capture beautiful outdoor portraits whether it's a sunny day or cloudy day
  • Work with direct light, directional light, and backlight
  • Professionally light portraits using free natural light and inexpensive modifiers
  • Create your own inexpensive lighting tools


Sometimes, the best light in photography is free. In this 90-minute class, learn how to manipulate ambient lighting into studio-like lighting conditions. From window light to working outdoors, learn to harness available light to create a variety of styles, from soft, flattering portraits to dramatic directional light. Go behind-the-scenes of a live natural light shoot with artist Sue Bryce to bounce light, bend light, soften light, and create drama with intense light.

While natural light is beautiful, it's also affordable. Work with inexpensive accessories like $35 V-flats and a $15 homemade scrim to turn a single window into several lighting patterns using different techniques. Discover how to use modifiers to turn bad light into the kind of light that flatters anyone. Then in the final lesson, learn how to replicate natural light with studio lighting gear for beautiful light at any time.


  • Beginning photographers eager to learn simple lighting
  • Intermediate photographers ready to expand lighting skills
  • Photographers struggling to manipulate natural light


Portrait artist Sue Bryce built a career on using natural light. Her lighting style helps create contemporary, fashion-inspired portraiture without expensive studio gear. Awarded the Portrait Photographer of the Year -- twice -- Sue is a master portrait photographer specializing in a style of portraiture that helps women recognize their own beauty.

Ratings and Reviews

Student Work

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AnnaGeo Jump

Such an amazing way to use natural light and get great results. Sue you have an artistic and practical way to see everything around you, and this course opens our minds to endless possibilities around us that can help us to achieve the most beautiful results with natural light and simple materials. Thank you as always!

Noel Guevara

Fantastic course! I got this for $29 and it's the most bang-for-the-buck purchase I've made here in creative live. Sue is undoubtedly an expert, and I love her no-fuss, direct method of teaching. Her lighting hacks are also great tips. At first I was apprehensive because of reviews of her course with Felix Kunze, where she was described as overpowering and defensive, but after seeing this I now understand her background, and learned that she actually has great respect for Felix. Buy it. You'll learn a lot about natural light in one go.

Kelly Cas

definitely good for a beginner who doesn't yet have the time or money to invest in expensive equipment. i love her sharp personality and she is clearly passionate about what she does, infusing the whole atmosphere with fun