Natural light can be stunning, but it isn’t the easiest to work with. Learn how these nine pro photographers shoot beautiful images with the help of natural light.

The great photographer Alfred Stieglitz famously said, “Wherever there is light, one can photograph.” The real question comes down to the quality of the light itself. Soft or harsh, warm or cool, direct or diffuse, the light you choose has a significant effect on any photograph. Throughout the years, we’ve interviewed hundreds of stock photographers, and many of them have sung the praises of going natural. When used properly, natural light can make even an ordinary scene seem magical.

For that reason, we reached out to natural light photographers around the world—and across genres and disciplines—to gain some insight into how they create stunning imagery. Some use only natural light, while others mix and match light sources. Collectively, they photograph interiors, exteriors, landscapes, food, and people. They all share a keen understanding of the way light interacts with their chosen subjects. There’s something in here for everyone, whether you’re a seasoned available light expert or a photography enthusiast hoping to dip your toe in the natural light pool.

1. “Watch and learn how light behaves and moves.”

Tanya Little

9 Photographers Share Their Best Natural Light Tips — Watch and Learn

Image by Tanya Little. Gear: Canon EOS Rebel T2i camera, 50mm f/1.4 lens. Settings: Exposure 1/400 sec; f2; ISO 100.

What’s the story behind this photo?

This is actually my oldest son, who is six in the image. The photo was captured shortly after we made the decision to homeschool our boys. Our oldest has severe anxiety, and teasing children only made it worse, especially with his red hair. His peers would often comment and joke about his head looking like it was on fire, so I wanted to show him the natural fire that burns around him and how he should cherish it. He hasn’t shown dismay over his coloring since.

9 Photographers Share Their Best Natural Light Tips — Keep Practicing

Image by Tanya Little

Pro Tip

I think the most important things are to not be afraid of natural light and to always keep practicing! Watch and learn how light behaves and moves. Try to keep the sun behind your subject (even when it seems directly overhead). Avoid open shade as it gives little dimension and looks rather flat, and look for light patches to place your subject in. Steer clear of dappled light unless you are going for a specific look, as it is difficult to expose for. Usually, highlights will be blown or the shadows will be too dark.

On overcast days, have your subjects tilt their heads skyward or use something that reflects light back to their faces. While indoors, use windows to either backlight your subject or light them directly. If you love that golden glow in photos, shoot during golden hour, close to sunrise and sunset, as the sun is low in the sky and creates long shadows.

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2. “A curtain can be a great way to diffuse natural light.”

ltummy

9 Photographers Share Their Best Natural Light Tips — Use Curtains as Diffusers

Image by ltummy. Gear: Nikon D750 camera, Nikkor 50 f1.2 lens. Settings: Exposure 1/40 sec; f1.2; ISO 200.

What’s the story behind this photo?

After shooting this photo on a very cloudy day, we spent some time eating these sweets!

9 Photographers Share Their Best Natural Light Tips — Use Homemade Reflectors

Image by ltummy

Pro Tip

As a food photographer, natural light is my best business partner. To make perfect food shots, you’ll need three things: great food styling, natural light, and one or two styrofoam boards for shadows. You can use many things as light reflectors, including things you already have in your home: styrofoam boards, aluminum foil, cardboard, mirrors, etc.

A curtain can be a great way to diffuse natural light. That way, the food will look more natural and have nice shapes and colors, as opposed to when you’re shooting with a flash, which can sometimes make the food look plastic.

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3. “When using a reflector, avoid lighting the model from below.”

Cookie Studio

9 Photographers Share Their Best Natural Light Tips — Avoid Lighting from Below

Image by Cookie Studio. Gear: Canon 5d Mk II camera, 50mm 1.4 lens. Settings: Exposure 1/125 sec; f4; ISO 200.

What’s the story behind this photo?

This is one of my favorite images, as it helped define the direction of future shoots. It was shot in our studio’s makeup room, using a large window, a skylite rapid frame, a piece of foam board, and a white paper backdrop. I was previously afraid of natural light shoots, as I’d had studio-only experience for around eight years, but the shoot came out so well. We had a lot of fun, and I thought, “That’s it!”

Pictured: [1] Cookie Studio [2] Cookie Studio [3] Cookie Studio

Pro Tip

Shooting with natural light requires some expertise. Don’t expect to get great results without understanding the character of light. The best time to shoot outdoor portraits is when the sun’s not shining from above but from the side—either morning or evening. When using a reflector, avoid lighting the model from below. If you’ve got someone to assist you, ask them to hold the reflector above their head; that way, the shadows on the model’s face will be filled from above in a more natural way.

Always look at your background—it shouldn’t have bright or vibrant spots. Take a moment to review the image through the viewfinder before shooting. I’m not keen on shooting on overcast days because everything looks dull, even after color-correcting the images. It’s a lot more challenging to shoot in sunlight, but the results are totally worth it.

I like shooting indoor portraits with natural light; however, shooting with available light doesn’t mean shooting without additional equipment. I mostly shoot in the afternoon when the sun is at its brightest, and I use a big (200×200 cm) lastolite skylite frame with 1-stop diffusion and a 100×100 cm piece of gatorboard to fill in the shadows, trying to reduce the contrast of direct sunlight coming through the window but keeping the micro-contrast required to maintain the depth.

