Natural light photography can be a challenging niche for professional photographers who like to control as many variables as possible. You can’t control it, but if you understand how natural light responds in certain environments, you can use it to your advantage.
What is Natural Light?
Light is what makes photographs possible. Natural light generally means any light not emanating from the photographer’s equipment. It can be direct if, for example, the subject is out in the sun, or indirect when, for example, the sunlight is coming through a window.
When photographing with natural light, you have to understand that there is no “bad” light or “good” light, there is only light that is suitable—or not—for your needs.
So, the first thing you have to decide is what is the story you’re telling? Do you want striking images with well-defined shadows or more moody shots with diffuse, soft light? Do you prefer warm colors or cool tones, high intensity or low? These are the factors to consider.
Characteristics of Light
The characteristics of light include color temperature, intensity, direction, and quality.
- The color temperature refers to the shades of color produced by different light sources (blue-tinged colors are cooler, red-tinged are warmer).
- The intensity is how harsh or bright the light is as determined by the balance of shadows and highlights—in other words, the contrast.
- The direction is the angle of the light (horizontal at sunrise and sunset, and vertical at midday).
- The quality is determined by the size of the light source (the smaller the source as compared to the subject, the harder the quality of the light). You can use these characteristics to create different moods.
Hard / Direct Light
This type of light may come from the sun at midday or a few hours before sunset. It has a neutral color if at midday and a warmer color closer to sunset. It produces very sharp, defined shadows, and thus is considered to be of high intensity.
The direction is vertical to low, and the quality is hard. This type of light allows you to create striking images with shadows that fall away from your subject.
Soft / Diffused Light
This type of light is produced on a cloudy, foggy, or smoggy day, or as a result of light on a snowy day. A shaded area also produces a diffused light. The color is cooler, the intensity is low contrast, and the direction is low to below the horizon. This light can allow you to create images with a softer, or perhaps darker, mood.
This is light that is reflected off of a surface onto another surface. It takes on the color of the reflected surface and creates a softer glow.
Window light can be adjusted to create a hard or soft quality. Likewise, the color depends on the time of day and the surfaces that reflect the light. The direction is usually horizontal, and the quality can be adjusted by placing material across the window to act as a diffuser. This allows for a number of creative possibilities.
This results from light filtered through something like the leaves of a tree. This light can produce compelling images with interesting shadows.
This is light created at the transition between day and night (sunrise and sunset). It is typically cooler, has low contrast, and is soft/diffused.
Understanding the type of natural light available allows you to produce the images you want. It is crucial not to fight what nature provides, but to use the available light in interesting ways. The important thing about using natural light is to train yourself to notice how light behaves, and then pair that with the story you want your images to tell.
If you would like to learn from professional photographers, here are some recommended courses on natural light photography: