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Seeing and Shaping Light

Lesson 12 of 17

Considerations for Outdoors & Natural Light

Lindsay Adler

Seeing and Shaping Light

Lindsay Adler

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Lesson Info

12. Considerations for Outdoors & Natural Light
Studio lighting is easy to control -- but what about working with natural light? Move from studio photography to natural light photography and learn to see and shape natural light and work outdoors. Adapt what you've discovered about studio lighting to working outdoors and determine what's the same and what's different. Learn to create different types of lighting outdoors.

Lesson Info

Considerations for Outdoors & Natural Light

Everything I said applies to natural light, but doesn't. (laughs) Like, it really does, but everything... It's less controlled and there's a lot of other variables. So let's just take look at the other variables. You're still looking at where are the catchlights in the eyes? What is the shape of them? Are there multiples? It's still true, it's just not as defined as in the studio. So let's take a look at some natural light catchlights. Alright, so natural light catchlight. Here's me shooting a portrait of this girl, it's nice, flat light. Can you guys see the catchlights in her eyes, kind of? You can kind of see them, they're broad... So basically what it's telling me is, I see my shadow in her pupil. I can see that that's what is dark, and that on either side of me there's some sort of light source. If we zoom in and take a look at these catchlights, (laughs) it's actually a building and a car. That's what my light source is. The light source on her face is this entire building, oh an...

