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Natural Light Photography Tips

The sun supplies almost all of the warmth and light (and more) that we need to sustain life on this blue rock. No wonder it is also the single largest source of light when it comes to photography.

Yes, we can shoot with artificial light and yes we certainly can control artificial light a lot better than we can natural light, but natural light is abundant and it has been forevermore. It is thus no wonder that natural light is the first and, in many cases, the only choice for shooting images. By now I think you have guessed the theme of our discussion today. Yup. It’s about natural light photography tips.

11 Natural Light Photography Tips & Insights

  1. The Nature of Light
  2. Natural Light Forces You to Adjust Throughout the Day
  3. Color Cast and White Balance Adjustment
  4. Shooting Outdoors with Pure Natural Light: Portraits
  5. Natural Light: Directional Light
  6. Natural Light: Indoors
  7. Light Fall-Off
  8. Natural Light Mixed with Artificial Light
  9. The Dual Exposure Concept
  10. Shooting on Overcast Days
  11. Exposure Compensation

1. The Nature of Light

Natural light is abundant. It stays on for about 10–12 hours a day, depending on the latitude and the month of the year. But natural light is hardly ever constant. It is a warm glow at early mornings and late afternoons (this is why it is also known as the golden hour), then it transcends into a hard light, that stays on for much of the day and is difficult to shoot with.

That’s why shooting with natural light can be tough. At least for beginners. Even professionals prefer to shoot with artificial lights only or at the least mix artificial lights with natural light to ensure that they have a degree of control over what’s happening.

Related Post: Natural vs. Artificial Light

2. Natural Light Forces You to Adjust Throughout the Day

Why is natural light difficult to shoot in?

Because natural light changes over the course of the day. Moreover, changing light warrants a change in the settings of the camera. Several of them really. Among these, the primary setting is white balance.

Related Post: Best Time to Take Pictures Outside

3. Color Cast and White Balance Adjustment

White balance, or more appropriately speaking, white balance adjustment, denotes removal of the color cast that appears in images when they are shot under any type of light that is not daylight balanced.

You would have perhaps seen an exaggerated version of this problem when shooting under a tungsten light or even a fluorescent light. In the first case the color cast is a horrible orange one and in the second case, the color cast is bluish.

Even the sun has a Color Cast

You would think that the sun’s light should be daylight balanced. But even that has a color cast. It casts a warm yellow, orange color cast during early morning and late afternoon.

During the afternoon the light is bluish, especially when overcast. The color cast will depend on the color temperature. The higher the temperature the bluer it gets. The lower the temperature the warmer it is.

Kind of counter-intuitive, just like the aperture chart, but this one has an analogy. When something burns it is first warm red and then as the temperature rises it turns blue and then white hot. This is the only way I can remember this.

Differnt White Balance Same Camera
Two photos of the same building in downtown Miami taken with the same camera using two different color balance settings –  Photo by Daniel Christensen

To compensate, that negates the color cast, we change the white balance settings on our camera. All cameras come with a standard set of white balance presets. In most cases, it works very well. So, all you have to do is use the right white balance preset, such as tungsten or fluorescent or cloudy etc. and the camera will apply the right adjustment and that will remove the color cast from the images.

Custom White Balance Settings

Advanced cameras like DSLRs and mirrorless systems come with the extra option to use custom white balance settings as well as the ability to manually dial in a color temperature number which coincides with the actual color temperature to negate it and bring it back to neutral.

Using custom white balance is probably one of the safer options. This is because it involves taking a reference point in the image that is neutral and applying the right white balance to remove any color cast.

Basically, you take something like a white piece of cloth or a white patch of cloud, something that you know is actually white and use that as the reference point to bring everything else in the right color.

