This post goes through the basics of taking photos outdoors, using sunlight only.  If you missed it, I recommend starting with our post that gives the rundown on shooting in manual mode because this post assumes you are familiar with the basics of manual.

First I’ll explain the importance of using natural reflectors, then I’m going to cover photographing outdoors at different times of day.

Understanding Natural Reflectors

I’ve written about it before, but it can’t be said enough.  The position of your light source in relation to your subject is what determines the look of your image.  When you’re shooting outside during the day, your primary light source is the sun, of course.  But light-colored surfaces near your subject can serve as secondary light sources AKA natural reflectors.  You can use surfaces like white concrete, snow, gravel, or water to send light back up into your subject’s face and combat the effect of harsh overhead sun.  Finding and using natural reflectors is a huge part of taking photos using only available light.

Rachel took these pictures on a cloudless day in the late afternoon. Anna is standing on a light-colored dirt road, which acts as a natural reflector. So while there is bright sunlight behind her, there’s also good light on her face because the road is bouncing light back up onto her.

Golden Hour

The 1-2 hours after sunrise and before sunset are most natural light photographers’ favorite time of day for outdoor photography.  We love shooting during the golden hour because the light is warm and gives everything a little bit of a natural glow.  Shooting during golden hour requires intentionally choosing whether you want the sun to be in front of or behind your subject.


I talked a bit about backlighting in my post about lighting indoor photos, but here’s a rundown of the basics:

  • Shooting with light behind your subject can cause your camera’s autofocus to struggle.  So be prepared to take an extra minute getting the focus right for backlit images.
  • Backlighting with natural light typically requires you to choose whether you want to expose your image so that your subject is properly exposed, leaving your background a bit blown out (most common), or whether your backdrop is properly exposed, leaving your subject underexposed (at the extreme, this creates a silhouette effect)

Rachel took this image of Jay and I about 10 minutes before the sun set. She set the exposure so our faces would be properly exposed, and the background is a bit brighter than our faces. You can see the focus got a bit soft on the image on the left, the image with the harsher sun. When Rachel used our heads to block the sun, the focus was sharper and we got that nice glow behind our heads.


If you face your subject directly into the sun, your frontlighting will be pretty harsh.  You won’t wind up with quite the harsh shadows noon-sun gives your subjects, but that can still be pretty tough lighting.  Luckily, the shadows are longer during the hours around sunrise and sunset, so there are more opportunities  to use shade to get even lighting on your subject.  So to get good frontlighting in the morning or evening, I suggest taking advantage of the shade and shadows that are readily available.

I took this image of Rachel just after she took the above picture of Jay and I. She was facing straight into the sun. Evening sun isn’t as harsh as midday, but it was still some pretty bright light. I often like the look of direct-sun images in black & white.

Other times of day

Cloudy Days

If you’ve got a cloudy day going, you’re in luck.  Cloudy outdoor lighting is one of the easiest lighting situations for beginners because lighting is soft and even.  Sunny days generally provide more opportunity for dramatic lighting, but cloudy days are a gift for naturally-lit portraits because when you have good cloud cover you can choose any backdrop you like without regard to what the sun is doing!

Shooting on a cloudy day means even lighting coming at your subject from all angles.  It’s the kind of lighting that doesn’t require a lot of thought to make an image that is appropriately exposed.

Taken at midday, but on a cloudy afternoon. Notice the soft light and absence of harsh shadows on this adorable face.

Midday Sun

Open Shade

If you’re new to photography and you’re photographing outside in the sun in the middle of the day, it’s easiest to put your subject in a big spot of open shade.  We usually find the best shade under a big tree or next to a building.
If you put shade behind your subject, both your subject and the background will be relatively evenly lit.  If you put your subject in the shade, but with a sunny spot behind their back, you’ll end up with an overexposed (also called “blown out”) backdrop.  As a general rule, I prefer to have my subject stand with shade behind them to avoid a blown out backdrop.

I took this image at about 12:00PM on a cloudless day. My subjects were under an awning, I was also standing under the awning but closer to the building, looking out on the sunny parking lot behind them. I exposed for the subjects, and the background ended up really blown out, which can sometimes be a good thing, but not typically how I like to use shade at midday.