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4. “Keep an eye on how the atmosphere of a shot changes with the light.”

solepsizm

9 Photographers Share Their Best Natural Light Tips — Watch How Atmosphere Changes

Image by solepsizm. Gear: Canon 5D Mark III camera, Canon EF 70-200 f2.8 IS L lens. Settings: Focal length 200mm; exposure 25 sec; f10; ISO 100.

What’s the story behind this photo?

I have taken tons of photos of this house at different angles. When my client asked me to take photos for advertising purposes, I chose to shoot during the daytime, and I made commercially successful and technically ideal pictures. But later, I was passing by this house in the rain, and I decided that this was the perfect moment to make another shot—this time, an atmospheric shot to show the warmth and comfort inside while outside we were in the middle of a chilly, gloomy fall.

This photo became one of my favorites. When your eyes see only gray colors and darkness, and your inner voice says, “there is nothing special to shoot here,” that means it’s the right time ask yourself this question: “What does my camera see here?”

9 Photographers Share Their Best Natural Light Tips — Have Patience

Image by solepsizm

Pro Tip

When working with natural light, it is very important to have patience and the will to experiment. So my tip of the day is this: Choose a house or a landscape — any scene that you really like. Make a shot early in the morning, then shoot again during twilight, in the rain, during a snowfall, in the mist, at night, etc. Keep an eye on how the atmosphere of a shot changes with the light. Sometimes you just have to wait for the proper light at the proper time. Repeat the shoot all over again from a different angle. Let that be your photography workout. By challenging yourself, you will see how your photography technique improves and changes with time.

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5. “Arrive at the location in advance, and take your photos at sunset, sunrise, and blue hour.”

Prystai

9 Photographers Share Their Best Natural Light Tips — Arrive Early

Image by Prystai. Gear: Sony a6000 camera, Karl Zeiss E4/16-70 lens. Settings: Focal length 64mm; exposure 1/13 sec; ISO 100.

What’s the story behind this photo?

I took this photo on an autumn morning on Štrbské Pleso, a lake in Tatra National Park, Slovakia. I took a series of photos as the sun touched the tops of the trees and lit up the grass, and then I decided to change the angle and walk closer to the lake. For this picture, I had to put the tripod in the water and maneuver myself on a small shaky stone.

9 Photographers Share Their Best Natural Light Tips — Plan Your Best Shooting Time

Image by Prystai

Pro Tip

Arrive at the location in advance, and take your photos at sunset, sunrise, and blue hour. To determine the position of the sun and the best shooting time, you can use a mobile app such as “Sun Surveyor” or others. Plan on spending a few days in one place in order to catch good weather and light. If the weather turns bad, don’t get upset. Instead, look for scenes that look good in ambient light, fog, rain, and snow. Use a tripod; a lot of my pictures are made with long exposures.

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6. “Usually, I just try to keep it as simple as possible and work with the light that is already available.”

Diana Rui

9 Photographers Share Their Best Natural Light Tips — Keep it Simple

Image by Diana Rui. Gear: Canon 6D camera, Canon EF 20-35mm lens. Settings: Exposure 1/40 sec; f8; ISO 100 (3 brackets 1 stop apart).

What’s the story behind this photo?

I shot this photo in 2016 at a century-old building in downtown Porto, Portugal. It was fully renovated and remodeled. I was hired to photograph it to be showcased on my client’s website and other bed and breakfast sites. This apartment had beautiful windows with french doors that I wanted to showcase, but the view was dreadful, and it was an overcast day. I decided to shut the windows so that I could blow out the view while still framing the beautiful banister from the small balcony outside.

I decided to turn that spotlight on; I thought it was pretty, and it added another point of interest to the scene. Even though I was blowing out the windows in post-processing, I wanted to retain all the highlights from that spotlight, so bracketing was necessary.

9 Photographers Share Their Best Natural Light Tips — Work with What's Available

Image by Diana Rui

Pro Tip

In regards to architectural, interior, and real estate photography, knowing how to take advantage of natural or available light is the most important tool in my opinion, along with a tripod. For architectural photography, it is important to have a file that has all the information in the highlights and shadows. If you don’t use strobes or speedlights as a main source of light, you will need to bracket. Either that or block the light from the windows.

Usually, I just try to keep it as simple as possible and work with the light that is already available. Every home is different, and every day will have a different kind of light. Many times, I don’t have the time to scout in advance to determine the best time of day to shoot, so, as a photographer, I usually have to make a few quick decisions on the spot. I have to check if there is any sunlight entering the room from the windows, if the room is bright or dark, and if I should turn the lights on or off. If there is a chandelier or a piece of key lighting that is visually appealing, I also have to take that into consideration. If the room is either unbalanced or dark, I may use a speedlight.

I will then assess whether the view is visually interesting or relevant; if not, I will consider shutting the drapes for the windows. If I leave them open and the view is not interesting, I’ll blow out the view from the windows to make it less distracting and more appealing.

