How to use natural light in photography.

November 24th, 2021
toddler child kissing mother

Light is one of the most important factors in creating a photo. Sure, it determines how light or dark a photo is and how much detail can be seen, but it also has an extraordinary ability to elicit emotions. Lighting affects a photo’s overall mood and tone, which means it plays a huge role in the way your photos are perceived.

There are two main types of lighting in photography: natural light and artificial light. Natural light refers to any light created by the sun, whereas artificial light refers to any other sources of light that photographers might use (think flash, studio lights, lamps, etc). 

Both types of lighting have their pros and cons. Artificial light can be controlled, but it can require purchasing and lugging around costly and heavy equipment, or dealing with finding the right Kelvin setting to work with that lamp in your client’s home. Natural light can require a lot of planning ahead; there’s also no guarantee whether you’ll have that perfectly sunny golden hour, or the softer diffuse light of an overcast sky. Used correctly, either light can make your photos feel more authentic.

While it’s great to master both types of lighting to enhance your photography, natural light is abundantly available and can evoke an emotional response that is harder to recreate with artificial light sources. It can also make your job easier by capturing the ambiance you want in a photo before it ever makes it into your editing software. 

Better yet? It’s free!

So how do you go about harnessing all that natural light has to offer? Here’s what you need to know to become a natural light photography pro.

camera lens shutter with reflected lights

Basic camera settings you need to know for natural light photography

When it comes to relying on the sun for light, what you see is what you get. You may not be able to control how bright the sun decides to shine on the day of a shoot, but there are a few camera settings that allow you to make adjustments to your photos.

Aperture

Aperture is the opening in your camera’s lens that allows light to pass through to its sensor. By adjusting the size of that opening, you can control how much natural light floods in as you take a photo. 

Larger aperture values allow more light to reach the sensor, which in turn creates a brighter photo. This can be helpful when shooting in darker settings, such as in the evening or in a shadowy area. Smaller aperture values let in less light and result in darker photographs, which can be useful when shooting on a bright, sunny day.

Shutter speed

Another camera setting that affects natural light photography is shutter speed. A camera’s shutter is the device that opens and closes over its lens and allows light to reach its sensor. Shutter speed refers to how quickly the shutter opens and closes, which controls the amount of time light is captured.

The faster your shutter speed, the less amount of time light has to enter your camera’s lens, resulting in darker images. Conversely, when your shutter speed is slower, there’s more time for light to reach your sensor, which means your photos will be brighter.

ISO

The final tool in this trifecta is your ISO settings. Similar to classic film speeds, your camera body can be set to different ISO, which affects how sensitive your camera is to light. Basically, the higher the ISO, the more grainy the image and the easier it is to photograph in low light conditions. While a smaller number like 100 can be great at noon on a sunny day, you could push the ISO up to 3200 around dusk.

Aperture, shutter speed, and ISO can all be adjusted by setting your camera to manual mode. These settings work hand-in-hand to control your photo’s exposure, which is the overall brightness and amount of detail captured in both the highlights (think white dresses and clouds) and the shadows. It’s a good idea to practice using different combinations to see how each setting affects your photos, and works best to create your artistic vision. 

mother and daughter hugging and touching foreheads
Photo credit: Wild Orchard Studios

How to shoot in different conditions

In any outdoor shoot, you’ll have to work with what you’re given. The amount of natural light that’s available and the ways it affects your photos will depend on the weather.

Overcast or rainy

A lot of beginner photographers mistakenly think they won’t be able to achieve good photos when it’s cloudy or raining, but it’s often easier to shoot on an overcast day because of the softer natural lighting it creates. It can also create more moody or interesting photos.

Bright and sunny

When shooting outdoors on a sunny day, you may have to get creative with the positioning of your subject based on the direction from which the light is coming. For example, you can position them to where the sunlight is shining directly on their face to reduce shadows. If the natural lighting is too harsh for a front-lit photo, try positioning them so that the light is hitting them from the side, which creates depth. You can also achieve a dramatic silhouette look by placing your subject so that the light is shining behind them.

Using windows

To use natural light in an indoor shoot, position your subject in the way that will have the biggest impact. That may mean placing them farther from the window for more even lighting or closer for additional contrast. You can also control the natural light by slightly closing the blinds, using a reflector or by choosing a window that’s a specific shape or size. 

girl wearing glasses and leaning on chair
Photo credit: Amanda Burse

There is little that changes natural lighting more in photography than time of day. The position of the sun can dramatically change a photo’s color, temperature, exposure and contrast.

Golden hour

The most popular time for shooting outdoors is during “golden hour,” which refers to the last hour before sunset and the first hour after sunrise. Both of these times provide a soft, warm, golden light that can naturally enhance your photos. It also allows you to bathe your subjects in light without them needing to squint, as the sunlight is least intense during these times. 

Sunrise vs. sunset

As far as whether golden hour is more desirable at sunrise or sunset, that’s up to personal preference and the look you’re trying to achieve. Mornings are more likely to have fog, which can help simplify your photos by blocking out background clutter. There are also typically less people out at sunrise, which might open up your location options if you want to shoot in a popular place. 

Shooting at sunset is typically more colorful because the sun’s positioning shifts more toward red light versus blue. It can also be more predictable from a weather standpoint if you’re able to watch how the conditions change throughout the day.

Midday

The closer you are to noon in either direction, the harder it’s going to be to achieve good photos. The intensity of the sun and its position overhead can cause unwanted glares, squinting and unflattering shadows on your subjects, such as under their eyes. For this reason, it’s best to choose a location with open shade, or to use an indoor location with windows, when shooting between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m.

person holding reflector in field

Equipment for perfect natural light photography

While natural light photography doesn’t require you to lug around heavy lamps, there are a few pieces of photography equipment that can make your job easier.

Tripod

A handy tool for some photography types, a tripod limits unwanted camera movement during shooting, helping to prevent photos from turning out blurry in any lighting. While not always ideal for photographing weddings or family sessions, as those genres involve chasing your clients around, tripods can be especially helpful for product photography. They will keep your framing and lighting consistent while you make adjustments to the products, since the camera will be securely in place. 

Reflector

A reflector is a surface that can be used to redirect natural light toward or away from your subject. Most often a white surface, silver and gold are also commonly available to add warmth or coolness to the light being reflected. Depending on what you’re trying to achieve, a reflector can help fill in or enlarge shadows, block intense light or even serve as your main source of light. It can turn not-so-good lighting into something that is salvageable – and maybe even magical.

Natural light can make or break your photos, which is why it’s important to learn how to use it to your advantage. Mastering natural light photography will help you become a more versatile photographer so you’re prepared to take beautiful photos – no matter what Mother Nature has in store.

Cheryl is the Director of Customer Engagement at Zenfolio and the Owner/Photographer at Portraits by Cheryl in Raleigh, NC. She has worked as a professional photographer for more than ten years and her images have been published in several national magazines. She has guided countless new photographers who are looking to build successful photography businesses.

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