d nice reflection from the silver car across the street. So it's not the usual things that you may be thinking. But it's me knowing that I've got that whole building as a nice, big reflector. Which is why that is a relatively large light source compared to the size of the subject. It's a whole building. The larger the light source is relative to the subject, the softer the light. The whole building, look how soft that light is. The transitions, I mean I can barely see them they're so subtle. And the light is so broad, it's wrapping in and filling in every shadow. So the light that's bouncing off that building, it's probably bouncing off the floor a little bit and filling in the shadows and wrapping around from all directions. So the catchlights in this photo, I mean if you would see, it's just big, broad catchlights. So you would know that that light is a big light source wrapping around. That's what you could get from it. So I thought it was funny when I zoomed in, I was like "oh, I see the whole building." Alright, rim lights. This is one of the things that I pride myself on now knowing, or learning. When I enter a room, I'll take a look and I'll figure out what natural light, or outdoors, whatever, what natural light would be a good option? What would be flattering? So maybe there's a bank of windows here. And then I'll see if there's any other light source where I could place the subject, where I might get a little bit of a rim light. You train yourself to enter a space and see what kind of lights am I working with, and can I put them in a place where they intersect? And I've got a perfect example of what I'm talking about here. So here's a natural rim light. We're out on location, I'm shooting, she's actually standing underneath a bridge, and so the catchlight in her eye is actually the opening above the bridge between buildings. That's why it's long and narrow, right? It's actually, there's buildings, and so it's the open sky. So you see that in the catchlights. But then you've got that nice rim light on the side of her face. And what that's caused by is the sun hitting a building, blasting it with light, and then it gives that natural rim light. So when I placed her under the bridge, I placed her there and moved her around until I could see where that rim light was hitting her face. I promise you, eight years ago I couldn't do that. At all. I would not be able to see that rim light, and would not be able to know where to place her. It took a lot of practice, and one of the suggestions I give to you is, if you've got a photo friend or somebody who's particularly gentle with your needs to always do photography, you know what I'm saying (laughs) I had a friend that was also into photography and when I'd walk around, I'd tell her to stop and I'd study the light on her face. And I'd try to force myself and say, "Okay, where is there a highlight? Alright, a highlight there. What is that coming from?" I'd say "don't move" and I would try to piece apart, and try to trace it. Where is it coming from? So then, eventually you see a scene and you just know where you can set somebody. It took me forever to get to that point. It really did, it was not something I learned, and it wasn't just something built in, it's like, training. So if you can do that, if you can every once in a while even just stop, doesn't matter if the light is good or bad, if you just stop and say, "okay, right now you've got a highlight on this side of the nose, and a broad light on the side of your face. So what is that from?" And try to piece it apart. It teaches you how to see natural light. And then you can kind of decode it in other people's pictures as well. So I've got some combinations here. So yesterday, I did a Facebook Live on the Creative Live Facebook page, and I took a picture of a very handsome gentleman. Took a picture and we didn't show you how it was lit, but we wanted you to be able to guess, and then I'll reveal in a second. So this is a 100 percent natural-lit picture. And it's actually just in the garage next door. So here's what it is. We've got... I'm gonna take a look at, all the things we just talked about still apply to natural light. So I'm gonna look at the catchlights and see if I can examine them. What do the catchlights tell me? The catchlights tell me the light source is to the left. 'Cause those catchlights are further off to the left. And it's pretty broad, like that's a big catchlight. So it's a big light source to the left. I know that so far. Next thing is, let's take a look. I can actually see that this is somewhat Rembrandt Light, can you kind of see that? It's subtle, because it's filled in, but I can see the Rembrandt Light. So the light's gotta be in some position off to the side, either where I turned his head or where I turned his body creates Rembrandt Light. Let's talk about the shadow transition. It goes from highlight to shadow over a really long distance, so I know that it's a soft light source. Which is either a really big light source, or a medium-sized one really close. One of the two. So probably either medium-sized windows that he's really, really close to, or maybe really big windows and he's a little bit further away. So that's my guess. Big ones far off to the side. Alright, shadow fill. Those shadows aren't very dark. And so I could guess perhaps there's a reflector. A white reflector filling in. I obviously shot this, so I know the answer, so it's like, kind of cheating, but if I look in his eyes, I don't actually see any other reflector. So I don't know. Could be a reflector, not sure. The next part is, okay so we talked about looking at the shadows, the direction of shadows, right? Looked at the catchlights, the placement of the catchlights, what the catchlights are, let's go to the last part, the rim light. And he's got a little separation here, right? On the hat, and then also on the side of his face. So that could be a number of things. It could be, maybe, a silver reflector catching some of that window light, angling it and separating out. It could be another window open up... It could be any of those things. So, just so you know, when you zoom in, there's the catchlight, so you can see that it's definitely a window, 'cause you can see all the windowpanes. And so then here's how it was lit. You've got the big light source to the left, just like we said, creating Rembrandt Light, you can see the Rembrandt Light clearly in that one. And then those two windows behind, one's giving the separation on the top of the hat, and the other is what's lighting his shoulder and the side of his face. As far as the fill light goes, it's a big room with light-colored floors and some light-colored walls. Their windows are so huge, there's not really any controlling to that light so it would fill in the shadows. That's kind of how I'm breaking apart those natural light shots. So here's another one. This is a picture that I took in my portrait bootcamp last year. And so this is 100 percent natural light, and I shot this inside of, like, a rec hall. So here's some of the things that I can kind of piece apart. And I don't have the behind-the-scenes of this so I'll just describe it to you, what I see. Alright, so she's got that nice, soft, glowing light from behind her. If it is, in fact, natural light, it could be a window or a doorway, but it couldn't be directly, directly behind her because otherwise it would just be blown-out white. So I know there's some kind of window behind her, and then those catches, can you see that catchlight in her eyes? They're strange, it's bright white and vertical. That would be one that's kind of tricky, when you zoom in, it's actually me standing in front of a big piece of white foam core. So what this set-up is, is if she's my subject, there's a window behind her and above. So behind her and above is why she's got that nice hair light from above, it wraps all the way around, you can see it wrapping around, so you know that it's high, and it's equal on both sides, so a window high up above, me facing her, and then a white V-Flat behind me, so when the light through the window hits that V-Flat, it bounces back and, relative to her, it's a large light source, flat onto camera, so it fills in all the shadows. So that's what that particular shot was lit like. You can also, instead of, like, those shots are mostly just using the natural light, you can also modify natural light, so