Tips for using Natural Light :: Digital Photo Secrets

Tips for using Natural Light

by David Peterson 4 comments

Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.”
-George Eastman

Photography is all about light. Unless you have a studio setting with lighting, for most photographers that means natural light. Your ability to observe and utilize light and adjust your subject and settings accordingly can make or break your pictures. Learning to "read" the light and use that knowledge to take beautiful pictures is truly an art that can takes years to master, but there are some simple lighting tips that even beginners can follow to improve their photos.

Midday Light

The light in the middle of the day, when the sun is directly overhead, is typically not the best light for photography. There are some instances where this hard, neutrally colored light can make a great photo such as photographing the crystal clear water of the Caribbean. When you are photographing people this harsh, hard light, and the dramatic shadows it casts will be unflattering to your subjects. You may also have a tendency to overexpose your photo if you are relying on your camera to meter the light automatically for you.

It’s a fact though that life happens during the day. There is always going to be that soccer game, trip to the beach, or picnic that you want to photograph. If you must shoot in harsh midday sun there are a few things you can try. This may seem like stating the obvious, but look for shade! There is often a shady place where you can place your subjects. Be careful under trees though because you want shade that provides even coverage of your subjects - you do not want to create a checkerboard effect.

Another useful technique for bright, sunny days is to use the pop-up flash on your camera. The fill light it provides can do an amazing job of softening shadows. If your spouse is posing in front of the stadium wearing a baseball cap at high noon, use the flash to get light under the hat brim - otherwise they may look like a raccoon with dark circles under the eyes. A reflector is also a useful tool in this instance but unless you are a professional photographer you are probably not walking around with a large, reflective device. If you have one, get it out and use it! Your subject will thank you.

Overcast Skies

Shooting outdoors on a cloudy or overcast day provides cool, soft light. It is important to choose the correct white balance for these cool light conditions. If your subjects are shaded by foliage, you may see a greenish tint in your photos. You will need to correct this color casting in post processing. Although shadows are not an issue, the gray nature of the sky on a cloudy overcast day can make for a dull picture. Look for opportunities to catch the sun peeking through the cloud cover - illuminating your subject if only for a brief time.

Indoor Natural Light

Taking photos indoors with only natural light can be tricky. It is important to identify the light sources in the home (windows and doors) at that time of day and let the light in! If the light is too bright, you can use curtains or blinds to diffuse the light. A white bed sheet makes a great diffuser in a pinch.

In terms of positioning your subject, it depends on the look you want. In any setting it is a bad idea to have your subject look directly into bright light. A whole group of squinting people does not a good family photo make. Experiment with the light to achieve the look you desire.

If you are striving for a dramatic, high contrast look you could place your subject with one side of their face to the light source. This will create light on one side and the other in shadow. This will require some trial and error, and it is important not to obscure the subject’s face too much.

Another option is to have your subject look towards the diffuse, natural light source. You can achieve a well lit photo with little concern for shadows.

You can also get great results with a backlit shot, which we will discuss in the next section.

Shooting During the Golden Hour

The hour after sunrise and before sunset is often considered the “golden hour” for outdoor photography. The light at this time of day is soft with a golden tint. The horizontal angle of the light provides long shadows and a warm glow - beautiful! Even under these ideal conditions, you want to be careful with your camera settings. Adjust your white balance accordingly and check your exposure.

Pictures taken at this time of day can have an almost magical quality about them and some of the most beautiful are lit from behind. Back lighting poses its own set of challenges - most of them related to proper exposure of your subject, but the results can be stunning! You will likely need to spot meter your subject if you find that the background is properly exposed but your subject is too dark. (Spot metering is a camera setting that tells your camera to read the light from your subject’s face rather than the overall light in the background.) Typically you will want to shoot the subject with something behind them to diffuse the light (like foliage of some sort) but an open area behind you to provide enough light on their face.

Another great technique for this time of day is to place your subject in open shade. Look for a spot where shade meets bright light from the sun and allow their hair to get that sun-kissed look.

Once you master the basics of using your camera, understanding and utilizing light is probably the most important thing you can do to improve your photography. This requires practice! Studying light and how it strikes your subjects is great, but go ahead and take the shot. Take lots of shots! The beauty of digital photography is that there is no harm in taking lots of pictures. Go outside and experiment at different times of day under different lighting conditions. Play around with natural indoor lighting. Get out and take some pictures, and it will only be a matter of time until you find that perfect light and take a truly incredible photo!

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  1. Nancy says:

    Once again I am amazed at how much I learn from this course. I know this topic was covered in the first dash blend I participated in but reading the material again I learn new things. Today it was metering on the subject, sounds simple but I usually just meter on anything in general in the view finder. No wonder my subjects were always a bit dark. Will be trying this out over the weekend. Love these Dashes!,

  2. David Peterson says:


    Yes, all rules in Photography can be broken. Not all photos need to be correctly exposed. For example, High Key and Low Key photography

  3. Marion Darlington says:

    Hi David, This is a topic I need to know more about. In the delightful portrait of the little girl - the last photo on this page - if I had taken it, I would have considered it a failure because of the very light area on the right, and what I would interpret as blowing out of colour in the child's hair. Don't get me wrong. I love the result, but is it a case of rules being made to be broken?
    BTW, thanks for the course. It is an exciting and useful adventure!

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.