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Natural Light Photography

Updated on May 16, 2013

Natural Light Photography - Professionals Need Not Apply

Natural light photography is fantastic as a way of getting some of the very best photos. After all, natural light is just that.. natural. And when you see a well done image made with natural light, it can be jaw-dropping good.

The photo on the left is a good example. It was taken in the morning using natural light with the sun facing the flowers. (Border was added for effect with photo editing software.)

Just a beginner? Good.. this information is for you.

There will be many great ideas that anyone can implement right away. While a digital SLR is your best bet for getting great results, you can use any digital camera for many of these natural light photography techniques. After all, it's the photographer, not the camera that "makes the picture."

It's true. You can put the best equipment in the hands of an individual, and you might end up with horrible images, because equipment does not make one a photographer. Knowing how to take pictures makes one a photographer.

Not All Light Is Created Equal

A Photographer pays attention to the light.

Because this is a primer on using natural light for photography, you must understand the basics first.

Photography, by definition, has everything to do with light. "Photo" means light, and "graphy" means to draw. So photography is the art of drawing with light.

And a photographer is simply one who knows the art of using light to draw an image.

You do not have to stop all image creation until you know how light affects your pictures, but from this point forward, you will start paying attention to the way light, and especially natural light, affects your images.

Natural light is a function of time of day and conditions surrounding the subject area. For instance, the color of light changes dramatically in just a couple of hours. Early morning light and late afternoon light are considered to be the very best natural light photography situations. Light conditions between mid morning and mid afternoon are the most challenging because of the way shadows affect the picture.

However, just because there are times when taking good pictures is more difficult than others, it does not mean you should stop taking pictures during those times. You just need to learn a few simple tricks to master the light.

Photo of butterfly weed on the right was taken in natural diffused morning light. Notice how the colors are so vibrant when taken in the "golden light" of early morning.

Click here to view more details.

Books For Natural Light Photography Techniques

Take photos similar to this using the natural light photography tips in Don Marr's book.

(Photo from Amazon web site.)

Natural Light for Photography Comes In Two Forms

Specular Light vs Diffused Light

Specular light is the direct light from the sun (or other light source) that falls on the subject. As already mentioned, it can add or take away from the quality and interest of your photographs. Specular light is necessary for highlighting parts of the picture. For instance, it creates texture and interest when used properly.

Diffused light is light that has passed through some type of filter, softening the effect of the light. With respect to natural conditions, clouds are the most effective of all excellent diffusers. Also, when you place your subject in a shady area, you are effectively using natural diffusers to lessen the specular light. Diffusing the light decreases the dynamic range of light so that the camera has a better chance of interpreting the light with the same accuracy as the human eye.

Specular VS Diffused

The difference here is only about 3 feet from sun to shade. The sun creates shadows and "hot spots" in the pictures with specular light. The trees create a kind of light diffuser that enables the camera to better interpret the light in a more pleasing image.

Mid Day - Full Sun

This is the most difficult natural lighting

When you start taking digital photos, you become aware that there are optimum times and worst times to try to take pictures. Bright, sunny days are a photographer's nightmare. But sometimes, there is nothing you can do but deal with it.

No shadows at all mean that you have no texture. Avoid this type of light at any cost. A portrait will be flat and unappealing. The subject is probably looking straight into the light.

Subjects at an angle to the direction of the light will have very harsh shadows, making for some terrible photos. All of us have taken these pictures. Many times they come as a surprise because our own view of the scene is usually not what we see in the image. The human eye is much more forgiving than the camera sensor. We have the ability to see a wider range of colors and tones.

When we begin to shoot digital images, we must learn the limitations of the camera and make adjustments for them.

Natural Light Photography with Harsh Shadows
Natural Light Photography with Harsh Shadows

Here is an example of bright mid day sun. Notice the kids squinting? Also take note of the shadows.

Natural Light Photography with soft light
Natural Light Photography with soft light

Same group, same day.. we just waited for some clouds to diffuse the harsh light. You have to agree that the light is much friendlier here.

