Natural Light in Photography

June 29

6 min. to read

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In this Skylum article, we’ll cover different aspects of natural lighting — like color, quality and direction — and how to experiment with it.

When it comes to photography, lighting is one of the most crucial tools in a photographer’s toolbox. Though the spectrum of natural lighting may at first seem simple and fixed (like dark or bright, night or day) there are a few factors that you can learn to explore and experiment with.

These factors, ultimately, can help you fine-tune your craft and get the precise shot you’re eager to snap. 

The Quality of the Light

When it comes to quality of light, light can be broken down into hard light or soft light.

Hard light is harsh and tends to occur when the sun is high in the sky on cloudless afternoons — producing dramatic shadows. It can make shooting situations tricky, but this doesn’t mean you have to stray away from it. 

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Instead, you can use naturally hard light in a creative way. Experiment with hard light as it streams through trees or sneaks its way in through an open door. With hard lighting, you can also choose to capture your subject from a low angle to reveal texture and form.

Soft light is flattering and tends to be the thing many photographers search for when trying to capture that golden glow that occurs right around sunrise or sunset, when the hard lighting of the day or the dark lighting of the night has faded. 

Soft light is pleasing to the eye and gives a smooth and ethereal brightness to your subjects with less contrast than its hard lighting counterpart.  

The Color of the Light

Unlike the reliability of knowing what color artificial lights will cast in studio, playing with natural light makes things a bit more unpredictable. 

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The color of your light will change depending on time of day, the season and the weather. In the fall you may experience a golden yellow warmth outside. Perhaps in the winter, snow-blanketed surroundings will provide a bright white glare. As the sun rises, you may find a subtle blue glow that covers every inch of your atmosphere. 

When it comes to color of the light, you can experience with white balance settings, like daylight, cloudy or shade. You can also explore Shooting in RAW and editing the white balance in your post processing phase. 

The Where’s and How’s of Light 

Where your light is coming from is equally as important as what sort of light it is. Think of how different your subject may appear if you place it on your front lawn with the hard afternoon sun beating down on it, versus if you place that same subject on the kitchen floor in the same hard afternoon sun that’s only streaming in slightly through an open door.

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Where you put your subject and how you put them there is something to keep in your back pocket when considering playing with nature lighting.

Backlighting, for example, is created when the light source is behind your subject. It’s a dramatic sort of lighting that makes for a powerful image — and is wonderful for landscapes and architecture. 

Front lighting, on the other hand, is less dramatic and is used to illuminate your subject. Often the choice for simple portraits, it will give you less shadows and softer photos. 

Side lighting allows you to explore another creative aspect of photography — one that emphasizes texture, depth and popping patterns (a fun choice for experimental portraits).

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When it comes to your natural lighting options, experimenting and exploring is the name of the photo game. At Skylum, we hope covering these lighting basics has your mind thinking and your creativity igniting. 

From us all — thanks for reading! Now go catch the light.

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