it sort of starts to get a little tricky. So as we take a look here, what would make me think this is natural light is that, you've got the narrow depth of field, with a textured background, and then those really crisp highlights on the hair and shoulders. That's probably sunlight. That's the crispness of it, it's above, it's bright, it's textured. But that light on her face, I don't know if it's natural light or if it's a strobe, or if it's a reflector. My thought would be, it's not just what exists in the environment, 'cause it's got too much pop. It's got too much contrast, it's too crisp to just be something bouncing around. And so here's kind of what I can see. Alright, so the first thing I'm seeing is I've got my rim lights, and I'm gonna guess that's the sun. So the next thing I go to is, let's take a look at my catchlights. I've got one catchlight high, but not super high, but you know, it's higher up in the eye and to the right. But her head's also turned to the right, so it's probably pretty far off to the right-hand side of the frame there. Then, these shadow transitions, it's actually, if you look, that shadow from her nose is actually pretty crisp. It just happens to be that all the shadows are filled in. Right? You can actually see, right next to her nose, that that's crisp. And look at her forehead. On her forehead, that's the giveaway, those highlights are pretty crisp. So it'd make me think maybe a silver reflector or something, and the shape of that catchlight is irregular--irregular catchlights to me say, either natural light or reflectors. Crunchy silver ones, that's what it looks like there. And then the shadows are all filled in, in natural light a lot of the time, shadows are just filled in by the environment. But it could be a white fill card on the left, I just don't see anything in her eye to make me think that. So there's the close-up, and you can actually see my assistant, her legs, this is her holding the silver reflector. So if you can get close enough in, you see it's a silver reflector off to the right-hand side of the frame, you can see that texture, and so that's basically what it looked like. I had her sitting down, sunlight on her hair, silver reflector bouncing light to the side, and everything else is just fill, it's just fill from the environment. It's not actually a reflector there. So that's why natural light's kind of tricky, and a little bit harder to emulate, 'cause you would look for those same environmental aspects, the criteria. And then it's the same thing, something like this, shot like this, I'd go, okay, whatever it is behind her, it's just really bright. But it could be a white wall lit by the sun, it could be light just streaming in, there's not really any way to know. But it's wrapping around, and look at this nice rim light. It's giving her a nice rim light there. But there's just too much texture and too much crispness on that skin for it to be natural light, and I can see bright catchlights in the eyes. Could be a reflector, it could be a studio light that I brought out on location. You can't totally know for sure. So you can see the catchlights, I can tell that it's an irregular shape, so I would know that it's a reflector. It's not quite so crisp that I would think it's a studio strobe, but honestly it could be, 'cause you're looking at the shadows here, I mean that could be a beauty dish shadow. So some of it's left up to your guessing. Alright, so I taught you so many things about catchlights and shadows and placement of light placement, light relative to your subject and rim lights and all of that stuff, and the differences with natural light. But it gets harder than that. (laughs) I would love to say that you can look at any photo after this class, and know how it was lit. The thing is, the more you shoot and the more you learn about lighting, eventually you would get there, it's just, the more experience you have, the more things you can pull from. And so there's some complications that I wanted to kinda bring up here. Alright. One of the complications is mixing natural light and studio strobe. But we're gonna look at that later. I wanted to touch briefly on weird modifiers. Like, weird stuff. So here's one weird one. And then do you also have some of the gobos for me? Okay so the first one, I love this modifier, and by the way if you guys, if anyone wants to see some behind-the-scenes of this modifier in action, if you go to blog... or actually, go to, just search "learn" and my name, it'll bring up the site, and on the blog I've got behind-the-scenes of me using this galore, because I love this thing. Super not practical, like, if you're just starting out, don't go buying one of these, this is like, this is the fun stuff. But if you think you've got everything and you want to try something new, (audience laughter) It's lovely. It's fantastic. Okay, so this is called a Spot Projector. And what it lets you do is, it lets you put in any shape you want into the light, any pattern, any cutout, whatever it is, and project it onto your subject. So if you want swirls, I can put swirls on the face. And so let me just show you some, those are perfect, great. So here are two, okay? So if I want an arrow on her face, I can project that. And if I want, I don't really know what you'd call this, it looks like kind of a sunset emblem, clamshell, seashell, whatever. Okay, we'll go with that. You can put it on the face. There's some kits available at B&H. But there's a website called Barbizon Lighting where there are thousands, like, thousands of these. And I have a really lovely boyfriend that, as a gift, I came home from a trip, and I had a custom-made gobo with my logo engraved into it, when I was getting home. So like, if you want your logo, you can get that done. You want your face, someone can sketch your face and you want to project your face on someone? No idea why you'd do that, but you could do it. So the point is, there's a million different things, I've got a bunch of 'em here, and you put them into the light, you focus it, and you can make amazing results. So let me just show you this. Because I remember seeing this in photos and going, "holy crap, how the heck did they do it?" Right? Like, you can project anything that you want on the face and it looks incredible. But let's ignore that and say, "Well, I see two rim lights. One on either side. Could be strobe strip lights, could be barn doors, can't quite tell, as long as it looks the same it's fine. And I think there's a little bit more contrast on that shoulder than I would get with a strip softbox, but, you know, as long as it looks the same. And then I've got that light on the face. And in the past, I had no idea how it was done, that's what it is. They make them for a variety of different brands, this one's called the Profoto Spot Small, but Bowens has one, Broncolor has one, they make one that's for constant light, which is really expensive, I think it's called, what, Dedolight? Dedolight, yeah. That's one that'll do the same thing, but constant light. D-E-D-O? D-E-D-O, yeah. So, here's how this was lit: two back barn doors and one of these striped patterns projected on the face. But I've also done it where I've taken, I've taken, like, a spot projector on the face and then had a white background, and then soft-focused it, so basically, there was just this little strip of light in a swath, like an S across the face. But it looks like I had painted on light. Super cool, but because it wasn't crisp, it was kind of confusing. So know that this stuff exists, and then we've also talked about grids already. Grids are one of the things that complicate, so just know, smaller the number, more focused the light. Smaller the area it lights, bigger the number, the broader the area. So, taking a look here, here was an example of two back barn doors, one on either side. You can see that, if you look at the highlight on her arm here, it is razor-sharp. You wouldn't quite get that level of focus from a strip softbox. If you added grids, it would help move you in that direction. But I've got that, in the first one there's no grid, and in the second one, I've got a 10-degree grid. And so now, it's a totally different look, and totally different feel. So if you ever see that, it could be a snoot, it could be a grid, there's specialty lights called Fresnels that let you do focused beam of light. There's other stuff.