This is how we usually prefer to use shade during the day. I took this image in the late afternoon, and my subjects were in the shade of the building and I was standing in the sun. I put the shade and the building that cast the shadow behind them, so we had a nice, consistently shady background.

When you’re looking for a shady spot, watch out for dappled sunlight (especially under a tree).  You can use dappling intentionally for fun or dramatic lighting, but if you aren’t conscious of it you can end up with uneven lighting on your subject.

Jay is dang cute, but you gotta admit, this picture probably would have been better if he didn’t have all those bright spots on his face and chest.

Full Sun

Shooting in full sun can be necessary when you just don’t have the luxury of a shady spot.  It can also be awesome.  With human subjects, full sun can be tough both because your subjects have bright sun in their eyes (uncomfortable for them) and because the light and shadows on your subjects’ faces is harsh.

That right there is some nooooooon lighting. Bright foreheads and dark mouths because the sun is coming down on us from directly overhead. PLUS, we don’t have any natural reflectors helping us out here because the green grass isn’t bouncing much light back up. Not ideal!

Bright midday sun (as evidenced by the squinting) but no real face shadows because the snow is acting as a natural reflector and is bouncing bright light up from below, too.

This lovely pair is facing straight into the late afternoon sun. They don’t have the harsh shadows on their faces that noon-sun causes, but it’s still pretty intense for them to be facing straight into the sun.


That’s it for today’s run down on using natural light outdoors.  If you’re interested in working on your photography skills, you can take a look at our past posts on shooting manual, finding good lighting indoors, and must-have equipment for beginning photographers.

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OH MAN. I have so much to say about these two.  Ashley and I went to law school together, and she brought all kinds of light to the law school world.  Her partner, Zach, is an equally kind person, and I always love seeing the two of them together.  Our friendship with them is a constant source of inspiration to live life with intention, curiosity, and kindness.

They just moved into their new home.  It’s perfect to see them in a space that is so cozy and with so much character.  We love seeing them in such a terrific house, and are so looking forward to celebrating another huge milestone with them when they get married in July.

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Ashley & Zach found this A to Z wine.  Which obviously they proceeded to purchase in bulk because with a name that so perfectly matches you, what else do you do?

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I love this lo-fi photo Jay took, shooting through an ancient window between the living room and the sun porch.

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To be honest, not sure what happened in that image on the left. But I’m digging it.

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Am I the only person who watched Garden State approximately 300 times in 2005? If so, hopefully you can appreciate these bath tub pics even without a strong background in Zach Braff films of the mid-2000s.denver wedding photographer under $3000colorado couplecolorado wedding photographer under $3000Denver wedding photographer at home

Ashley & Zach are super easy to photograph because they are comfortable together and always seem at ease.  Plus they were game for weird ideas, which I always appreciate!denver backyard wedding photographercolorado backyard wedding photographer


Well, there you go friends.  Check back later this summer for pictures of Ashley & Zach’s wedding.  Sign up for our email list and we’ll send lovely pictures and photography tips every other week, and we’ll be sure to include Ashley & Zach’s wedding blog in our newsletter in August.

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The pre-session question we get most often is “What should I wear for our photo session?” If you spend a minute or two flipping through our portfolio, you’ll see that our approach to photographing clients is focused on interaction and authenticity.  And we’ve got some more outfit advice to go help with those kinds of images.  Here’s one photographer’s perspective on how to choose clothes that set the tone for a really sincere, emotion-filled family portrait session.

Consider keeping it casual.

Some photographers make those beautiful images of the whole family in their Sunday best looking stoic and perfect.  Our style (we love lifestyle/documentary-type images) lends itself best to casual clothes.  We’ve had some more formal sessions that I’ve totally loved, but especially for families I think we do our best work when we create images that are playful and show emotion and connection.  Your favorite everyday clothes are perfect for this.bright color outfits family photos

Avoid graphic tees and big logos (if you want).

They have a tendency both to date photos and to draw attention away from the subject’s face.  But, if you’re really just a batman kind of family and have to wear your batman logo gear, what can you do? You gotta listen to your heart on this one.  And if you have a kid who insists on wearing something special to them that might not be totally “photo worthy,” consider the sentimental value of having pictures in your kiddo’s favorite outfit.  We’ll roll with it!

bold outfits kids photosfun outfits kids portraits

Choose outfits that allow you to move freely.

