Using Northern Light in Your Photography

As far back as I am aware, some of histories greatest artists (painters, photographers) have known about and used north light in their work.  I am in the process of looking for a new studio and north facing windows is my number one priority besides the other obvious things that you would want for any studio. First, I will discuss what north light is and how it compares to other types of light and then provide some tips on how to simulate north light in the studio.

North light is commonly known as indirect light or reflected light.  One of the reasons why you want this type of light in your studio is because it is consistent and predictable throughout the day in addition to being a high quality source of light that can produce dramatic and beautiful results.  With north light you don’t have to worry about the light shifting or moving at different angles over the course of the day. Northern light is in contrast to direct sunlight which is typically harsh and can create very unflattering dimensions and elements to your work.  However, there are times when it makes sense to use direct sunlight, so it is not always a bad thing.

What can you do if you don’t have north light?

All is not lost as there are some things you can do to get similar effects, just not exactly the same and for the same duration that you would enjoy with true northern light. I love using natural light in my work and it is always my first choice if possible.

I use drafting vellum paper, also known as engineering tracing paper, that comes on a roll in widths ranging from 24″ to 72″.  This paper is used by architects.  I typically use 42″ to 48″ rolls because they fit nicely on a boom arm on my light stands.  Light that radiates through the vellum is just like northern light and gently wraps around your subject and produces that magical look and feel to your work.  You can move your continuous light source closer or move farther away to create the type of light you need for your project.

I just went to my local art store and they had some in stock, but you may need to check with an engineering supply store or any of the major retailers online carry it.  Another option is to use a professional product from Rosco called Opal Tough Frost.  I use this for large windows because it is more robust and also heat resistant.  You can get it from B&H online. If you don’t have these papers and need a quick solution for an immediate project then try using a frosted shower curtain for strong light or a thin plastic paint cover that you can pick up at your local hardware store for less than a couple of dollars.  I’ve used all of the above in a pinch.  In fact, I keep a few rolls of the plastic paint covers in my gear bag for everything from an emergency light diffuser to covering up equipment in the event of sudden rain.

Simulating North Light in the Studio

While it is nearly impossible to imitate the real thing, it is possible to get close and make good use of your studio and a few simple objects if needed.  The way that I imitate north light in the studio is with day light colored flood lights available from your local hardware store, vellum paper or Rosco opal frost paper and some white foam art board.  I picked up a few silver light reflectors from my hardware store, then kind that have a clamp on one end and a silver reflector.  These work perfectly for clamping to light stands and directing light.  I use different wattage bulbs to create my highlights and shadows and use the white foam art board to reflect and bounce light as needed.  In other words, I never directly apply my lights on my subjects, it is all diffused, controlled and sculpted to fit the needs of my subject and project.  For a very low budget you can have a complete lighting studio capable of producing top notch professional work.  For product and commercial work it is typically very important to manage reflections in your work.  This studio approach described above will help you produce very high quality product and still life work.

One of my best selling prints was made using the north light simulation techniques that I described in the paragraph above.








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