So, here are a few hints you can use to improve your photos if you can't reschedule for a time that harsh light is not a problem.

  1. Find a way to diffuse the light. This can be with a photo diffuser or an umbrella. You create your own soft light as the sun passes through your diffuser. Diffusers are fairly inexpensive, but you can also use homemade diffusers like umbrellas.
  2. Use a polarizing filter. You can buy these to fit each lens on your camera. A little trick you can try is using a pair of polarizing sunglasses. Just hold the sunglasses in front of the camera lens. This helps to reduce the wide range of light the camera must process to give you a decent photo.
  3. Wait for cloud cover. Obviously, if there are none, this won't work, but if you are working with your camera on a partly cloudy day, just wait for a passing cloud to diffuse the light for you.
  4. Move to a shady spot. If at all possible, moving under a tree or into the shadow of a large structure will greatly improve your chances for getting a good picture.

Your best bet for success is to pay attention to the light. The more you have to deal with harsh light and shadows, the easier it will be to recognize the challenge. This is additionally true because it's hard to see the LCD screen in bright light, and you may be fooled into thinking you are taking good pictures.

Of course, sometimes you just have to shoot and take what you get. However, if you have control, you should use it to get better photos.

(photos by the author with permission)

Polarizing Filters

Polarizer Difference
Polarizer Difference

In the photo above, you can see what a difference a polarizing filter can make in bright sunlight. The picture on the left was done in PhotoShop to show the same picture as the one on the right with a polarizing filter added. (photo by the author)

Indoor Portraits With Natural Light - Great tips from one of the best!

Shooting excellent portraits does not have to involve a huge investment in equipment. Any camera, a window (light source), and a diffuser will put you in the right photographic ballpark.

Photography Instruction by Scott Kelby - Scott Kelby is not only a great photographer, he is an excellent teacher!

This is the book that Scott refers to in the video. All of his books are excellent.

What If Brad Is Not Around? - You have to watch the video to understand this :-)

If you do not have an assistant, you may want one of these Light Stands with a Boom attachment.

Forget Mugshots

Learn From the Pros

Here are a few very insightful hints about how to get better portraits. If you are aspiring to get better with your photography, this little eBook will help you to think more creatively. Think about natural light and ways to direct and redirect it.

Click here to view more details

Pay Attention To Your Camera's Light Meter - Say What???

Check the difference between these two pictures. They were taken moments apart.

Notice how the one on the left has the white "blown out" areas? And the one on the right looks more normal?

The difference is in where I pointed the camera to focus. My camera (and yours too) has a light meter in it. In most instances, you can assure the correct light metering in a couple of ways.

Technique 1 - point your camera at a darker area of the subject and partially press the shutter button so the camera will focus. At this time, it also locks in the light metering using the darker area. Then move the camera to recompose your shot and fully press the shutter button (do not let go of the button as you recompose). This forces the camera to use the available light in the focused area instead of the lighter area.

Technique 2 - use the camera meter set to either "partial metering" or "spot metering". These settings are available on more advanced cameras. Simply stated, it allows the camera to use a narrower area of light to meter the shot. This is the method used to get the photo on the right above.

You can also use some of the Basic Modes on the camera dial to get better results. For instance, instead of setting the camera on Auto, change the setting to Sunny Day or Partly Cloudy. You will have to experiment with these Modes to get a feel for the results, but they may be just the ticket for better photos in natural light.

(photos are by the author)

Which of these suggestions will you try? - Hopefully, you have gotten some ideas about how to improve your next photo shoot. By leaving a response to this quest

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    • Wayne Rasku profile image

      Wayne Rasku 3 years ago

      Thanks so much @jennabee25!

    • jennabee25 profile image

      Jenn Dixon 3 years ago from PA

      Excellent, excellent hub!! As a photographer myself, it really IS all about the light.