I’m not a prude (I swear) but this rule can basically be summed up as avoid short, tight, and low-cut items of clothing.  This rule has absolutely nothing to do with sexuality or modesty; it’s just about having the flexibility to take photos from multiple angles and with all kinds of sitting, standing, and sometimes even laying-down poses.

Skirts and dresses that are tight-fitting and hit above or around the knee are tough because we prefer to have the freedom to pose people sitting on the ground, and as anyone who has worn one can probably attest to, the pencil skirt just wasn’t made for sitting on the ground.   If you’re going to wear a skirt or dress, long and loose-fitting is awesome.  Or, if you have a tight skirt you love, bring along two outfits, and we’ll do some images with the shorter skirt first, and then switch to an outfit that allows for climbing on the ground, etc.

Relatedly, and there really isn’t a delicate way to put this one, but be careful about low-cut necklines.  We often take a picture or two from above so you might consider whether you’re comfortable with not just a front-on photo but also the slight down-the-shirt view of your particular top.  Or, again, put the v-neck dress on for a few images, and then switch to another top that allows for photos from higher angles without feeling uncomfortable.

Outfits that allow for all kinds of movement are extra important for kids. Chances are we’re going to get your kids tumbling in the grass, swinging from monkey bars, and generally jumping around and wreaking havoc.  Outfits that allow for climbing and rowdy dancing without showing off the subject’s underwear are great.

Anyway, in case it isn’t TOTALLY CLEAR, absolutely no judgment here on whatever you choose to wear.  But if you’re going to wear clothes that only work when you’re standing or sitting on a chair, consider bringing a second outfit so we can get the variety of poses and images that we love to deliver.

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Go for outfits that complement each other, not outfits that perfectly match.

Some people love the all white or all black family photo look.  Those images can definitely be sleek, and perfectly complement certain home decor styles.  We are not the kind of photographers that really rock those images.  For our style, outfits that look good next to each other but that aren’t overtly matched are perfect.  This is hard to explain, so how about I just skip to the images of some really well-coordinated but non-matching families to serve as examples.

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Have some fun.

We love it when clients throw in some bright patterns or bold accessories, especially when they pick items that really seem to radiate their personality.  Floral prints, fun colors, big jewelry, hats, if you love to wear it we love it, too. Some of the tips we gave to prepare for your professional portrait session are worth considering when choosing patterns, like avoiding narrow stripes to prevent a moire effect.

winter family photo outfitsbright patterns family photos



Be true to yourself!

In the end, your photographer’s suggestions are just suggestions.  You’ll have the best photo session in outfits that you feel good in.  So wear something you love and we’ll accommodate what you’ve chosen.

purple outfits family photos

I know a lot of our clients stress about what to wear, but take comfort in knowing that from my perspective and for our style of shooting this is one of the less important parts of a successful photo shoot.  Fun and funky outfits are always a bonus, but we try hard to make your emotional connection central, and your outfits secondary.  We’re looking forward to seeing what outfits you choose!


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  • Justyna

    wow!!! These are great tips!!!!!! So true! ReplyCancel

  • Erica

    Great tips! I’m a big fan of being yourself too. ReplyCancel

  • Larissa

    Such great tips for outfits! I would add also tat sometimes you just cannot overthink it- wear what you love! Beautiful images also!! ReplyCancel

  • Great tips on what to wear for family photos! I know a lot of people (myself included) are often at a loss when it comes time to pick out clothing! Pinterest is one thing but making that happen in real life can be daunting. I love that your advice takes the pressure off! 🙂ReplyCancel

The most important thing to understand as a photographer is light and exposure.  In a previous photo tutorial, we gave the rundown of how to control exposure in-camera using ISO, aperture, and shutter speed.  Today I’m talking about how to work with the other half of the exposure equation — the light that goes into your camera.

Choose your Light Source

Today I’m sharing tips for using natural or ambient light to take photos inside.  A quick run-down on terms — natural light refers to sunlight only, and ambient light refers to any kind of available light, natural or artificial, that the photographer didn’t set up (so ambient light excludes flash, studio lights, video lights, and other similar equipment).

