We’re all familiar with natural light. But have you ever actually stopped for a moment to think about the effect that it has on your photography? Or how you can use it to your advantage?
You can take breathtaking photos using natural light. But you need to understand how to use it.
You can read our complete guide to photography lighting here.
What’s the Time of Day
You might have heard before that you shouldn’t be shooting in the middle of the day. Even though the sun is bright, it’s hard to control and has a very harsh appearance.
While this is true, it would be a shame not to use this time of day to get some decent photos. If you know how to handle the light, it ceases to be a problem.
There’s two things you can do. Either use a polarising filter (I recommend following that link). Or shoot in an area where some of the light can be diffused.
The harsh lighting isn’t going to be a problem if you follow either of those options.
Here’s a photo of the harsh midday sun diffused by a polarising filter.
Mornings and evenings offer the softest light as the lower sun casts softer shadows.
Morning has the added advantage of being quiet. This allows you to capture a lot of the natural light’s progression along with the sun.
Because the sun is coming in from an angle, you’re left with a lot of shadows.
I’m not much of a morning person. So the majority of my natural light photography occurs in the evening. This is especially true if I’m working during the day.
This time of day is when you get some fantastic sunsets to work with.
If you’ve read my post on photography cliches, you’ll know that I warn beginners against shooting sunsets. Part of the reason for this is that there are much better things to be shooting at that time of day.
When you’ve got a good subject, the soft evening light will flatter their features. This will make for some really cool natural light photography.
The photo below was shot in the evening with no direct light from the sun. The dynamic range has vastly improved because of it.
Angle of Light & Location
So we’ve established the best time to shoot. You’re now left with three main options.
The first and most obvious option in regards to the angle of the light is to have it shine straight onto the subject. This provides very good outdoor photography lighting.
In the photo below, the sun went down over my right shoulder. You can see how the soft evening light floods over my models face, casting a warm glow.
Because the sun was low in the sky, there were no big and nasty shadows beneath the chin either. I like this photo but there are better angles to shoot the light from.
Shooting into the sun allows you some interesting lens flare. This produces some really cool shots. Here, the lighting on the face relied on the natural light still around in the sky.
And it overexposed the lens flare so that the face was not underexposed. I achieved this using spot metering.
This photo is softer than the one above as the shadows are more subtle on the face. And the flare that floods the photo makes an interesting outdoor portrait.
If you want to see more photos like this, click here.
The final major option when shooting natural light portraits is side lighting. I demonstrate this in my photo below.
It has many uses. You can get your model to adjust their angle until you find the most flattering light.
Sidelight is particularly effective on flat but slightly curved surfaces. Like the model’s stomach. It helps to give natural light photography a soft touch.
This is one of the best outdoor photography tips we have. So go ahead and use it to your advantage.
Side lighting is the most adaptable but it’s also the easiest to get wrong.
In this case, the side lighting on the model’s nose casts an ugly, sharp shadow on the side of her face.
Natural Light Indoors
Window lighting is probably my favourite indoor photography lighting. You can use it for anything.
It’s a form of side lighting and heavily dependant on the distance from the source. This makes it easy to manipulate.
If you have a look at my first subject below, you’ll see that he is very close to the window. The photo captures a lot of the light that passes through it.
One side of the face receives a lot less light but, because the vehicle we were in was well lit. The shoulder next to the face had a light on it.
This means that the subject was still well lit with natural feeling shadows.
Compare the photo above to the one below. You’ll notice that the subject is actually about 2 foot further away from the window.
Light disperses about the room, spreading the light about, as this distance increases.
This has resulted in a much darker photo and a stronger contrast between the two sides of the face.
The window frame to the right of the photograph gives it a nice balance, whilst the contrast on the right-angle of the open frame emphasises the light passing through the window.
Using the natural light in this manner is one of the best indoor photography tips we can offer.
If you’re dealing with indoor photography lighting, we’re mostly talking about light coming through a window. Whether the subject is near one or not.
Part of the reason why these photos look so soft is that the photographer is stuck using a wider aperture. This is because they need to capture enough light for a well-exposed picture.
The photo below was set to f/2.8, which was all the way open on my lens. You can tell that it was very naturally lit. I still would have preferred some lighter conditions.
Natural light can be the best way to light a subject, yet there are problems when shooting indoor photography.
How Will Weather Influence Your Natural Light Photos
A common mistake beginners make is thinking that they can’t go out shooting when it’s raining or overcast.
This might be the best time for natural light photography actually.
This is a myth. Overcast lighting is much easier to work with and can produce equally interesting photos. For outdoor photography portraits, this is a great tip.
Take the photo below for example. It evokes feelings such as bleakness and coldness. These are feelings that prove a lot harder to evoke in bright sun.
The similarity between the colour of the sky and sea on an overcast day gives this photo a lot of its strength.
Always check the weather forecast before you go out shooting. If there’s going to be rain followed by some bright sunshine, this is a great time to shoot landscapes. Here, shadows cast by the clouds can be captured.
The photo below would have been boring had it not been for the dynamic changes in the green colour. These help to emphasise the bumpy nature of the hills ahead.
This is a very basic example of what I’m talking about; have a play for yourself and link us to some of your results. You’ll find that outdoor photography using natural light is the only way forward.
No matter the weather, photos taken under evening light all start to look very similar. Not only do the brightness and dynamics change but so does the colour.
When the sky bounces light off the surfaces on the ground, the colour of the entire scene starts to change. This is shown in the photo below. I shot this on a slightly overcast evening, just before the sun went down.
How to Diffuse Natural Light
If you find yourself in unfavourable photography lighting conditions, using the sun or the flash on your camera, always try to diffuse the light by whatever means possible.
There are countless ways of doing this but I thought I’d show you one of my favourite techniques. I like to use the woods. The leaves reduce the amount of light reaching your subject. But they still provide gaps for direct light.
In my photo below, the woods were well protected from the harsh sun. But they still allowed enough light through to illuminate the woods.
The model positioned herself by a tree and stretched her legs out, lit by the ambient light of the woods. She leaned forward so the light was shining on to her face, producing a diffused effect.
This resulted in one of my favourite photos of the set. Here it is. As you can see, this is one of the best outdoor photography tips when using natural light.
And before you go, check out this video for better natural light portraits.