Natural light is the most important and powerful tool available to photographers. In fact, if you can understand how it works and how to use it effectively, your photos will improve in leaps and bounds.
In this article, I share five tips that are absolutely vital to natural light photography, including:
- Whether some types of light are good or bad
- Key exercises for improving your sense of light
- How to think about your images in conjunction with editing tools
By the time you finish reading, you’ll know everything you need to start working with natural light, and you’ll be well on your way to capturing amazing shots.
Let’s dive right in!
1. Know that characteristics of natural light can change
There is no single type of natural light; instead, the characteristics of natural light are constantly changing with the time of day, the weather, and even the surrounding environment. You might even say that there are different kinds of light, many of which are natural!
Depending on the circumstances, the light will give the same subject a very different appearance. Take a look at these mountain scenes:
I took each image from nearly the exact same spot, yet the three photos are totally distinct. The shot on the left was captured at twilight, the shot in the middle was captured at sunrise, and the shot on the right was captured around noon.
Once you understand that natural light can vary dramatically, you can use that fact to achieve all sorts of amazing results. If you don’t like the way the scene looks when you arrive, you can always wait for the light to change, or you can come back later when the sun is higher or lower in the sky, or the weather is different.
Also note that certain subjects become far more photogenic in certain types of light. So while a landscape or building might look flat and boring at high noon, it may be worth returning to photograph at sunrise, sunset, or even after dark.
2. Don’t look at light as good or bad
Most photographers are taught that golden-hour lighting (i.e., the light just after sunrise and just before sunset) is good and that harsh midday lighting is bad. Some even believe that the golden hours are the only time to photograph and that shooting under any other lighting is a terrible mistake.
Now, it’s true that golden-hour lighting tends to be nice and soft, while midday lighting tends to create unpleasant and unflattering shadows. But just because a type of light is often unflattering doesn’t mean that it’s always bad, just that you need to learn how to work with it to get great shots. In my view, thinking in terms of bad and good light is very limiting creatively.
Instead, spend some time looking at photos taken under midday light and golden-hour light. What’s different about them? How do the colors and tones look? How about the shadows?
If you can learn to recognize the effects of these types of natural light, you can understand when they can be used to create amazing photos.
Trying to capture a magical landscape shot? Then golden hour, with its warm tint and soft shadows, is a great choice:
But what if you want to create an image that isn’t about the beauty of a subject? Golden-hour light might not be so appropriate, and you’ll only be able to create the image you’re after if you understand how light works!
This next image is a good example of harsh midday light might actually be preferred. I hoped to communicate what it was like to be working in a harsh, sun-bleached environment, and I wanted to say something about the hardship of manual labor:
If the image were shot during the golden hour, the scene would likely have been romanticized and the message would have been lost. But thanks to the harsh midday light, the hard shadows and the bleached colors helped me create a very precise result.
Bottom line: Look at the different types of natural light as tools in a toolkit. None of the tools are good or bad on their own – they’re just right or wrong given what you’re trying to communicate.
3. Constantly observe the light
If you want to master natural light photography, you must understand all that you can about the way light works – and to do that, I encourage you to become obsessed with observing light.
Start regularly observing light in your everyday life – how it interacts with everything around you (such as dust and water), how it changes when you move from place to place, how it casts shadows, and how it varies in strength and hardness depending on the weather.
If it helps, set a notification on your phone that goes off once per hour. Each time you get the little phone alert, take a look at the light around you and see what you can notice about it. Pretty soon, you’ll understand the light better than you ever could have imagined!
Don’t just stop at observing the light as you experience it, though. Also observe how the photographers you respect use light in their work. Ask yourself:
- 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 aim is to educate yourself and train your eyes to recognize different lighting scenarios. Eventually, you’ll start to predict lighting conditions in advance, which will dramatically improve your photos.
The photograph above materialized because I had observed similar lighting scenarios before. I knew that narrow light sources and smoke can create dramatic looking light-beams, and because the sun was setting, it was at the perfect angle for a light-beam effect. The light was narrowed by the doorway, which I was able to narrow further by asking my friend to stand in its path, hence accentuating the effect.
4. Experiment with different types of natural light
No matter how much you observe natural light and how many tips you read about it, if you want to make the most of it photographically, you need to take real photos.
While you can just shoot when the light seems right, I’d really encourage you to experiment with all sorts of scenarios. Try shooting subjects from various directions so you get backlight, front light, and side light. Try coming back to the same subject several times during the day so you can see how different lighting makes it look.
Experimenting won’t always lead to masterpieces, but it will help you understand how light works in a very practical sense. And with digital cameras, there is absolutely no reason to hold back frames! If you see a lighting scenario you haven’t yet explored and you’re wondering how it would look in an image, just take a photo.
That’s exactly what I did for this frame:
You see, I knew that the scene was backlit, yet I also realized that light was coming from behind me. The first thought that entered my mind was “I wonder how this might turn out?” I experimented, made a few exposures, and ended up with a better understanding of the light (as well as a nice image!).
5. Expose with post-processing in mind
No matter how good your camera is, it won’t be able to portray the entire tonal range created by some of the more challenging situations – unless you have the aid of post-processing software such as Adobe Lightroom.
When you’re dealing with high-contrast lighting scenarios, it’s therefore important to avoid thinking of the light and tones as they are. Instead, recognize what they can become with the help of editing software, and expose your images accordingly. In other words, learn to identify how the light and the software can together create a solid final image.
To make the most of tricky lighting, it’s important to adjust your settings for maximum detail. This often means deliberately underexposing a scene so that you can recover the shadow details later. Check out this first image:
As you can see, the faces of the men are dark (i.e., underexposed). This is the image that came straight from my camera, and my decision to underexpose was very deliberate; had I exposed properly for the subjects, the image would’ve had blown-out clouds, and I would’ve been unlikely to recover the detail.
On the other hand, I knew that I could brighten the faces of the men and bring out the necessary details in Lightroom, so I elected to underexpose. Here’s the final image:
Exposing with post-processing in mind is a bit of a mental battle. You have to constantly consider the intensity of the light and the shadows; you also have to understand the dynamic range offered by your camera (and to what extent detail can be recovered).
Unfortunately, there are situations where details simply cannot be preserved with careful exposure and post-processing, in which case you’ll either need to sacrifice certain details or use HDR techniques.