Video: How to Adjust your White Balance (includes How to set Custom White Balance)

Nikon has a video which shows you how to adjust the white balance, you can watch it here:

Nikon Unveiled: Setting a Custom White Balance

4. Shooting Outdoors with Pure Natural Light: Portraits

It is the pure natural light that throws all sorts of problems. Especially, if you are unaware of the characteristics of light and how it can change over the course of the day. If the sun is lower towards the horizon and is still soft, such as during the later afternoon or early morning, it might be a good idea to ask the subject to face the light. If the light is harder (or harsher) ask the subject to face away from the light. In the second situation, a reflector throwing some light back on to the subject’s face for a proper exposure is a nice tool to have.

Related Post: Shadow Photography

If the sun is directly overhead, as is at noontime, make sure that the subject is completely under a shadow and there is no direct light falling on the subject’s face. This will avoid those dreaded shadows on the eyes which tend to completely turn the image lifeless. The last thing that you want is for the eyes to be in complete shadow as that will render your image completely lifeless.

We recommend you get the PhotoPills App for iPhone or Android to find out the best time and location to take pictures. Also, have a look at our lesson covering the best outdoor camera settings.

5. Natural Light: Directional Light

I like the directional light. Directional light is contrasty and is ‘sharper’. It brings out detail rather than hiding them. But directional light is not ideal for all types of photography. You have to know when to use which.

Anyways, directional light can be used for portraits as well as for shooting architecture. Directional light also works for landscape photography when the light is beaming on to the feature that you are trying to photograph. An early morning shot of a mountain, bathed in the golden hues of the rising sun can be a mesmerizing composition. There are other examples, such as when you are trying to capture the bright autumn hues in a wooded area.

Golden Hour Autmn Directional Natural Light
Cold morning fog with golden hot sunrise in the valley of Carpathian mountain range. Trees with colorful foliage on the hillside meadow lit by first rays of sun. 

Directional light is the best when you are shooting architecture too. It brings out detail that is otherwise hidden during the other times of the day. I have also stressed the use of directional light when shooting portraits elsewhere in this article.

Related Post: How Light Direction Affects Photography

6. Natural Light Indoors

This discussion of natural light photography tips would be incomplete without an explanation of the nature of light. There is something called quality of light often referred to in photography. Quality refers to whether the light is hard or soft. Soft light is flattering. It produces little to no shadows at all. Thus, it is the perfect light for shooting portraits as well as anything where you don’t want unnecessary textures.

This is one of the easiest of natural light photography tips you can use. To shoot indoors with natural light find a large window. Not necessarily that it has to have direct sunlight. Because, direct sunlight again, will produce harsh shadows. You need soft light. I find a window that is facing north the best. But if you don’t have a north facing window don’t get depressed. There is always a solution.

Find a white sheet or a large piece of vellum paper. Hang it in front of the window. Voila! You have now successfully softened the hard light and made it suitable for portrait work.

When shooting with natural light and indoors, your options are a bit restricted. There is very little experimentation that you can do. You can either have the subject placed very close to the window/light source or away from it depending on the look that you need. The light becomes soft in the first instance and hard in the second. Both are useful for certain types of photography.

Normally, when shooting portraits you will want to have a well-lit face. To achieve that the subject has to be as close to the light source as possible without, obviously, incorporating the light source in the frame. In some cases, however, it is impossible to eliminate the window because standing even one foot away, in order to avoid bringing the window into the shot, can make a huge impact on the exposure (refer to light fall-off explained below). At other times incorporating the window isn’t, after all, a bad idea (environmental portraits).

Related Post: Window Light Photography

7. Light Fall-Off

We learned a new phrase in the previous paragraph – light fall-off. Let’s now understand what it is. Light fall-off is a concept that comes straight out of high school physics. The underlying theory in physics is the inverse square law. The intensity of light (or any other energy) drops at a ratio of the square of the distance between the light source and the subject. That’s inverse square law.

Inverse Square Law

In terms of photography Inverse Square Law means that as the distance between the subject and the source of light increases, the intensity of light goes down.

