Natural light: How to use it to create better photos

Lock up your flash accessories and hang up your lighting gear as we strip away technology and look to the stars for photographic perfection. In this fascinating article, we are going to break down the fundamentals of using natural light in your photography projects, reflecting and absorbing its immense power in a way that will transform the way you approach photography altogether. So, without further ado, let’s dive into the world of photons and let their light elevate you to new possibilities.  

Using natural light to create images has been around for hundreds of years using methods such as the camera obscura, a dark chamber with a tiny hole projecting light from the outside onto the opposite wall within the chamber. This essentially provided viewers with a live feed of the outside world. Ever since this exercise of pure genius, we have jumped down the rabbit hole, unlocking light’s divine secrets and potential to the point where we all have the power to stop and store time in the palm of our hand. 

So, light is essential for photography to exist. In fact, you could say photography is like painting a picture but with light instead. And once you start thinking this way, lighting gets a little more interesting behind the lens because the more you invest in this mysterious element, the more it gives back. 

What is natural light?

Natural light is the opposite of artificial light; it is defined as a source of light provided by nature, such as the sun or ambient light sources found in the environment. Since much of our natural light comes from the sun, most other natural sources, like the moon, are in fact, reflecting, refracting, or bending the path of photons formed from our colossal star. Fire is another source of natural light. However, if it’s created by hand, this would fall in the artificial category. Check out this collection of natural light photos to give you some perspective.

Artificial light, on the other hand, are all sources of light created by us, from campfires and torches to flash accessories and studio lighting equipment. Since the arrival of photography, we have forever been trying to harness the power of the sun so that aspiring photographers can continue their ambitious projects right the way through the night without dependency on natural light sources. 

Characteristics of natural light

The sun, our most majestic light source, is full of character. From dawn till dusk, our sun wakes us with its white golden rays piercing through the low-lying mist as its daily journey begins. Each hour of every passing day, the sun’s light is ever so slightly altered as it travels across the sky, providing us with time windows photographers can benefit from. Even the weather has a say. Heavy clouds or fog can diminish the sun’s power, effectively acting as a natural moody filter. 

Depending on where you are on the planet depends on when the sun is at its strongest or highest in the sky, which is the best time to shoot in natural light. It’s at this point of the day you can get the most out of your camera. Why? Because the more light there is, the more detail you can capture. Towards the end of the day, the mood changes from bright, high-energy lighting conditions to a more ambient atmosphere as the sun dips behind the horizon. As the sun melts away, we are rewarded with a soft glow of oranges, reds, and purples as the light refracts and splinters through our thick atmosphere. This poetic send-off is an exhilarating moment for budding photographers keen on creating vivid beauty using the power of natural light. 

Let’s take a look at some unique characteristics natural light provides us:

Direction: Natural lighting varies in direction throughout the day, influencing the shadows and highlights in a scene. The sun’s angle affects the mood and emphasizes different elements within a composition.

Color Temperature: The color of natural light changes based on the time of day. During sunrise and sunset, the warm hues create a soft and golden ambiance, while midday sunlight tends to be cooler and more neutral.

Intensity: The strength of natural light can range from soft and diffused on cloudy days to harsh and direct under a bright sun. Understanding light intensity is crucial for controlling contrast and achieving the desired look in a photograph.

Softness or Hardness: Cloud cover can diffuse sunlight, creating soft, even illumination with gentle shadows. In contrast, direct sunlight produces harsher shadows and more defined highlights, leading to a different visual effect.

Duration: The length of time natural light is available, particularly during the golden hour (shortly after sunrise or before sunset), provides photographers with a window of opportunity to capture warm, flattering light, enhancing the overall aesthetics of the image.

Dynamic Changes: Natural light is dynamic and constantly changing, offering photographers the chance to experiment with diverse lighting conditions. This dynamism allows for creative adaptation and a variety of effects within a single shooting session.

Understanding and harnessing the characteristics of natural light enables photographers to manipulate these elements to evoke specific emotions, highlight textures, and create visually stunning natural light photography. It is this versatility that makes natural light an essential and powerful tool in the realm of photography.

Types of natural light

Natural light comes in various types, each offering distinct characteristics and qualities that influence the mood and appearance of photographs. Here are some common types of natural lighting examples:

Natural light - Direct Sunlight

Direct sunlight: When the sun is unobstructed and shines directly on the subject, it produces bright and intense lighting. This lighting can create strong shadows and high contrast, especially during midday. The direct sunlight is ideal for highlighting textures and creating dramatic effects.

Natural light - Diffused Light

Diffused light: Diffused light occurs when the sun’s rays are scattered, often due to cloud cover, fog, or other atmospheric conditions. This results in soft, even illumination with reduced shadows and less contrast. Diffused light is flattering for portraits and minimizes harsh highlights and shadows.

