Natural light is a form of lighting that we’re all very familiar with but have you ever actually stopped for a moment to think about the effect that it has on your photography and how you can use it to your advantage?
You can take breathtaking photos using natural light but, first, you need to understand how to use it properly.
The difference between studio lighting or flashes and natural light is the amount of control we have over them. Natural light’s unpredictable nature forces us to find ways to work around it. You can read our complete guide to photography lighting here.
Time of Day Outdoors
You’ve probably been told before that you shouldn’t be shooting in the middle of the day because, even though the sun is bright, it’s hard to control and has a very harsh appearance.
While all of 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.
So long as you’re using either a polarising filter (I highly recommend following that link) or shooting in an area where some of the light can be diffused, the harsh lighting isn’t going to be a problem.
If you’ve read my tutorial on polarising filters, you will have seen the massive difference that one can make when shooting in direct sunlight. There are plenty of photo examples so, instead of telling you more, here’s a photo of the harsh midday sun diffused.
Mornings and evenings offer the softest light as the sun is lower in the sky and casts softer shadows; these tend to be the best times to shoot.
Morning has the added advantage of being fairly quiet, allowing capture of a lot of the natural light’s progression as the sun rises. Because the sun is coming in from an angle, you’re invariably left with a lot of shadows; this soft contrast makes for some pretty interesting textures.
I’m not much of a morning person so the majority of my photography occurs in the evening if I’m working on something else 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 making for some really cool photography. The photo below was shot in the evening with no direct light from the sun and the dynamic range has vastly improved because of it.
Angle of Light & Location
Now that we’ve established the best time to shoot (when the sun is lower in the sky) you’re basically left with three main options when it comes to choosing the angle at which the light hits your subject.
The first and most obvious option is to have the light shine straight onto the subject.
In the photo below, the sun went down over my right shoulder and you can clearly see how the soft evening light has flooded over my models face, casting a warm glow. Because the sun was reasonably low in the sky, there are no big and nasty shadows beneath the chin either.
I like this photo but there are better angles to shoot the light from.
I’m a big fan of shooting into the sun in the evening as you get to play around with some interesting lens flare which produces some really cool shots.
This photo was taken about an hour before the one above. The lighting on the face heavily relied on the natural light still around in the sky, while over exposing the lens flare so that the face was not underexposed (which I achieved using spot metering).
This photo is slightly softer than the one above as the shadows are more subtle on the face. This is added to by the flare that floods the photo.
If you want to see more photos like this, click here.
The final major option when shooting in natural light is side lighting, demonstrated in my photo below.
It has many uses as you can get your model to adjust their angle slightly until the most flattering angle for the light is reached.
Side light is particularly effective on flat but slightly curves surfaces, like the model’s stomach – it really helps to give the lighting a soft touch.
Side lighting is the most adaptable but it’s also the easiest to get wrong.
The photo below would have been very good if it weren’t for the side lighting on the model’s nose that casts an ugly, sharp shadow on the side of her face.
Natural Light Indoors
It’s easy to see how to use the light from the sun but, when you’re inside, you have to use ambient light or window light.
Window light is probably my favourite type of indoor lighting as there’s a lot that can be done with it; it’s a form of side lighting and is heavily dependant on the distance from the source, making 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, capturing 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 light on it. This meant that the subject was still very well lit with natural feeling shadows.
When you 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.
If you’re dealing with natural light indoors, we’re mostly talking about light that has entered through a window, whether the subject is near one or not.
Part of the reason why these photos look so soft is because the photographer is stuck using a wider aperture than they would have liked to in order 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, although I would have preferred some lighter conditions.
A common mistake in beginner photographers is to think that they can’t go out shooting when it’s raining or overcast for fear of bad photos.
This is a myth. Overcast lighting is much easier to work with and can produce equally interesting photos.
Take the photo below for example: it evokes feelings such as bleakness, coldness, desolateness etc. 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 because, if there’s going to be rain followed by some bright sunshine, this is a great time to shoot landscapes in which shadows cast by the clouds can be captured.
The photo below would have been relatively 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.
No matter the weather, photos taken under evening light hidden from the sun 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, demonstrated in the photo below which was shot on a slightly overcast evening before the sun went down.
Diffusing The Light
If you find yourself in unfavourable lighting conditions, whether you’re 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 while still providing gaps for direct light.
In my photo below, the woods were well protected from the harsh sun but still allowed enough light through to illuminate the woods.
The model positioned herself by a tree and stretched her legs out so that they were lit by the ambient light of the woods. She leaned her face forward to a point where the light was shining directly on to it, producing a very soft, diffused effect.
This resulted in one of my favourite photos of the set.
Here it is:
A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:
Thank you for reading...
if you want to capture breathtaking images, without the frustration of a complicated camera.
It's my training video that will walk you how to use your camera's functions in just 10 minutes - for free!
I also offer video courses and ebooks covering the following subjects:
You could be just a few days away from finally understanding how to use your camera to take great photos!
Thanks again for reading our articles!