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Natural Light Photography

Lesson 1 of 7

Shooting Natural Light Introduction

Sue Bryce

Natural Light Photography

Sue Bryce

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Lesson Info

1. Shooting Natural Light Introduction
In the first lesson, learn how Sue built a successful portrait studio using entirely natural light -- and why you shouldn't believe the photographers that say artificial light is a must. In the live shoot, watch how different angles create different natural lighting looks and how a simple reflector can even out the light. Go behind the scenes as Sue uses just a scrim and V-flat to create a portrait, modifiers that can also be created DIY-style for around $15 and $35.

Lesson Info

Shooting Natural Light Introduction

My name is Kenna Klosterman and I am your host, for "Natural Light" with Sue Bryce. Sue is a portrait and glamour photographer based out of Los Angeles, and of course she educates and empowers women to not only make other women feel beautiful, but live the life that they want to live. Please help me welcome back to CreativeLive, Sue Bryce. Take it away, Sue! (loud cheers and applause) So I only get 90 minutes, but I'm going to condense it all into just the most basic, but hopefully eye-opening, Natural Light workshop sort of segment. Now, remember, one of the craziest things was, I suffered a lot of shame in the first twenty years of my career, based on the fact that I didn't use any artificial light, and most artificial lighting photographers, or most flash photographers, always seemed superior to me in the way they spoke. And I went to natural light, because many, many years ago, in the 90s, when we were still shooting on film, I did not no like flashlight, and I came from the 80s ...