Natural light - Backlighting

Backlighting: Backlit situations occur when the primary light source is behind the subject, creating a rim of light around the edges. This effect can add a sense of depth, create silhouettes, or produce a halo effect. Backlighting is commonly used during sunrise or sunset.

Natural light - Golden Hour Light

Golden hour light: The golden hour, occurring shortly after sunrise and before sunset, provides a warm and golden illumination. The low angle of the sun during these times creates soft, directional light with long shadows. This is considered one of the most favorable types of natural light for photography.

Natural light - Blue Hour Light

Blue hour light: The blue hour takes place before sunrise and after sunset when the sky has a deep blue hue. While the light is softer than direct sunlight, it has a cool tone, creating a unique and serene atmosphere. Blue hour light is excellent for capturing cityscapes and landscapes.

Natural light - Overcast Light

Overcast light: Overcast skies act as a natural diffuser, creating soft and even lighting conditions. This type of light reduces harsh shadows, making it suitable for a variety of subjects, particularly portraits and macro photography. Colors can appear more saturated in overcast conditions.

Natural light - Dappled Light

Dappled light: Dappled light occurs when sunlight filters through objects such as leaves or branches, creating a pattern of light and shadows on the ground or subjects. While it adds a dynamic element to images, photographers need to manage potential uneven lighting.

Understanding these types of natural light and knowing how to work with them empowers photographers to adapt to different conditions and achieve their desired visual outcomes in diverse settings.

How to use natural light in different photographs

Natural lighting photography significantly shapes the aesthetic and mood of diverse photography projects. In the fashion industry, the warm glow of the golden hour accentuates colors and adds elegance, while direct sunlight creates dynamic shadows for a dramatic effect. 

Wedding photography benefits from the romantic ambiance of the golden hour and the softness of overcast light, enhancing intimate moments and group shots. 

For artistic portraits, natural light becomes a crucial tool for conveying emotions, with different qualities influencing the overall narrative. 

Furthermore, travel photography is profoundly impacted by the magical tones of the golden and blue hours, creating captivating atmospheres and highlighting textures through dynamic shadows. The nuanced interplay of natural light proves indispensable in crafting visually compelling images across these varied genres.

There are fantastic ways you can harness the power of natural light for a variety of different photographic settings that don’t just involve using the sun’s light directly. Did you know you can bend, reflect, and fracture natural light in more ways than one? This lighting method can have impressive results on your natural light photos that may set you apart from the competition. Additionally, techniques such as using the rule of thirds will further enrich your photographic style. 

Camera settings

Understanding a few simple camera settings is essential to get the most out of your camera in natural light settings. This knowledge will instantly improve your results and your relationship with the camera

ISO: In bright light conditions like a clear summer’s day, select a low ISO setting that will up the quality and reduce the noise of your image. On the contrary, low light levels, such as sunsets, will mean setting a higher value. And if you’re worried about losing quality, you can counteract this by adjusting the shutter speed. 

Shutter speed: Adjusting the shutter speed will determine how long your camera lets light in for. During the height of the day, shorter shutter speeds will reduce over-exposure and, in addition, will stop motion blur, perfect for sports photography, capturing impactful moments in greater detail. On the other hand, longer shutter speeds will enable you to take timelapse images long into the night, capturing artificial light in action. 

Aperture: To adjust the depth of field and further exposure control, you will need to dive into the aperture settings. The aperture is the diameter of the shutter, in which light enters the lens of the camera. The higher the value, the smaller the aperture, meaning less light and a deeper depth of field. 

Want to understand more? Have a read of this fascinating article on current photograph techniques that will push the envelope of your creative projects. 

Using light reflectors 

Perhaps you’ve passed by a photoshoot outdoors and asked yourself why is there a person balancing on one leg and holding up what looks like a giant sombrero covered in foil? That would be a light reflector. 

This method of lighting enables photographers to take control of photographic scenes, redirecting natural light to illuminate their subjects with the sun’s power. If the sun is high up in the sky, you can use your reflector to point the light upward, illuminating that twelve o’clock shadow. Furthermore, you can take this method indoors. With good lighting conditions, you can redirect light from a window and bounce it off the ceiling, essentially brightening up the entire space. How neat is that? 

Using diffusers

Typically made of translucent materials like fabric or plastic, diffusers are strategically placed between the light source and the subject to scatter and temper natural light, producing a gentle and flattering effect. Widely used to minimize contrast and create soft highlights, diffusers are crucial in portrait photography, enabling a more natural look. They’re also invaluable in other genres like macro and product photography, providing precise control over natural light for enhanced details and reflections. Diffusers play a vital role as accessories for photographers mastering the nuances of natural light in their images.

All in all, natural light is an essential element to master when practicing photography, and the more you understand it, the more it will reward you with exceptional image quality and profound, almost poetic surprises for you and your audiences. Once mastered, it would only be correct to share your newfound superpowers across social media, enter into a photograph competition, or start your own photography business. Stay classy and keep snapping.