Learning to use natural light efficiently is essential for all photographers; there is no substitute for understanding how light works and appreciating how to use it to one’s advantage within their work. Working with natural light is not all easy sailing; there are plenty of aspects that need to be understood in order to avoid mistakes.
One does not need a vast arsenal of expensive lighting equipment to create striking photographs. The most powerful source of light, one will ever need is free: the sun. But even with all the intensity that the sun provides, it can be a bit tricky to work with. One of the main advantages of using a studio set up is the freedom to move and adjust the height and angle of the light source to meet the photographer’s requirements.
The big problem with working with natural light is that the photographer has no control over it. One cannot adjust the intensity, the power, move it to a different part of the sky, or part the clouds to match their vision- so careful planning, and knowing how to work with whatever nature provides, is vital for a successful shoot.
One must not expect situations in which natural light remains the same. The quality and the colour of light will change according to the time of the day, season and weather. Some days the natural light will be warm and bright yellow, whereas, on other days, the light will possess a tint of blue. This is where the use of white balance comes to play. One can use the settings to adapt to the conditions in order to achieve the desired tone of light.
Sunrise and Sunset
At sunrise and sunset, the light is beautiful and full of colour. If the sun is out, your subject will be backlit. The light during sunrise and sunset can change between the states of soft, hard and dramatic very quickly. It is a great time for creating evocative photos full of mood and atmosphere. This is especially true for landscapes and seascapes, but also for architecture and nature. It is the kind of light that travel photographers love because it makes everything and every scene look so striking. The entire sky becomes the primary source of light, with one side appearing warm and reddish and other acting cool blue and purple. Magic hours appear in the morning as well as in the evening, but that does not mean the conditions of light will be the same. It depends not only on the elevation of the sun but it also depends on weather conditions, pollution and particles in suspension. The ‘blue hour’ (l’heure bleue) is a period of twilight in the morning and the evening, when the sun is below the horizon and the indirect sunlight takes a predominantly blue shade in the sky. In the cities, buildings are lit and the streetlights are on, making it a good time for urban photography. It is also idyllic for landscape and serene beach photography.
The direct light from the sun on a sunny day is hard light. It is strong and casts deep shadows with hard edges. Primarily, there is no time of the day when it is possible to get the suitable light on your subject. In general, the rule of thumb is to avoid direct sunlight during the middle of the day when the sun is straight overhead. Anytime the sun is shining brightly, unimpeded by cloud cover, and from directly above your subject, it will create harsh, unpleasant shadows on the subject. Photographers may use hard light to give their subjects a bit more of an edge in the images they create. Creating portraits using hard light gives an additional contrast in the skin, and can display the flaws like the pimples and wrinkles on the face. By placing the sun directly behind the photographer, he can create something called “butterfly” lighting, with a small shadow directly under the subject. For better results, the photographer can turn the subject in the direction of the sun. The easy fix is to move the subject into shade. The best shady spots are often very close to the border between sunlight and shade. If the sky is clear, the light is still hard, but it is a great deal softer than in the middle of the day. It also comes at the subject from a low angle, which reveals the texture and form and is much more interesting than midday light. Hard light is also good for capturing architecture and bringing out colours. The unswerving sunlight brings out the strong colours.
Soft light describes the type of light that one can find in the shade or on a cloudy day. Shadows have set edges. Soft light, especially on a cloudy winter’s day, can seem grey and dull, without much potential for photography. The key to using soft light is to understand that it has very little contrast. It is the opposite of hard light from the sun. Soft light is great for taking photos of people, especially portraits. If one is outside on a sunny day, taking photos of people, find some shade and capture their portraits there, the results will be much better.
Soft light is also suitable for taking photos in rainforests and woodlands, and for still-lives and flowers. On a cloudy day, avoid including the sky in your frames- it will usually come out white. Soft light is wonderful for monochrome work because the light brings out the subtle tones and textures in the photos.
Dramatic light is created by dramatic weather, such as thunderstorms. It is the type of light that you see when the clouds clear after a rainstorm, or if the sun breaks through the clouds on a rainy day near sunset. Dramatic light is ideal for photography of landscapes, seascapes, and architecture, almost anything outside. If you are confronted with a scene lit by dramatic lighting, treat it as a gift and take as many snapshots as you can while it lasts. Dramatic lighting normally does not last very long, and it may not return.
Clear Midday Sunshine
Midday lighting is primarily comprised of direct, downward sunlight. These kinds of light have little chance of scattering or diffusing through the atmosphere or bouncing off the ground and illuminating the subject indirectly. Resulting in the least desirable type of natural light and the most neutral-coloured lighting of any time of the day. These drawbacks cause most photographers to put their cameras away- loosing on unique opportunities. For example, water may appear more transparent, as the light penetrates deeper and straight reflections of the surface are less likely. One must be aware that colour saturation is typically lower, and the downward shadows generally do not produce gratifying portraits or make other subjects appear three-dimensional. Many photographers encourage the liberal use of polarizing filters to manage contrast since this is often when they are most impactful, but at the same time, these can make the sky appear unnaturally dark and blue.
Use of Reflectors
If one is shooting something or someone it may be best to either capture in the shade or soften the light using reflectors. Reflectors are versatile, powerful lighting tools, and are so much cheaper and more portable than off-camera lighting. When shooting near sunrise or sunset, one technique that works well is to turn the subject so that the sun is behind the subject, acting as an edge light, and use the reflector to bounce some of that light back on to the subject. In this scenario, the reflector acts as your key light, so one must make sure that it is being held above the subject, to cast pleasing, natural shadows.
Using a white reflector and metering for one’s subject will amplify the effect of backlight coming from the sun, and make the shadows subtler. A silver reflector will, in turn, bounce more light, so once one has comprehended with their camera settings, the rest of their scene will appear slightly darker. Your reflector can also be used to fill light. Whether you are shooting in shade or in direct golden hour light if one is getting unwanted dark shadows on their subject, one can simply hold the reflector on the side of the shadow to bounce some light back, and open up those dark undesirable shadows.
When in shade you may still need to diffuse light to avoid harsh shadows. This can be done using a sheer white reflector as a diffuser. This technique is also helpful when shooting children’s portraits outside of the studio.
Other scenarios include photography in the fog, mist or haze. This not only greatly decreases light’s contrast –just as during overcast day- but also does so progressively for more distant objects. So, next time you are taking photos, think about the natural light. Does it suit your subject? Would the light be better at a different time of the day or in different weather conditions?
Hopefully, this information and the few tips ‘enlightened’ you, and you are ready to tackle some natural light.