glamour photography era, so to me, I was watching Herb Ritts in the 90s, and he was shooting all of the 80s supermodels in natural light and then he was shooting this beautiful fashion work in natural light, and so we took away the big softboxes and we took off the soft filtered vignettes, and the Vaseline on the lenses, and everything went. And what we ended up with was this contemporary version of photography in the 90s, although the genre had completely died. So, I had found some photographs from back at this time. This is in the 90s, I don't actually-- These are scanned negatives, but I don't have a lot of work older than this, sadly. I do have a box of negatives somewhere. But when I look back to how I was shooting back then, this brand is very contemporary now, to what I still shoot, and it's very relevant. I look back to my best work back then and I'm very proud of it. So, as I grew up as a photographer and I started to get a little bit more successful, and started to create a business, I still defended the fact that I didn't use flashlight, and I even jokingly used to say to people when they'd say, "Well, what lights do you use?" I would say, "Oh, um-- "I use, um, Godlight?" (audience member chuckles) So, I always sort of joked that I had the best lighting system in the world. You know, I had sunlight. Now, I don't shoot outside. Predominately I'm an inside portrait photographer that shoots natural light, which just seems so counterintuitive. You shoot inside with outside light, so obviously, my light source is a window, and I have a lot of control in my studio, but I don't have a lot of control when I'm not in my studio, and that's where the artificial light photographers and their divine superiority, would, you know, argue with me that they are divinely superior. And I-- The one thing I could never get passed was, until you make your artificial light look like Godlight, I'm sticking with the Godlight, because to me, this light makes beautiful, beautiful portraits. Now, it's so basic to me, and yet a lot of people do struggle to master it, so I just wanna talk about how I mastered it. And it's one of those things that you think everybody knows. And I just hope that if you do know it, you get some gold nugget, and if you don't, you get your mind blown, because I built a very successful portrait studio on natural light. And, were there ever times in twenty years where I got trapped or stuck without artificial light? Once. A storm came into New Zealand, I had a family portrait shoot back in maybe 2005, I was shooting on the 20D, which shot raw, a Canon 20D, but the ISO just wasn't as remarkable as it is now. The clouds came in, and I shot a very small amount of pictures. I had to stop the shoot 'cause we were in complete darkness. I did not have a light source, and I remember the family did not want to come back for more stuff. They were, sort of, "This was all you got?" And I remember they spent five hundred and ninety-five dollars, and that was a low, low sale for me. And I remember, once in my life being hindered, so I went to a big lighting store, I bought constant daylight bulbs, I tried everything. I even tried walking out on the roof of my studio and putting them outside, shining in the window to try and replicate natural light, and still could not do it. So I sent them back to the shop, never bought them, and carried on with my natural light. Obviously, there's two lighting options here with these two images. The left one, is the light source is at a 45 degree angle to her, so she is technically at almost, not side-on, but at at 45 degrees angle to the window, and it is a massive window. Now, the one on the right is, I am shooting directly into the back light. Now, I was doing that in the 90s, and I'm still doing it now. It's still relevant to me. It still sells. So I'm gonna show you what I love to do, what sells, and what really works. Here's the other two: Again, a more side-light definition, and then the left one, it's not a back-light because she's not actually in front of the light source, she's beside it, so she's on the very edge of the windowsill right here. The light is filtering across. You'll notice I've posed her face towards the light because that was before I knew how to walk up with a reflector, and put it a meter away from her. So, clearly, I've posed her face towards the light. There's a big problem with posing towards your light source and that's, there's not many poses you can do when the face is stuck in one position, correct? But when you can move, when you can move the body in any direction, it's gonna change your ability to pose in any direction. I managed over the years to develop my work and, as you're gonna see, this is a timeline of my work. Everything here is shot in natural light. In fact, up until a year ago, I did not own an artificial light in my studio. It was only when I met Felix, that Felix taught me how to shoot, to make it look like natural light. So I've got a really neat little finish to this segment where I'm gonna show you, how I'm now shooting Kino and Strobe, and how I'm making it look like this. Until now, 2015, Felix really understood the quality of my light source, and his pedigree in lighting was the most advanced that I would acknowledge that I wanted to learn from him, because, and I don't mean that in a snobby way. I mean that in, he's worked for the best in the world, and he understood what I wanted. Nobody else has been able to teach me that. Not in all these years. Now, why do I not like flashlight? It's quite simple. If I get a model and I stand her in front of a camera, and she's five foot 10, and she's built like a model, and it's fashion, and I can drop pretty much any light on her, any light on her face, any light on her body, and she looks like a fashion model, you can make the lighting hard and grungy, she still looks like a fashion model. She can be anything from Calvin Klein to D&G, to all these amazing, grungy fashion work, she looks like a model. You put a 42 year old housewife in any of that light, and it screams, 80s glamour. And I spent twenty years reinventing glamour photography so that it wasn't a dirty word anymore. And I didn't like the idea that it looked like 80s glamour. So, natural light is soft, it's beautiful, it's open and I've learned to, as you can see by all of those