    • Fox Music profile image

      Fox Music 4 years ago

      Thank you for sharing this remarkable lens "Natural Light Photography"

    • Wayne Rasku profile image

      Wayne Rasku 5 years ago

      @bernie74 lm: Hey bernie74, I do believe most of us just "point and shoot". This is fine for most situations, but we can actually train our brains to think photography and take those photos to another level. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

    • bernie74 lm profile image

      bernie74 lm 5 years ago

      Great tips thanks for sharing, I love taking photos although most of the time I just aim and shoot and hope for the

    • ItayaLightbourne profile image

      Itaya Lightbourne 5 years ago from Topeka, KS

      Wonderful tips for photographing in natural light! Sometimes I need to take a photo of my larger art pieces in natural light and it can be frustrating. Blessings! :)

    • Wayne Rasku profile image

      Wayne Rasku 5 years ago

      @mbgphoto: Thanks for reaffirming my objectives for writing this article, and thanks for the blessing!

    • mbgphoto profile image

      Mary Beth Granger 5 years ago from O'Fallon, Missouri, USA

      Excellent tips for the beginning as well as great reminders for those more experienced. Blessed.

    • Wayne Rasku profile image

      Wayne Rasku 5 years ago

      @SteveKaye: Thanks, Steve,

      I appreciate your comment, especially after seeing some of your photos.

    • profile image

      SteveKaye 5 years ago

      Soft natural light works very well when photographing people. Your tips and photos are excellent. Great info.

    • LynetteBell profile image

      LynetteBell 5 years ago from Christchurch, New Zealand

      Thanks for some great information. I have a digital camera but tend to use my mobile phone which takes great pictures. I think anyway as I'm definitely not a photographer. To be honest I don't understand my camera!

    • Wayne Rasku profile image

      Wayne Rasku 5 years ago

      @caffimages: Hey caffimages, I looked at some of your flower photos. Your images are awesome! Thanks for commenting on my lens. It is a pleasure to have someone with your knowledge and ability as a photographer take the time to affirm what I have written.

    • caffimages profile image

      caffimages 5 years ago

      You have some great hints and tips on here. As a photographer myself, I have toagree that bright sunny days mena no depth. Early or late on those kinds of days work best for me - or find some woodland...

    • Wayne Rasku profile image

      Wayne Rasku 5 years ago

      @sherioz: Glad you stopped by and leaving a comment Sherioz. Writing it down (like this article) helps to remember. Then.. practice, practice, practice. I still have a lot to learn, but taking lots of pictures helps cement it in the brain.

    • caffimages profile image

      caffimages 5 years ago

      You have some great hints and tips on here. As a photographer myself, I have toagree that bright sunny days mena no depth. Early or late on those kinds of days work best for me - or find some woodland...

    • profile image

      sherioz 5 years ago

      Thanks so much for this. Just got back from a trip where the sun always shines. It made it difficult for me to get good photos. I will bookmark this and remember to recheck periodically until I actually remember these hints by heart.

    • Wayne Rasku profile image

      Wayne Rasku 5 years ago

      @Zebedee32: Zebedee, you just made my day! What more could I ask than someone would find one of my articles valuable enough to share. Thanks so much.

    • Zebedee32 profile image

      Zebedee32 5 years ago

      Will show my friends this. Very informative.

    • Wayne Rasku profile image

      Wayne Rasku 5 years ago

      @JoshK47: Josh, thanks so much. It is true that I want others to learn from what I write, and your comment affirms my intent.

    • profile image

      JoshK47 5 years ago

      Thanks for the advice here - very good information for those looking to get the most out of their photos!

    • Wayne Rasku profile image

      Wayne Rasku 5 years ago

      @BlueObsidian: Hey "Blue",

      Thank you for commenting. Photography is all about light. If we can learn how light affects the images we take, we will be able to take better pictures. I learn something new every time examine the results of a photo shoot.

    • BlueObsidian profile image

      Kimberly 5 years ago from Oregon

      Thanks for the tips! I've been working to improve my photography and some of the issues with light tend to confuse me. This is a very clear explanation of natural light!