Natural light and how to use it in your photography

Natural light in photography

It is a frequently cited point of view that in order to be a great photographer, you’ll need expensive, professional equipment to get the shots done that will catapult you onto the summit of the mountain of artistry, and that certain lamps and props are indispensable when it comes to creating a particular atmosphere.

However, that is not true, as often, nature itself creates the best atmospheres with its sunlight, its light reflections and especially its authenticity; heat haze, fog, rainy weather – however moody or not your pictures are supposed to be, there’s a type of natural light for every concept, and the best thing: all of them won’t cost you a buck. Here I’ll explain what types of natural light there are under the sun, what they are, and how to benefit from them.

Natural light in photography

Sunrise & Sunset

The light of a sunrise or -set flatters buildings, reflecting objects and natural settings – different effects can be achieved by how said objects are facing the light, if the light is coming from the front, the back, the side and so on – every photographer can add their personal note here. Trial and error is key here, to figure out which of these directions of lights work best with the subject.

Skylight coming from the back of your subject is the most common way renowned photographers take their photos in this type of light. It creates a calm overall effect, no matter if we’re speaking of the light of a sunrise or a sunset; both feature warm, yellowish tones, which are harmonic and warm on the eye. The long, fading shadows the subject can cause in this setting and the backlight illuminating the edges of it often comes out looking like the subject is glowing in the picture.

Taking photos during that time of the day is most exciting, as the colors of the sky are constantly changing and shifting. That is because sunlight hitting molecules and particles in the atmosphere is being scattered by them into different directions, and eventually, only the longest waves of light among them (red, for instance, has the longest wavelength, while violet has the shortest) manage to breach through the atmosphere and reach us. So, the lower the sun is in the sky, the more molecules it has to pass through until it finally reaches our retina, and the farther it gets scattered.

This is why sunsets and sunrises are empirically reddish, then become gradually brighter as the sun rises higher in the sky. When you’re up for experimenting a little and you are not insistent on the consistent stability of the color of the light on your subject(s), then, the times of sunrise and -set during the day are undoubtedly the most beautiful for you to set up your camera and snap a picture.

Natural light in photography ‫‬

Fickle weather conditions

An overcast sky offers so many opportunities in photography that are often overlooked or underestimated. Not only dramatic, glum or apocalyptic moods can be created during rain, storm and thunderstorm – firstly, they can create amazing contrast on your picture.

Rain clears up the air, strikes down the dust particles in your environment and frees your sight to the far horizon. If we’re speaking of a dark, overcast sky – for example right after a thunderstorm ended – often, the ground looks brighter than the sky does; an effect that can add a surreal vibe to your photographs. So even if the sky is gray, turns out, your pictures will still emit the most vibrant colors.

The trick, though, is not to include a bright gray sky in your frame, when that is the case for the weather you’re out in, taking photos. Because that will do the opposite to your picture quality; colors and exposure will be falsified, your picture will turn out way too dark. In this weather, just focus on your subject and the environment itself, but exclude the sky. Your subject will cast a soft, scattered type of shadow, rather indistinct, and once you’ll edit your photo after, it will be hard to say where the light source was located in your picture, what weather there has been, and so on.

Bottom line is that clouds are yet another type of light filter that will scatter the light all over the place and illuminate your subject softly all around. That takes us to our next type of light explained: The soft light.

Natural light in photography

Soft Light

Soft light in nature is created by there being no definite light source. Sure, the sky is the source of light, or broadly speaking: the sun. But, when there is overcast weather, as mentioned above, the clouds will scatter the sunlight evenly and most of the time, the temperature of light will be rather on the cold side of the spectrum.

That causes your subject to cast soft shadows: shadows that have no actual shape, that are blurry, and fade out quickly into light. There are no harsh edges of shade on your subject, either. It has more of a gradient-like character.

This type of light I recommend most for still life, black and white photography, close-ups of the subject (especially when the foreground is sharp and the background blurry) and portraits in general. It is your number one-way of bringing out the finest gradations and the subtlest shades.

Natural light in photography

Hard Light

Hard Light is defined by there being a distinctive source and direction of light. If the sky is clear and you’ll be exposed to the sun directly, you’ll cast harsh, dark shadows with a clean shape; there is not much light scattering happening in the atmosphere. If you shoot your pictures in this type of light, it will make all the subjects and objects depicted pop.

The longer those shadows are, the more aesthetic your image will end up looking. It is not recommendable to shoot during the high noon when the sun is at the zenith, the shadows will be but a black blob on the ground, and it might also create weird looking shadows on your subject itself. So rather wait until the sun is about to set a little, or when it has not risen to its highest point yet. So, recommendable before noon or in the afternoon, and if you want to go for shadows that are not as dark but still hard, aim for mornings or evenings with clear skies.

Hard shadows are often accompanied by light being reflected onto them. That is the case when the subject is exposed to sunlight, and right behind the subject, there is an area (for example a wall) that projects the light that shines on the wall onto your subject’s shady side. Depending on what colour that reflecting source is, you can achieve custom, amazing shade-and-light contrasts if you just make use of the opportunity.

Natural light in photography ‫

If you’re still unsure what type of lighting would suit your concept best, make test shots of the same subject in different locations, scenarios and times of the day. By means of trial and error, experimenting with ideas (and camera settings) that might seem peculiar at first, you are going to improve your photography a great deal.

Bottom line is that you are most likely prone to get the best results if you shoot during sunrise or sunset. I do not recommend starting off experimenting around with hard light right away if you’re still a rather unexperienced photographer, as that can take a lot of practice. Do not despair: Take your time, wait for the best lighting and have fun with what you’re doing, because who knows: Eventually, even if your final shot is not exactly what you expected it to look like, it might be better than what you pictured it to be in your conception.

** NOTE ** If you’d like to know more about natural light, Learn more about Mitchell Kanashkevich's book, to Mastering a Photographer’s Most Powerful Tool

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