Class Description


  • Recreate the light from any image you see
  • Work with traditional studio lighting patterns
  • Design your own creative, complex multi-light setups
  • Understand how to use a studio lighting kit
  • Work with several different lighting modifiers


Decipher the complexities of light. From working with studio lights to using modifiers, Lindsay Adler helps photographers develop the ability to see and shape light. By the end of this class, you'll be able to look at any image and determine how to recreate the lighting in your own work.

Using clues like catchlights and shadows, Lindsay demystifies photography lighting setups. Learn how to create classic lighting setups, from a single light to multi-light setups. Build the skills to be able to recreate the light from any shot you see -- and the ability to design your own creative lighting system. Work with studio strobes, light modifiers, window light, and natural light outdoors.

Stop fearing studio lighting and start using your light kit to design create powerful portraits.


  • Any photographer ready to learn light
  • Beginners ready to learn essentials like hard and soft light
  • Intermediate photographers eager to learn to create their own lighting setups
  • Advanced photographers ready to learn the clues to recreate light from any photo


Fashion photographer Lindsay Adler is one of the most respected photographers of the genre, known for a clean yet bold style. The New-York-City-based photographer has work in some of the most prestigious magazines, including Marie Claire, Elle, InStyle, Noise, Essence and more. The Canon Explorer of Light shares her knowledge on digital cameras, posing, light and more with other photographers through speaking engagements, books, classes, and workshops.


Kaltham Ali

Wow wow wow- I finished the entire class in a day! I feel like owning and buy right away all her trainings... this is what a real trainer is al about.. I went from zero in light understanding to really looking to lights/shadows etc.. awesome thanks Lindsay .. the best purchase ever

Warren Gedye

Lindsay, you're an absolute genius!! Such a terrific teacher. You are so talented- not only as an out-of-this-world exceptional photographer, but also as a person who clearly is so passionate about her craft and has that very rare ability to teach your art in such a unique and structured manner! I have learned so much from you previous courses too, Lighting Bootcamp 101, I think was one of them. I look forward to more of your tutorials. On a side note- John in the background is such a stand-up guy! I love the rapport you have with him. I've seen him in on a few Creative Live courses now and he's a kind of guy I just want sit down and have a coffee with, and pick his very informative brain! Such a cool fella!

a Creativelive Student

Lindsay is a talented teacher. She is very knowledgable of what she teaches, but also can teach it well (which is not something all talented people are gifted with, whatever the field). She is humble, dynamic and her courses are interesting to study. The one small improvement I would have liked would have been a little more emphasis and theory on the shaping part. However, this not being the most important, it is better that more emphasis was put on seeing (if you can't see it, you can't make it). Finally, I will say that to study and understand this course, or Lindsay's methodology, you are then equipped with an understanding—you could even say partly knowing the language—of light, which gives you a huge set of tools and advantage, allowing you to progress quite substantially with your studio or out-of-studio photography.