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7. “Shooting RAW is a must so I can fix anything later in post-production if need be.”

Natalia Ruedisueli

9 Photographers Share Their Best Natural Light Tips — Shoot in RAW

Image by Natalia Ruedisueli. Gear: Canon 5D Mark IV camera, Canon EF 40mm f/2.8 STM lens. Settings: Focal length 40mm; exposure 1/80 sec; f2.8; ISO 500.

What’s the story behind this photo?

My daughter had to do her homework and finish knitting a circle scarf. She was sitting at the window so she could have enough light for her work. I grabbed my camera spontaneously and took some pictures of her being immersed in the process. I liked the authenticity of it because you can’t fake that. I didn’t expect that this photo would become the most popular in my portfolio, but it did! It was also a good lesson for me to always keep my images clean with the best natural light possible.

Pictured: [1] Natalia Ruedisueli [2] Natalia Ruedisueli

Pro Tip

Because I am mostly photographing for stock at home, I have figured out where and when I tend to have the best possible natural light, and I try to stick to that place and time of day. For stills, I do help myself with backgrounds and white reflectors, but if I am photographing children, I take it all as it is. Especially with children, I want the photos to look natural and authentic; I am just observing, and I let them do their thing.

Shooting RAW is a must so I can fix anything later in post-production if need be. When shooting subjects outside, I would definitely look for soft light, and if it becomes difficult and there is way too much sun everywhere, I would then experiment with backlight. If you are inside on an overcast day, consider positioning yourself as close to the window as possible and using a silver reflector. I prefer to keep the ISO as low as possible so as not to lose that natural light feeling with too much noise.

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8. “Light is the most intense in the middle of the day, which makes contrast and shadows more pronounced.”

Lisa Holmen Photography

9 Photographers Share Their Best Natural Light Tips — Shoot in Golden Hour

Image by Lisa Holmen Photography. Gear: Nikon D810 camera, 50mm Sigma Art 1.4 lens. Settings: Exposure 1/200 sec; f12; ISO 100.

What’s the story behind this photo?

This is one of my favorite cakes of all time—a Middle Eastern-inspired rosewater and pistachio cake with rosewater frosting. For this photo, I set up a rustic wooden styling board near the window to capture the beautiful soft warm light of golden hour. The natural light from the right really brings the cake to life and shows off the sheen of the frosting. I barely had to do any photo edits.

9 Photographers Share Their Best Natural Light Tips — Or Shoot in Blue Hour

Image by Lisa Holmen Photography

Pro Tip

I am a food photographer specializing in natural light photography. Although strobes have obvious benefits in certain situations, there is nothing more beautiful than natural light to photograph food. I love photographing next to a window, preferably soon after sunrise or an hour before sunset (the golden hour), when the light is less harsh.

If it’s a bright sunny day, I would recommend using a diffuser over the window. Or you could get creative and try a sheer white curtain or place parchment paper over the window to reduce the sunlight’s harshness. Light is the most intense in the middle of the day, which makes contrast and shadows more pronounced.

For my food styling work, I often set up a table next to a window and either backlight the shot with natural light or use it as a side source of light. This means that the food gets a beautiful natural shine and doesn’t look flat. Sometimes I use fill light or a white foam board to either reduce shadows or bring some back in to bring more depth to the food. My number one rule is to turn out all the lights so they don’t compete with your natural light source. The color also changes throughout the day (cooler in the morning and warmer in the afternoon), which makes white balancing important, either while editing or post-processing.

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9. “Cozy handmade lamps will create a magnificent effect when combined with natural light.”

Enrika Samulionyte

9 Photographers Share Their Best Natural Light Tips — Artificial Light Can Accent Natural Light

Image by Enrika Samulionyte. Gear: Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera, EF17-40mm f/4L USM lens. Settings: Focal length 40mm; exposure 1/10 sec; f11; ISO 100.

What’s the story behind this photo?

In this image, I combined the natural light coming through the blinds on the windows with artificial light from a chandelier and a table lamp. The challenge was to match the color of the light from three different sources. The interior was white, so it needed subtle post-production. The natural light gave a lot of mood and made this interior of a modern office feel playful. The interior designer and I were happy with the shot.

Pictured: [1] Enrika Samulionyte [2] Enrika Samulionyte

Pro Tip

In general, I prefer working with natural light. Although it is often unpredictable, it makes the interior feel alive. I used to avoid strong direct light because it can make the exposure unbalanced and the post-production more complicated. But I’ve learned that by shooting the same frame at different exposures and combining these images into one, I’ll get details in the light and dark areas.

I constantly check the broadcasts before my shoots. If the windows are on the west side, I plan around being able to catch the light at sunset. I strongly advise you to explore the possibilities of shooting close to nighttime, which can bring out a different mood to the same interior. Cozy handmade lamps will create a magnificent effect when combined with natural light.

If you’ve planned your shoot on an overcast day, don’t be discouraged. Find a stable tripod, use longer exposures, and concentrate on finding perfect compositions. Even if the light is not that exciting, it is more balanced in general and easier to work with.

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Top Image by Prystai