How to Successfully Achieve that “Light & Airy” Look:


If you look at my photography style what words come to mind? I was once told early on in my career to write down the style I felt my work portrayed. I wrote down adjectives such as “light”, “airy”, “romantic”, “whimsical”… and so forth. As I grew in my artistry I discovered what style I wanted to be known for and really honed in and refined those skills.

Now, I get asked rather frequently how do I achieve this “light & Airy” look? I’m going to let you in on some secrets here, and it’s pretty simple too! These easy tips should help you to better visualize what you are taking photos of and thus help you achieve that look of film without actually having to use film (although I have already stated in previous blogs how much I adore film and even though my digital versions come close they still aren’t quite the same).

1) Lighting:

I can’t stress enough how important lighting is when using it to achieve a certain look for your photography. Bad lighting is just that… bad lighting. No amount of editing can fix an image taken in poor lighting. If you want those warm, creamy tones, then scheduling your sessions as close to sunset as possible will be your best option. That last hour, golden hour as we all know it, is when you will get the BEST lighting. This is because as the sun sets closer to the horizon it’s range is a lot broader, spreading light more evenly. High noon lighting can be thought of a spotlight directly over your head. Have you ever noticed the difference when a light is shone directly over your head versus coming from other angles? The overhead lighting create unflattering shadows caused by your brow and nose. The same can go for sunlight. This is especially true for sessions at the beach. The sun has nowhere to hide, so naturally the scene at the beach is much brighter (and for longer too). If you wait until the sun hits the horizon you will be pleasantly surprised to see how soft the tones are and how nice and even the lighting is. You can open up your aperture and still get a clean shot of the ocean and rich colors in the sky.

Now bright even lighting plays into the light and airy vibe, but playing with sunlight is another form. Light and airy photographers will tell you that 98% of the time we shoot with our subjects backlit. That means the sun is usually behind the subject. Now this is the tricky part. It’s more than just having the sun behind them. If you do this only you’ll find that your images will have a lot of sun flare- to the point of haze and out of focus shots. The trick here is to block the sun from actually hitting your lens. My favorite is the use of trees. The branches and leaves act as a type of diffuser in that it filters the sun rays from actually hitting your lens. What you will get is rim light (also known as hair lighting) from the back of your subjects, and an even, unshadowed front. Another trick is to overexpose the skin tones by at least half a stop. Your highlights may be a little blown out, but your subjects’ skin tones will look marvelous. You have to outweigh the cost here. There are photographers that may gawk at blown out skies, but if you want to be the “light and airy” photographer, you’ll have to embrace that rule is meant to be broken and that it is part of your style. You can’t be light and airy and use off camera lighting in the broad daylight, it doesn’t really work that way (more on off camera lighting on another post to come).

Now of course as wedding photographers we understand that we don’t always have the final say when it comes to wedding day timelines. You can do your part and educate clients when would be the best time of day for certain photos, ceremony, etc., but the decision is ultimately theirs and it’s up to you to accommodate them. So how can you achieve that light and airy look even in harsh lighting? I’ll be honest, it still isn’t the same, but continue to backlight your subjects. Just as you would during sunset hours do the same for harsh lighting. Look for open shade and even lighting whenever you can. Even a tree to help defuse some light will help. An easy trick to remember is to stand at the apex of your subjects’ shadow. That gives you a guideline as to where the best lighting will be found. I’ve used this trick even at high noon hours at the beach. It’s not ideal, but still doable!

2) Scenery:

Although scenery is secondary to lighting, in my opinion, it is still nonetheless important. Obviously a gorgeous mountainous backdrop with tall pine trees will look more majestic than your parent’s backyard with a swing set in the background. Every place has hidden treasures, and it’s up to us to seek them out. After you’ve established where the good lighting falls you can then search for a pretty scenery. I’ve been to weddings that literally had nowhere to take photos and I took the couple into the parking lot because the middle aisle had some greenery that when cropped just right made them look like they were in a forest. You would have never guessed that two feet over was a dumpster! Now if you have pretty scenery but the lighting is bad, your image will fall short. Remember bad lighting is bad lighting. The same can hold true for your scenery. You can have your subjects placed in the prettiest of lighting (and pretty lighting in a not so great scene will create a stronger image more so than the other way around), but if something is slightly off in the background it will take away from your image. Both lighting and scenery combined make for a natural recipe to that obey gooey light and airy look you want to achieve.

3) Mastin Presets:

OK, my final piece of advice, the last hoorah to my style is adding a Mastin preset in Lightroom. Now, when I first started using them I had to adjust to the difference in the greens and pinks of my photos. I played around with each preset until I found a formula that worked for me. First of all, these presets will NOT make a poorly lit image an award winning photo. You have to shoot specifically for Mastin. The first two pointers of lighting and scenery are absolutely necessary if you want to get the most out of these presets. Have patience with them, and when you find a formula that works for you stick with it! For me, and try to visualize this on your Lightroom develop module, I use the Fuji 400H Neutral, and apply All Soft to it. I make minor tweaks to the temperature and tint. I like my warmth to be normal- so neither blue nor yellow but right smack in that middle range. I like my tints to be more on the magenta side. All tweaks are very minimal and barely noticeable. Less is more. I usually bring my exposure up a tad. I bring the whites up, blacks down. Clarity is moved to about -10 (usually not more than that). The vibrance I move up and it stays at about -5 to +5. For the tone curve my darts are at about +20 and my lights at -20. Sometimes the skin tones can be a bit too orange, so I’ll bring down the saturation on the orange slider.

OK, now that I have gotten all technical on you, I implore you to go out and practice! Practice different lighting scenarios and practice using Mastin presets. If you need something more hands on don’t hesitate to contact me! I do offer one on one mentorships!

I’ve included photos from my latest styled shoot. We began the session at about 2pm, the lighting was a bit harsh. Can you tell the difference between the earlier part of the day verses right before sunset? How do you think these photos came out?




Special thanks to our models Aida and Almira Rezaimalek. Hair and makeup by Brianna Ruben of Beauty By Bri Len ( Jerry Willis Photography and Thy Nguyen (from Martin Ngo Photography) I had so much fun working and hanging out with the both of you!

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  • Brandon McBride - Awesome 🙂ReplyCancel

  • Karen Nassimbeni - These are soooooo gorgeous!!ReplyCancel

  • Justine Pedroza - Such beautiful photos! The models are gorgeous and that location is so beautiful! Great post as well. Thanks for sharing those helpful pointers.ReplyCancel