It’s all around us, but how do we find the best natural light for our photography?
Whether shooting outdoors in sunlight, making the most of window light or capturing the last glow of twilight, natural light is the essential ingredient in so much of our photography. But how can we recognise and seek out the ideal light for the kind of photos we want to create?
1 Changing daylight
Our eyes may not notice it, but natural light changes colour throughout the day. In the morning as the sun rises it’s often very warm, then at midday it’s much cooler in colour, at sunset it becomes warmer again then during twilight it becomes very blue. You can use these changes to enhance the mood of the scene, as warmer scenes can create a sense of happiness, while cooler scenes feel more sombre and thoughtful.
We can match our cameras to the colour of the light by setting the white balance. The white balance presets on offer - like daylight, cloudy, shade - are a good place to start. Keep in mind too that if you shoot in raw format you can change white balance afterwards with exactly the same results. This can be a great way to make creative changes to the white balance to warm or cool the scene afterwards.
"Keep in mind too that if you shoot in raw format you can change white balance afterwards with exactly the same results."
2 Qualities of light
Would you rather shoot a spectacular scene in unexciting light, or a mundane scene in incredible light? The latter will almost always yield better results, because it’s the light that creates the magic. But how do we seek out and recognise good light, and avoid bad light? It can be helpful to think of light as having four distinct qualities.
First, think about the hardness of the light. Does it create strong, hard shadows or are they soft? Second, does the light have a colour? Is it warm or cool? Third, what is the direction of the light? Is it coming from directly above or streaking across the scene from a low angle? Fourth and finally, how strong is the light? Is it blindingly bright or near-dark? If you can recognise these individual qualities of strength, direction, colour and hardness, you can start to unpick what makes a great natural light photo.
"Would you rather shoot a spectacular scene in unexciting light, or a mundane scene in incredible light? The latter will almost always yield better results..."
3 Changing seasons
The most atmospheric light often comes at the start or end of the day when the sun is lower in the sky, as this creates more of an angle. It also means the sunlight has to travel through more of the earth’s atmosphere, so direct sunlight becomes slightly more diffuse. The time of year plays a part too, as in winter the light is more directional, and in summer it’s more top-down. So in winter, even though there’s less daylight to work with, the light you get is often more pleasingly directional.
4 Shooting in full sunlight
Direct sunlight can be a challenge to shoot under, but it can also result in starkly beautiful photos. The direct sun casts hard-edged shadows, which typically makes it unsuited to some subjects like portraiture (although there are always exceptions to the rule). The hard light you get from the sun can be ideal for creating bold, punchy photos with strong colour saturation.
5 Look for directional light
Whether shooting landscapes, portraits or any other subject, directional light can help to add depth to the scene. Directional light is light that comes in at any other angle than the camera position. You can tell the direction of the light by looking closely at where the shadows are falling. Of course, the lower the sun drops the more directional the light becomes. It cuts across scenes from one side, emphasising the rise and fall in a way that can’t be seen any other time of day.
6 Under a cloud
When the sky becomes overcast and cloudy the light is much softer and more diffuse than under direct sunlight. Consider that, with any light source, the smaller it is the more hard-edged the light. The sun is a small light source (it may be a huge object but its relative size in the sky is small). As such, direct sunlight is hard-edged, just like a bare flash bulb. By diffusing and softening the light from the sun, clouds effectively turn the entire sky into a giant light source, and the larger the source, the softer the light.
7 Wait for twilight
Don’t pack up immediately after sunset, as dim light can be wonderfully atmospheric for landscapes. The fading light will turn very blue and the landscape takes on a sombre feel. Keep in mind too that your camera can often gather in more light than your eyes. So scenes that may seem far too dark to the naked eye can still look wonderful when captured using a tripod and a long exposure.
"Don’t pack up immediately after sunset, as dim light can be wonderfully atmospheric for landscapes."
8 Look for beautiful backlighting
Hazy evening sunlight is perfect for backlighting people and animals. The sun lifts the edges of the subject, so it’s ideal for side-on profiles of people or animals.
Simply position yourself with the subject between you and the setting sun. You may need to balance out the strong backlight by bouncing some sunlight back towards the shadow side of the subject with a reflector or any suitable white surface.
9 Shoot striking silhouettes
When the sun is going down the difference in brightness between the sky and the land becomes more severe. It can be tricky to get a balanced exposure between the two, so instead this could be a great time to try shooting bold silhouettes. Simply exposure for the sky so that the foreground is recorded in deep shadow.
10 Starburst the sun
The sun can create an attractive starburst in your outdoor photos, but If you want to include it in the frame then there are a couple of things to bear in mind. Directing your lens at the sun can cause flare that clouds the image. It’s easier at the start or end of the day when the sunlight becomes weaker, or if it’s peeking through trees (of course, this will usually happen when the sun is lower in the sky). The key thing is to use a narrow aperture like f./16, as this creates the starburst effect in the sun, or any other small specular highlight.
- AuthorJames Paterson
James has been a professional photographer and award-winning journalist for the past 15 years. He is editor of Practical Photoshop magazine and contributes to leading photography publications worldwide.View all articles