Different Types of Natural Light for Photography



After your subject, light is the next most important element in your photography, even before background or location! It has the highest impact on your exposure triangle and what you can and can’t do creatively. Wherever possible choose the best light over the latter. It takes time as a photographer to develop an eye for finding beautiful light, as well as the skill to not only manipulate it but sometimes create it!

In this blog I won’t be talking about creating light with flash (strobe) photography with on or off camera flash, commanders and slaves etc….that’s a whole other subject!

Similarly you do need to understand your exposure triangle and the relationship between shutter speed, aperture and ISO and how they interact for different photographic purposes. Whilst I won’t be covering that in this blog in any detail it is critical to realise that the amount of available light will influence these settings and hence your results.


Todays, juicy blog is about my favourite kind of light - Natural Light. So what is natural light, well essentially it all comes from the Sun! Duh! It is the natural light available to us in whatever setting we are in. But natural light also includes things like fire (candle light). It is light that comes for a natural source.


So let’s consider Sunlight first of all - as that’s the most common source of natural light. Primarily we need to look at the direction of this light as well as the intensity of it.

1. DIRECT LIGHT

Direct sunlight can be very harsh on your subject, particularly faces, causing dark shadows and highlighting lines and flaws in skin. That’s why a lot of photographers prefer not to photograph during the middle of the day when the sun is high because it can be difficult to work with (racoon eyes on your subject) and can provide very flattering results. Direct sun on your subject can be very dramatic if that is the look you are after in your image, because of the vibrancy and high contrast (dark shadows and some loss of detail in the shadows or highlights). Looking directly into the sun can be hard on your subject too, and they will often squint or not be able to keep their eyes open. This can be managed by having them close their eyes and you count them down to open and then take the photo, or pose them with eyes down or looking away from the light. (However this is not always possible with subjects you can’t direct such as young children or pets). You can also use a cutter, reflector or diffuser to modify the light on your subject. A big benefit of direct sunlight is it provides you with the opportunity for very fast shutter speeds since there is so much available light so capturing movement is a lot easier and you are not limited by your other exposure triangle settings.

2. SHADE/OVERCAST

This is when the direct sunlight is being blocked or diffused in some what such as through clouds, trees or by buildings. You might have heard that photographers love overcast days for photography - with a giant soft box above from the clouds. The same thing can be said of looking for open shade (where sunlight is blocked but there is still ambient light available). This is because the light produced is a soft, even, diffused light on the subject which means there is low contrast, so no harsh shadows. You also want to ensure the the light falling on the subject is not dappled (eg through leaves or trees) you want the same intensity of light across your subjects face and body. This kind of light is called “Flat Lighting” and is very flattering on most subjects, but especially those of us with more mature skin or rougher skin, so it is commonly used for portrait photography.

3. BACKLIGHT

This is when the sun is behind your subject and you are effectively shooting into the sun. This results in the background being blown-out (overexposed) and your subject being underexposed - so you generally adjust exposure for your subject (unless you are wanting them in silhouette) and just let the background blow out. Since the sunlight in not falling directly on your subject’s face, there are no harsh shadows so again this is a soft, natural, flattering kind of light (flat lighting) and you may find their hair has a rim light on it as a result of being lit from behind. This can look very pretty and give an ethereal look to your photograph.

4. SIDE LIGHT

When the sun is to the side of your subject it casts shadows on the side of the face that is farther away. This provides high contrast and depth to subject. Detail and texture on the subject are also enhanced (the opposite to flat lighting). This can be dramatic and moody but you can also use a reflector to fill in on the shadow side of the face to soften it. Sometimes you want this “Split Lighting” (half eliminated half in shadow) to convey a message and it can be a particularly masculine and powerful look to a photograph.

5. GOLDEN HOUR

Golden hour (sometimes only lasting minutes) takes place during the first hour after the sun rises or the hour before the sun sets. Blue hour (where there is a blue tone to everything) precedes the former and follows the latter). Most photographers will plan around this time for their photo shoots, myself included. The light at these times of day is soft, warm, flattering and gorgeous. The light is flattering from any direction (direct, backlit or sidelit) but you have to shoot fast as this kind of light doesn’t last very long.

6. Window Light

So not technically a direction of light but window light is one of my favourite natural light sources. The intensity of the light will of course be affected by factors outside of the window, but what it does is give you the opportunity to have the versatile and flexibility of a large light source (makes things softer) or a smaller light source (makes things more dramatic) just by opening or closing the curtains. You can also position your subject and pose them on the fringe of the light, in the front of it, to the side of it etc. You can play around with your position, perspective and the angle you photograph from. I just love it!

7. Candle Light

This is usually found at night or darker locations and can be very romantic. Candle light will usually come from below, so you need to tilt your subjects face to be parallel to the light and relatively close (but don’t burn them) so that you get enough light on their face but avoid the unflattering shadows on the cheek bones (you don’t want Goule lighting!) You can also have them leaning towards the light which will also avoid that problem.

8. Continuous Light - Icelight

Now I know continuous light is NOT NATURAL, but ideally it is calibrated to mimic daylight (eg Icelights). Continuous lights include things like light bulbs, fluorescent lights, tungsten, LEDs etc, but I am specifically talking about those photographic lights that help you create daylight!


Continuous light lets you see what is happening and the effect on your subject before you take the shot (unlike strobes). If you don’t like what you are looking at you simply change the direction of the light, the intensity, the angle, the perspective! You can see what you are doing and how things are changing at every point. When you hold or position an Icelight horizontal it’s a bigger more flattering light source when you hold or position it vertical its a smaller more dramatic light source.


Using Continuous Light or Window Light is easiest way to learn about light and what it does to your subject and the feel of your images. That’s why I’ve included it here.


What’s your favourite light source for your photography?


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