images, manipulate it. I've learned to shoot around a window, and when my studio changes, I get a new window. I don't always get the worlds best window. In the last twenty-six years I've been in some incredible studios, and I've been in some really crappy ones. One of the best studios I had, had the worst window source, but it was the most beautiful building, so my dream studio, it's pretty much what we're standing in, here today, although, you will notice, the light that's coming in is very pink and very warm. So, you don't know what's being reflected outside. Now the two most perfect lighting scenarios that I'm gonna teach you today to really nail down is the ones on the screen right now, and that is lighting my faces like a beauty dish, soft and beautiful but gutsy. But notice there's a nice, soft, even light across the face. Women look younger, okay? No Rembrandt lighting. I don't know if any of you have followed me for a period of time, but at my first CreativeLive, I was saying how I did a big presentation, and I said, "I don't do Picasso lighting," and somebody'd come up to me afterwards and said, "It's Rembrandt lighting," and I had said Picasso, and obviously, if you know the difference between Picasso and Rembrandt, you'll find that amusing, and to recover from my complete faux pas, and to not look like an absolute idiot, I was like, "Yeah, see, here's the thing, "I call it Picasso lighting 'cause that's what it looks like," and the guy was like, "Oh, I'm sorry, I thought you made a mistake," and I was like, "Ohh," I had, but anyway. This is it for me. This is beauty portraits. This is what women love. This is where they look young, beautiful, lit up. This is where I put a highlight in their eye, where I get a gorgeous catchlight. This is where dodge and burn the eye. This is where I open up, and those two lighting sources are my most dominant lighting sources. Now, when I started shooting, in the studio, when I started shooting in this studio, obviously the first thing I do is hang curtains. There's no curtains in the studio today, so I'm gonna show you a few hacks because sometimes you'll be shooting somewhere where there are no curtains, and I'm also gonna show you a couple of ways around it. I've also got two options. I've got a four hundred dollar laser light scrim. Now, Felix made me buy this monstrosity, and it pretty much stays up in my studio all the time. It folds down every now and then, and scares the hell out of my puppy, but it really is quite a remarkable piece of equipment. For starters, it's light. It's worth its weight in gold, but it's gold. That's four hundred dollars, and when you're starting out, I would never have been able to budget four hundred dollars for a scrim, and I certainly wouldn't have spent four hundred dollars on a scrim when I can buy fabric for twenty bucks. So I'm gonna show you why this scrim is so good, and the hack version of it, because I've always hacked everything. John, I'll have that, okay? -in my camera bag, and it winds up really small. It's polyester chiffon. I've carried this piece of fabric in my camera bag for over eight years. I don't think I've ever washed it. (crowd laughs) I was just thinking. It goes everywhere. It lies on the ground, it's all-- (sniffing) It doesn't smell bad. I don't quite know, but I pretty much take this with me everywhere. This is pre-scrim days. So for eight years, I pretty much do this, and if I can find a hook or a rail, I've got clamps in my bag, I will do anything. I will make a stranger-- I will charm a stranger in a park to hold this before me because that there is the ultimate scrim. I've got enough to double it up. I've got enough to triple it. I've got enough t quadruple it, and that's pretty much what I do. So I said to the guys, when they set up last night, I was like, "Can somebody, like, give me a railing or a bit of string?" and they built me this amazing rig which is so cool 'cause it's not really reminiscent of, you know, my hack version. I mean, look at my great rig, but look at that. That is beautiful light. It is beautiful, diffused light for fifteen bucks. So don't tell me you can't diffuse the light. And, secondly, if I had a dollar for every time somebody asked me where they can buy a v-flat, or polystyrene sheet from, I'd be very wealthy. The v-flats and the polyboards came from this. My very first studio had bead wall, okay? The film industry have used it for a hundred years. They call it bead wall because it's actually polystyrene beads all stuck together in one big sheet. You can buy it at insulation stores, Home Depot, Bunnings, wherever you want to go. You buy them. I buy them for twenty dollars. They're the size of this, so they're four by eight feet. They are the single best source of reflected light that you can buy. They're light, they've been in my studio for twenty-six years. I find them in every country I go to. Found them in New Zealand, found them in Australia, found them in L.A., and so when people say, "I can't find them anywhere," I always just get this push up pain behind my eye because I can find them everywhere. I just Google polystyrene. And when I first came to CreativeLive, and I did a shoot here, they brought these out, and they said, "Oh, we don't have any polyboards, "but we got you some v-flats." And a v-flat, would you know it, is white on one side and black on the other, and it's made from foam core, okay? I've had people buy it at art supply stores. I've had people buy it, but largely, most professional photographic suppliers sell them as v-flats. When I moved to Los Angeles, I called EVS, I said, "Hey, do you have v-flats?" They're like, "Yeah, they're seventeen ninety-nine" I was like, "Can I have eight of them?" They delivered them. I gaff taped them together myself. Black gaff tape on the black side, white gaff tape on the white side, and they are easy. They're smaller than polyboards, but you'll probably find polyboards are easier to find. I don't care, I'll take either because watch what I do with them. It will really blow your mind, okay? But the crazy part about the v-flats is they also double as a backdrop. So, not the best thing to travel with 'cause they're not gonna fit in your car, unless you've got a really big truck, but, for the studio, one of the best systems of lighting you can actually get. So that means I've