We use flash to light event photos, including evening wedding receptions, but for portraits and events where there is ample light available we prefer working with natural or ambient light.  Using available light allows us to work quickly and unobtrusively, which is important to our shooting style.  There are some incredibly skilled photographers out there who absolutely own it with studio lighting and flash, and for tips for manipulating those types of light sources check out a website like The Strobist.  Learning to master natural light is a great starting point for beginning photography, though, both because it doesn’t require buying anything, and because understanding natural light will help you understand how to use artificial light later.

When you’re taking indoor photos without flash the first question is always whether there is enough light available — if it’s too dark for your equipment you can end up with images that are blurry or overly grainy.  Whether there’s enough ambient light to take photos depends on camera’s capabilities.  Certain cameras perform better in low-light than others (and typically, it’s the more expensive cameras that do better).  You’ll only get a sense for what your camera is capable of by taking it out and playing with it.

Artificial v. Natural Light

Your best indoor light source is going to be a window or an open door, because artificial overhead lights just aren’t quite as nice.

Denver Pet Photographer

I love this image of my beautiful friend Regan and her cat, but the lighting could be better. It was dusk, so window light was minimal and I was relying mostly on a lamp, which gives the image a yellow cast.

Now that light is more like it! Walking into a house and finding huge picture windows like the images behind this mean-looking dog is the best.

Window light gives different effects depending on where camera and the subject are in relation to the window.   When you take a photo near a window, you should consider whether you want your photo to be front, back, or sidelit.  Let’s talk about the different looks of each, using indoor window light for examples.


Frontlight is probably the lighting that you’re most used to seeing.  If you’ve ever taken a picture using a built-in flash, you’ve taken a front-lit photo.  The idea behind frontlighting is typically to get even lighting across your subject, and to achieve it you have your subject face your strongest light source.  Using a window to frontlight a photo can be particularly nice if you have your subject near the window and a lot of space behind them because it can create a dramatic effect of having your subject lit and your background in shadow.

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Olive and I sat facing the biggest window in the room here, giving pretty even lighting across our faces, and leaving the background, the far wall away from the window, a bit darker.

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Garage doors are magic for front-lighting. If I had been able to convince a toddler and a puppy to move closer to the open door, the back of the garage would have been in complete shadow, one of my favorite frontlighting effects.


Backlight can also be pretty dramatic.  You use backlight to achieve silhouette effects, and for other photos where there’s a glow around the subject.  Typically, in back-lit photos that are shot with natural light only you’ll lose the detail from the background of the image because the highlights are blown out (that means that they are so over-exposed your camera has lost all the detail and just sees white).  Blown highlights in back-lit photos aren’t necessarily a problem, but it’s important to understand that if you’re trying to capture both the subject and the background, you probably aren’t going to be able to do so well with natural light only when the subject is back-lit.

dogs on orange couch

Gentle back-lighting in the image above.  The room was generally well-lit, so even though the primary light source is the window behind these guys’ heads, you can still see their faces.

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Another example of gentle backlighting. While the window was the only light source in this room, the light gray rug acted as a natural reflector. It reflected light back up onto the subjects, so I was able to get the bright backlit background without losing that beautiful chihuahua detail.

dog silhouettes indoor

These images are harshly backlit. The open door was the only light source in the room, there were no natural reflectors around, and I intentionally set the exposure so that the dogs would be in shadow and the background would be bright.


Sidelight is often harsh and dramatic, with one side of your subject bright and the other side quite dark.  Like with backlighting, you can make sidelit subjects more evenly lit by using a light-colored surface to reflect light back onto the shadow-side of your subject.  You can use natural reflectors, like light carpet, a white wall, or a mirror that happens to be in the room, or you can use tool designed to be used as a reflector, or even a piece of white poster board.

colorado dog photographer

How about the DRAMA in this sidelit image? The window is in the left side of the frame, and the right side of Olive’s face is left in shadow. I could have lightened up the right side of the frame by using a reflector, but let’s be real the dog isn’t going to sit still while I shove a giant piece of poster board next to her.

That does it for today’s photo tutorial.  In upcoming posts, we’ll talk about working with natural light outdoors, how to compose beautiful photos, and how to use more of your camera’s functions and capabilities.  If you want to stay in the loop, sign up for our email list to get photography tips once every two weeks.