If you were to draw a line plotting the difference in exposure it would be something like this. Initially, the drop in light intensity will be massive. It evens out after a while and then it is almost flat. This is one of the most vital natural light photography tips.

Given the nature of light and how it reacts when the distance changes, there are certain tricks that you need to incorporate. One of them is using a reflector. When you place the model close to the window, the effects of light fall off over the initial distance will make the side of the face facing the window considerably brighter than the side that is facing away from the window.

You need the reflector positioned in a way so that it is aiming at the side of the subject’s face that is further from the window. This way you can throw some light back on and balance out the exposure.

8. Shooting with Natural Light as the Background Light Mixed with Artificial Light

Another scenario when shooting with natural light is when the light is behind the subject. One of the banes of shooting with natural light is it is never in your control. You can shoot around it and try and incorporate it as much as possible. But it is never fully under your control. If it changes quality you will have to adapt to it.

So, when the sun is behind the subject, such as when you need to incorporate the background in your images, you will have to make sure that you expose for the background and not the face. Meter for the background, then lock exposure by switching to the manual (M) mode. This will prevent the camera from readjusting exposure afterward.

Related Post: How to Master External Lights

Once you meter for the background set your camera flash/external flash to overcompensate by at least a stop. This will make the face brighter than the background and create that important separation that is important. You may have to adjust the flash power up or down depending on how much light is falling on the subject.

The exact process to dial in flash exposure compensation will vary from camera to camera and light to light. If you are using the built-in flash, you would probably have to use a combination of keys. It is usually pressing down the flash exposure compensation button and dialing in one of the command dials. Please check the manual to confirm the exact process.

Next is focusing. You could use autofocus using the single point AF and use continuous AF mode or use manual focusing to lock focus. I prefer the first one as it tends to do a full-proof job 90% of the time. Moreover, as the subject is probably going to make micro-movements, the focusing system will keep the focus locked on target.

9. The Dual Exposure Concept

A quick note on the concept of dual exposure. In the above scenario, we explained how you primarily expose for the background and then fire the flash on your camera (external flash) to add just that extra amount of light to properly expose for the subject’s face. This concept of two different exposures is sometimes referred to as dual exposure.

This technique is primarily used where you have an interesting background and you want to incorporate that into your photography. For example a stunning sunset show against a pre-wedding bridal shoot, a stunning cityscape forming the backdrop of a beautiful portrait and so on.

10. Shooting on Overcast Days

This is one of the easiest natural light photography tips that you can use. Overcast days are referred to as nature’s softbox. There is a reason for that. If you have read this far you probably would have guessed why that is so.

On an overcast day, the light is diffused. Diffused light is soft and wraps around the face of the subject or anything else that you might want to photograph. It has the same effect as a large softbox. That is exactly why it is also known as nature’s softbox.

Related Post: The Importance of Light in Photography

If you are going to shoot portraits on an overcast day make sure that the subject wears bright clothes. Pastel shades would not have the same effect as bright hues of green, blue, yellow and red. Especially when you are shooting on a snowy scene. Brighter colors will become the point of focus in the image.

Natural Lighting Photography Tip - Portrait at Overcast
Natural Lighting Photography Tip: Shooting portraits during a cloudy day can work just fine.

When exposing for such a scene, it is imperative that you know how to use exposure compensation. This is because the camera’s metering system is probably going to meter the scene incorrectly.

11. Exposure Compensation

Exposure compensation is a feature on your camera that allows you to override the metered exposure setting that your camera sets. What you have to do is press down the (+/-) button and then rotate the command dial to adjust the exposure. The exact function will vary depending on the camera make. This function works in Auto, Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority modes only.

In manual mode, you have full control over the exposure so this mode deactivates. Exposure compensation assumes importance when you are shooting in a difficult lighting situation. Such as when shooting in a backlit situation or when shooting around extremely bright objects, sand, ice and so on.

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