Photographers rely on natural light more than any other resource. In reality, your photography skills will increase dramatically after you learn how to use this tool properly.
In this piece, I will discuss five essential guidelines for shooting in natural light.
- The relative merits of different kinds of illumination
- Light-sensing workouts that really work
- What to keep in mind while editing your pictures
After finishing this article, you’ll be well on your way to taking professional-quality photographs in natural light.
Let’s dive right in!
1. Know that characteristics of natural light can change
The qualities of natural light are not static; rather, they vary with the time of day, the weather, and the surrounding environment. One could even argue that natural light is just one of several varieties available.
Light may completely transform the look of the same subject in different settings. Check out these pictures of the mountains:
All three pictures were taken from virtually the same position, however they turned out very differently. Photos on the left were taken at sunset, those in the middle at daybreak, and those on the right at roughly noon.
Realizing the wide range of possibilities afforded by natural light opens up a world of possibilities. You can always wait for the light to change, return when the sun is higher or lower in the sky, or when the weather is different if you don’t like the way the scene looks when you first arrive.
Keep in mind that different forms of lighting can dramatically alter the photogenic quality of different subjects. Even if a scene or building appears uninteresting during the middle of the day, you might want to go back and take pictures of it at sunrise, sunset, or even at night.
2. Don’t look at light as good or bad
The majority of photographers learn that the hours right after sunrise and right before sunset, known as the “golden hour,” provide the best lighting conditions. Some people think that the golden hours are the only good time to capture pictures, and that doing so at any other time is a huge mistake.
It’s true that the light during the golden hour is more pleasant and flattering than the harsh light of midday, but the opposite is also true. To produce amazing photographs, though, you need to understand how to work with whatever light is available, regardless of how unpleasant it may be in most situations. I find it quite restrictive to perceive the world as either bright or terrible light.
Look at these photographs that were taken during the golden hour or the middle of the day. What sets them apart from others? What do you think of the hues and tones? Where do the shadows stand?
You may take stunning photographs by learning to anticipate and respond to the impacts of different types of natural light.
Attempting to take a picture of a breathtaking landscape? Then you should shoot at the golden hour, which has a pleasant hue and gentle shadows:
But what if you need to make a picture that has nothing to do with the attractiveness of the subject? You need to know how light works in order to generate the image you want, and golden-hour light might not be the best choice.
This next picture shows why some people love the bright, midday sun. I aimed to convey the difficulty of working in a harsh, sun-bleached environment, and to comment on the toll that manual labor takes.
Photographing the location during the golden hour would have resulted in a sappy picture with no real meaning. Midday sun may be harsh, but its strong shadows and bleached colors helped me achieve a pinpoint accuracy in my final product.
Consider all the various forms of natural light as resources to be mined. None of the methods are inherently superior or inferior; rather, they are appropriate or inappropriate depending on the nature of the message being conveyed.
3. Constantly observe the light
If you want to become an expert in natural light photography, you need to learn as much as possible about light and the way it behaves.
Get in the habit of paying close attention to light in the world around you, noting how it reacts to different substances (including dust and water), how it shifts as you walk from one location to another, how it causes shadows to form, and how its intensity and brittleness fluctuate with the seasons and the weather.
If it helps, you can set a reminder on your phone to go off every hour. When you get that small phone notification, glance around at the light and see what you can pick up on. In no time at all, you’ll have a deeper comprehension of light than you ever thought possible.
But don’t stop at simply seeing the light as it seems to you. Also, take note of how your favorite photographers portray light in their images. Inquire within:
- What kind of light (hard or soft) do these photographers use?
- Where does it come from in relation to the subject?
- What color is it?
The goal is to learn to distinguish various lighting conditions through education and practice. Predicting the lighting conditions in advance can allow you to take much better photographs.
The aforementioned picture came to be because I have seen lighting conditions like that before. As the sun was setting, I realized that it was at the ideal position for creating a light-beam effect with narrow light sources and smoke. The entryway naturally restricted the beam of light, but I was able to emphasize the effect by having a friend stand in its way.
4. Experiment with different types of natural light
Taking actual images is the only way to learn how to make the most of natural light for photography, no matter how much research or advice you may have read.
Even while you can simply take pictures whenever the mood strikes you, I highly recommend trying out a wide range of different setups. To get different lighting effects, such as backlight, frontlight, and sidelight, try photographing from different angles. It’s a good idea to revisit a subject multiple times throughout the day to see how it appears in various lighting conditions.
While experimentation may not always result in masterpieces, it will provide invaluable insight into the functional aspects of light. And now that we have digital cameras, there’s no reason to withhold images. Take a picture if you come across a lighting situation you haven’t tried before and are curious in the results.
5. Expose with post-processing in mind
Without post-processing software like Adobe Lightroom, even the best cameras won’t be able to capture the full spectrum of tones produced by the most difficult shooting conditions.
Thus, in high-contrast lighting situations, you should not consider the light and tones to be what they actually are. Instead, think about the final product you want to get using post-processing tools and expose for that. That is to say, you should become familiar with the ways in which the combination of light and software might yield a satisfying final product.
The men’s faces are underexposed, making them appear dark. This is a RAW file from my camera; I purposefully underexposed it since properly exposing for the subjects would have resulted in overexposed clouds from which I would have had a hard time recovering any detail.
Natural light photography tips: final words
Taking stunning photographs in natural light doesn’t have to be difficult, but it does need learning to recognize and work with diverse lighting situations.
And keep in mind that no amount of reading about photography will replace genuine practice behind the lens. Keeping these guidelines in mind while taking as many photographs as possible (in as many various lighting situations) is the greatest method to enhance your natural light photographs.