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how to organize old family photos

Woooo I’m knee deep in stacks of old photos right now.  Since we’re technically proficient and, of course, value photos, the Wood Box Studios team has basically become the official archivists for our families.

I’ve written before about how archiving our modern family memories means making sure photos get off the computer and onto paper.  Today, I’m writing about going the other way when we take care of old family photos–digitizing pictures that have long sat in boxes in grandma’s basement.  We have grandmas that are great at keeping things, and we have thousands of pictures on our hands that we want to make sure we don’t lose them.

1. Organize the originals

If your family photos look like this you might need to start your digitization efforts by putting the maaaaaaaaaaany piles of old photos into some sort of order.

I think it’s easiest to start by organizing loosely by decade.  Use sticky notes to make piles, for example 1950’s, 1960’s, etc.   Especially if you are dealing with thousands of images, don’t let the desire for perfect organization make this task feel impossible.  Get close on dates, and if images are slightly out of chronological order, that will be just fine.

As you’re organizing, feel free to throw some things out.  We found a lot of blurry images, duplicates, and pictures of friends or colleagues that no one remembers any more.  It can feel painful to toss family pictures.  But, if you whittle the stack down to exclude images that aren’t meaningful to anyone in your family, you make it more likely that the important images get appreciated rather than getting lost in the sheer number of photos.

scanning old photossorting family photo heirlooms2. Make digital copies

We started this process as a way to help our grandparents organize their prints, but also took the opportunity to digitize the images while they were freshly organized.  Now, we have them available for future photo books, slideshows, and #throwbackthursday, of course.

We DIY the scanning, using a simple scanner that lets you scan both prints and negatives.  The quality is good but the pace is SLOW.  It takes me about 30 seconds an image to complete scanning and saving.  Usually, when I’m in the middle of a scanning project I’ll have boxes of photos and the scanner take over the living room for a few weeks, and try to knock out 100 photos or so a day.  If you’re not committed to spending many hours on a scanning project, you can hire someone to do this.  It gets pricey, though, we found prices average around $0.50 an image in our area.

If you’re doing it yourself, do some research before you choose the quality of the scan files you’re creating.  Scanners are capable of incredible photo quality, but if you scan huge image files, they are going to be difficult to share.  We save at 300DPI (dots per inch), which is necessary to create files that work for printing, but limit the size of each scan to 500KB.  We aren’t printing any of these images bigger than 8×10, so this is a good balance for us between manageable file sizes and quality reproductions.

I already suggested getting rid bad or duplicate images in step 1, and you might decide to narrow down the images again here.  Some pictures we kept in paper form, for example pictures of grandma’s old friends, but we decided not to digitize because we didn’t think other members of the family wanted access to those images.

archiving family pictures

3. Share the digitals

This is the part that makes the many hours of work worth it!  Now everyone in the family can enjoy the pictures that they haven’t seen in years.

Duplicate backups and easy access are critical, so I think the best approach is to give USB drives, discs, or if it was a ton of photos external hard drives with the archived images to each member of your family who would be interested, and to also make an online gallery that people can access indefinitely (we use Google Drive in addition to our professional subscription service). There are also potential options to store lower resolution copies on services like Google Photos or Amazon’s Prime Photo (if you are a Prime subscriber), which have the option to avoid using paid online storage.

4. Make photo books

I’ve written before about our approach to using on-line photo book services to get the most out of our photos.  We use the same strategies for archiving and sharing old images of loved ones.

One of our favorite Christmas gifts for family is photo books of family keepsake images.  We leave the albums with the original prints with our matriarchs, and then we give Picaboo photo books to other family members.  We typically add captions to images to the best of our ability based on labels on the backs of prints and conversations with people who were there.  How cool would it be to take a few extra hours on this project and write down some of the old family stories that go with the images and add text to your photo book?  This has been too ambitious for us in the past (my motto is don’t let perfect be the enemy of done!), but it’s on my list of goals for future books.

organizing old prints

If you’re embarking on the old photo organization journey, good luck to you!  We’re always so glad when we finish one of these projects and I think our extended families would tell you they’re glad we’ve done it, too.


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