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A Guide to Making Better Photos With Natural Light

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Photography depends on the available light, and natural light is the more common form of light photographers use. Learn to get the most out of natural light by understanding it.

After a storm and rain the skies can open to some fantastic natural light
After a storm, the skies can open to offer some fantastic natural light.

It does not matter how sophisticated or simple photographer's cameras are, they all depend on the same light. Understanding how to use light, in this case natural light, can make a photographer with a simple compact camera achieve better results than one with a professional DSLR.

Photographer's often use the term "natural light" to describe any light that's a part of the environment like the sun, street lights or even a fire. In this tutorial, we're going to narrow the definition to light that comes from the sun.

Even with this definition, it's also important to understand that natural light comes in different forms, producing a variety of results.Many times light is the reason a photographer will create a picture. Sometimes it's the light, and what it creates, that is the theme of the photograph.

The Big Light in the Sky

The sun is the source of all natural light. Although it is just a big, continuous light up in the sky, the way the sun behaves is not always the same. Its light changes during the day, due to weather conditions and also its position in the sky.

In general terms, there are three types of light: direct, diffused and reflected. Usually, all things we photograph are influenced by these three types of light, in different quantities according to the hour of the day, cloud coverage and the surroundings of the subject we photograph.

The light changes during the day and changes quickly and sometimes dramatically at sunset
The light changes during the day and changes quickly and dramatically at sunset.

Understanding Different Types of Light

To take better photographs, it is important to understand exactly what light does to the subject. So, direct sunlight creates warmer tones, but also introduces more contrast, while diffused light (when a cloud layer creates like a studio softbox effect) lowers contrast and creates a cooler look to the photograph.

The third type of light is reflected light, when the sun's rays bounce from a surface near the subject. This type of light transmits the qualities of the object it reflects from, so if you place your subject close to, for example, a red wall, there will be a dominant red tone introduced in the final image.

Light Changes with Time

Although your natural light source is always the same, it also changes depending on the time of day. That's the reason why photographers are told to go out early in the morning and late afternoon. Sunrise and sunset times are the best times to take photos, especially of landscapes, but it is also a good time for almost all other types of photography.

At sunrise and sunset expect moderate contrast, less than at noon or the rest of the day, when the sun is high in the sky. During early morning or late afternoon the sun rays travel more horizontally and have to pass through more layers of the atmosphere, resulting in a warmer light and also rapid changes in tonality, something landscape photographers like to explore in their images. At this hour the shadows are longer, contributing to create more patterns and define volume on subjects, be it a mountain range or the shoreline.

Light Changes with the Weather

Overcast days softens shadows, making for easier and more appealing wildlife shots
Overcast days softens shadows, making for easier and more appealing wildlife shots

The light changes according to the weather. Besides time of day, this is the second most important natural light modifier you will find in photography. A layer of clouds moving in the sky softens the light when it passes under the sun. The thicker the layer of clouds, the less visible shadows become.

The soft light created when the sky is covered with clouds is ideal for flower photography, for example, and for portraits. The light may seem dull, but in fact opens interesting possibilities, for example in the realm of wildlife. I prefer to shoot wild animals with overcast light, because then I do not have to worry about losing detail in deep shadows. It also seems to work better, with many animals, to enhance the mood of their habitats.

Extreme changes in weather, common in winter, can also offer you great experiences in terms of light, and this at any hour of the day. Pictures like the one opening this article, taken on the Portuguese coastline, are a good example of the fantastic light and definition after a storm with rain.

The dark cloudy sky opened to let the late afternoon sun shine over the village perched on the cliffs. Being there, patiently waiting to see things change is part of the lesson of understanding light.

Shooting at Noon

Shooting when the sun is high in th sky is said to be a bad idea, but you should try it before going home. You may discover you like the results.
Shooting when the sun is high in the sky is said to be a bad idea, but you should try it before going home. You may discover you like the results.

The light during the middle of the day is hard. Photographers tend to use those hours to do other things. Though this is generally a good rule to follow, try to break it sometimes and you might be surprised. The midday light is not necessarily bad, but it is different. Not the most flattering for portraits, as it creates shadows under the eyes (raccoon eyes, we say), nose and chin, but there are lots of other subjects you can shoot.

Landscapes, especially those bright saturated beachscapes without clouds in the sky, with transparent sea waters you see in travel brochures are often shot during midday. It is also at this time of day that polarizers can be put to good use, both to manage contrast and to saturate colours, although it is absolutely necessary to make sure that colours do not look garish while the skies become excessively dark and blue.

The Old Front Lighting Rule

The first rule many people learn when starting photography is to keep the sun on their back. It is the easiest way, in general terms, to have a good exposure, but it is not the most interesting light if you want to give a three dimensional effect to your photographs. There are times when this type of light will work, but you will soon start to look for other ways to create your photographs. It's time for adventure!

Side Lighting and Backlighting

Exposing for the shadows and forgetting backlight can give some nice results. This technique can also be used in portrait. Try it next time you are out photographing!
Exposing for the shadows and utilizing backlight can give nice results. This technique can also be used in portraits.

When you place your subject so the light comes from an angle to one of its sides, things start to get interesting, but also trickier to control. Your images will reveal more texture and volume, but also harsh shadows and contrast. At this moment, you can introduce a reflector on the shadowed side, to bounce light back into the subject and so reduce the difference between the areas of light and shadow.

Backlighting is also something to explore, and in this type of situation you can also try to use a reflector to direct some of the light to the frontside of the subject, but nothing stops you from exposing for the subject and simply let the background go overexposed. This technique works well with portraiture, or with flowers, an area where I use it quite a lot.

Sunrise and Sunset

This image was taken as the sun was going down. Compare it with the next image, on the same stretch of the Portuguese coast, taken at Blue hour
This image was taken as the sun was going down. Compare it with the next image, on the same stretch of the Portuguese coast, taken during the "blue hour."

For me, these are the preferred periods to photograph. When a cloud layer covers the sky, the rising or setting sun rays will bounce on it and create a unique atmosphere, with a soft warm light that explains the term "golden hour" photographers use to refer to these short periods of the day.

Blue Hour Magic

Blue hour is also a time to explore natural light, but many photographers pack their gear as soon as the sun goes down.
Blue hour is a time to explore natural light, but many photographers pack up their gear as soon as the sun goes down.

The end of the sunset should not signal the end of your time shooting. Those that stay behind will have another chance for unique photographs. The "blue hour" lasts for only some minutes, but it can be enough for you to get a moody picture that really contrasts with the images taken under the late afternoon sun. For photographers not afraid to get up early there is also a blue hour on the other side of the day, before the sun rises.

Good Light is All Around You

Exploring all the situations mentioned here will not only provide you with some photographs that may surprise you and your friends, but also give you a broader understand of light. I hope this prepares you to explore even further, when natural light begins to be so scarce that you need a tripod, exposures of seconds or minutes, and lots of patience. Most importantly, remember that light isn't something to be scared of. Embrace it as it comes.

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