got a fifteen dollar scrim. I've got a thirty-five dollar v-flat backdrop, and that's all I need to make three thousand dollars in daylight. And so I was like, "Give me a camera, give me a woman, "give me some window light, give me a v-flat, "and give me the ability to diffuse and bounce that light, "and I am in business." That is it for me. I don't need anything more. I need one good camera and one good computer to work my images, and that's it. I'm in business. So when you're looking at lights, and you're looking at how expensive they are, I don't need really to go much further. Now, before I start shooting, I'm just going to show you this. This here is my studio currently at home. This is my shooting room. It's not a big shooting room. It's a decent-size master bedroom size, and I live in Los Angeles, so, luckily, Los Angeles gets a little bit more Godlight than the rest of the world, and so there is lots of light in my city a lot of the time. So I'm going to show you what to do in low light, but obviously, I am in lots of light. In fact, I am the opposite to most people. I suffer from too much light, okay? So often, I have bright light. Now, one of the most simple things I can show you is exactly my model there on the screen. On the left image, she has no reflector, and she is standing side-on to the window at a forty-five angle back from the window. So let me show you this. I'm gonna put the scrim up, I'm gonna put it here, and what I'm gonna do is, so it doesn't fall, I'm actually just gonna lean it there because a little bit of angled light's gonna be great. It's not gonna hurt us at all. I'm gonna get Danielle to stand on the edge of my window light. So I want the window light to just sweep across her like this, very nicely. Now, this is a game of light. So we go like this, we take a step away, we take a step backwards. Okay, very good. And I'm going to show you what Danielle looks like right now through the camera in this light. Okay, now I want to show you exactly, and you can hold this image up there. So I'm at 2. and I'm at six hundred and fortieth of a second-- Ah, I meant, I'm at six-forty ISO. I'm at 2.8. I'm at two fiftieth of a second. Now, look at the light that's coming in on the right side is darker. Now, John, come and stand, or Kate, I don't mind. Come in and stand, and give me some reflectant. Now, look how big this reflected light source is. That's all I need, okay? So I'm gonna put it up, and I don't care about her body. So I care more about her face. So it can go sideways, John, like that, all the way around, and down, okay? And all I have to do is wrap the light around her face. So I look at it as wrapping light. So I always-- Let go. I do this to my assistant. There, I'll go like this and I move it, and then I see where it looks great and that's my-- This is my little hack. Okay, so that's my reflector. It's foam core. I just cut a piece off an old foam. Now, look at the difference. So you've got that dot right there, and then I'm here. (camera shutters) Okay, and look at just one little reflector. That's all I need is to bounce that out. Did it hold? Okay. Now, that to me is the beauty light that I want to work with, okay? Now, in a perfect world, I would have somebody like John following my model around all day holding a foam core piece, and you don't get an assistant. That's just the way it is. When you start out, you don't get an assistant for a long time. So, if John wasn't with me, and you can go with your reflector, I have-- I can hold a digital-- I'm not kidding-- I can hold a digital (unintelligible), a reflector, and a hair dryer (crowd laughs) in heels with two hands. (more crowd laughter) All right? And I will do anything it takes. You can also get a lighting stand, clamp it, and put it on like a music sheet, or you have a big v-flat at home-- Let's say you've got a big v-flat at home. All I have to do is this, and technically that's a superior light source, and that's a superior light source because it's larger. So it's equaling the amount of light on both sides that's hitting her face. Let me take two-shot and show you what I'm getting. Chin down just a touch, Danielle. Now, what Danielle's doing is she is sitting right on the edge of this window light, the light is sweeping across her. Oh, it's big and soft right there, isn't it? So that's at 2.8 six-forty ISO. Now, what I love the most here is all I need to do now is add a fan into her hair, and I have a cover shot. And I know that no matter where I go, I have that cover shot. Now, let's go back to my slides. Window light with reflector, window light without reflector. Okay, here's the deal. Let's slide this back, John, so everyone can see 'cause I'm cutting off cameras. That's the only thing about teaching my genre of photography is my v-flats cover up all the cameras. This is what we do if we've got too much light. Okay, so if that's a really hard light, what do you do? You diffuse the window even more, or you do this. Take a step back, take a step over here. Okay, take a step over here, take a step inside that light. Okay? So let's try it. Bring in a v-flat, give me a black corner. Now, this is how I use the v-flat as a backdrop. This is how I use the v-flat by a window. Step forward, Danielle. Now, these are the funniest things you will ever use. Okay, all the way in, John, and around. Danielle, step forward. Okay, and it's coming around. So I'm gonna create an L, and I'm not gonna do it back from the window. I would do it back from the window if the light was harsh. Okay, Danielle stands in here, and it's a little bit too V, so let me come around a little bit more, and I'll just push this around here. These are the funniest things you'll ever work with. Also, one of the funniest things you'll ever do is they'll start falling on people 'cause they do fall over, you know, if they get a little bit of wind or if you knock them or the fan knocks them over, and people don't just go, "Oh, that polyboard is falling on me." They go, "Ahhh!" You know, like the wall's falling down. It always makes me laugh. (Sue laughs) Okay, we're still not in position. Can we move that back? Sorry, I don't have a lot of space today, but here's the thing, I don't have a lot of space in my studio. I want to create a gorgeous-- Just the other one. John, go behind. Yeah. 'Cause I just want a little bit more room. I'm just gonna show you how I put the v-flat on the edge, on the edge of the light. Thank you, there it is. Okay, and she steps back here. Now, in here, now I have a whole different lighting scenario because it's taking-- And I'll have a reflector, Kate or John. And now, I wanna-- Let me take one without a reflector so everyone can see what light I'm getting. Okay, I want you to step-- Oh no, stay there. I want you to turn your body towards me, good girl. No, just towards me, just flat. Okay, now she's quite close to the window, and it's hard and I wanna lighten it up. So this is not good 'cause I see this, and I see the light, and I think it looks a little bit hard, like I'm holding it to the-- All right, now, take a step towards John. Okay, now John's bringing in a side-light so it's evening out the light, and take a step away from the window, that's it. Bring it 'round, John, sweep it around. That's it, and chin down, good girl, stay there, and then that's nice and even. So I've softened it up a little bit. I've brought in a reflector, she's not so close to the background, and that's where I wanna work. Okay? And so I pretty much can do this with any backdrop. I just change out the backdrop. She's gonna stay in the same place the whole time, and all I'm gonna do is change her poses, I'm gonna change her props, and I'm gonna give her five different outfit changes in an hour, and I'm gonna give her at least thirty five different poses, and I've created an entire folio of natural light. Okay, window light without reflector, window light with reflector, hot light, okay? You've just got to get them away from the hot light. Now, the most interesting thing about hot light is normally too much light. Too much light is too close, but as you pull light away, it gets harder, correct? So when the light is really high and really hard, what you need to do is try and get as much light into the room but surround people in v-flats, surround them in reflectors. So get them away from the window and closer to the reflected light. That is gonna be the most important thing you could do. Away from the hottest source and into more reflected bounce light which is actually the opposite to artificial light because the further away artificial light gets, the harder it gets, whereas the further away you get from hot light, hot natural light, and the more you bounce in soft light, the softer the look. So let's have a look why. All right, well not why, but let's have a look how I get 'round it. Now, flat light is so interesting to me. If we didn't have that backdrop there, I would push that v-flat right to the corner, so it's a good two meters away from the window. Now there's a lot of ambient light in this space, and enough to light her up but completely flat, so if you see the diagram on the screen right now, I'm gonna either push her flat against that far corner, or flat against the left side, but it's gonna completely flatten out the light. I also think it looks beautiful, and sometimes, when you've got too much light coming in the window, perfect space for you, okay? And that's what I shot in that flat light. Now, one of the favorite things to do is shoot by the window, what I just did with Danielle in that beautiful black v-flat. So, I'm just gonna take a couple of shots because she looks gorgeous and why not? I just wanna show you what it looks like. John, you can come in and give me some reflection. This is here. Notice how the v-flat's not completely flat to the wall. It's feathering in just a little wee bit. Okay, so where I want John, more importantly, is around there, okay, because what it-- Actually, go up and down so everyone can see her. No, the reflector. Yeah, if you give me some more space, that's it. Okay, so I'm just gonna take a couple of shots so we can just be like, "Oo, isn't she pretty?" (Sue laughs) Okay, chin down a little touch. Turn your body towards me, Danielle, that's it. I want you to relax your mouth. Okay, good girl, and chin down just a-- Ah, chin forward just a tickle. Okay lips together, and just give me a little weep. Baby smile. Good girl, I love that, thank you, and I love to pull back here. Take a step towards John, stop, okay, and I want there, and what I would really love right now is somebody to blow some fan in her hair, and I always joke about this. One of the best hair dryers you can actually buy, watch this. One of the best hair blowers you can actually buy is a foam core. (light flapping sound) See that? It's good, huh? You're a big fan. (crowd laughs) (Sue laughs) (Sue makes funny sound) Kate, you wanna come get the fan? Okay. Now, in a normal world, I have a hair dryer, okay? But unfortunately, when you're broadcasting, it sounds like this. [Sue makes muffled speech] Yeah, so let me just get this. Come in. I just wanna take a shot for everybody, so you put a nice big fan in her hair, chin towards me just a touch. Good girl, good girl. Little bit more, Kate. Come on, Kate. Work it, Kate. (crowd and Sue laugh) Okay, just relax, mouth, lips, together. You can come closer, Kate. Come on, bit of elbow grease, Kate, come on. (crowd laughs) I can see you now. Flank up a little. (camera shutters) Okay, there it is. Thank you, got my shot. (Sue laughs) Okay, get a hair dryer, other than make Kate do a workout. All right, from here, go back to my keynote. So I work on-- This black v-flat has become my go-to. You know why? It doesn't shoot black, okay? It shoots kind of a mid-cold gray, and it's so beautiful. Every client loves it. It's gorgeous in black and white. It's gorgeous in high contrast. It looks beautiful with color-faded filters on alien skin 'cause it takes down the backdrop even more, takes the density out of it. It is the sexiest, cheapest, most fabulous thing I own. Okay? And I just-- Ever since I met the boys at CreativeLive three and a half years ago, I've had these v-flats in my studio. They'll pretty much live with me forever because this black backdrop is my favorite. Now, a lot of people say to me, "What is the backdrop?" And I'm like, "It's foam core," and they-- "But what is the backdrop?" "It's a sheet of foam core. "Like, really, it's foam core." You'll see it in my work a lot, and I absolutely adore it.

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.


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