Natural light can be one of the most unpredictable parts of photography – and also one of the most beautiful.
Any type of or style of photography presents endless challenges. Whether you’re capturing people, buildings, or wildlife, there are a million different ways things can go wrong or take unexpected turns. Now, throw in working with the ever-changing sun, random weather, and unpredictable clients, and you’ve just scratched the surface of using and shooting with natural light.
Overcoming the variability and challenge of natural light photography begins and ends with understanding the sun. This guide will teach you what you need to know, like how to plan a shoot at 12pm on a sunny day, or what lens to use during a sunset, or what to capture when the day’s light is all but fading way. Here’s how you can take your best photos yet using only the light supplied by the sun.
What Is Natural Light?
Put simply, natural lighting is sunlight. In natural lighting photography, the sun acts as the primary light source. You can manipulate natural light, for instance by bouncing it off reflectors, but you cannot fundamentally change it, the way you would a stand light.
Natural lighting doesn’t just occur outdoors. Think of early morning sunlight spilling through a window, or a soft orange glow enveloping a room before sunset. In these cases, the natural light is known as ambient light. Ambient light is the available light in an environment. You can set up additional lights, or even close the blinds, but ultimately, that natural light will occur no matter what you do.
We’re going to take a look at how you can work with natural light to your advantage, taking better photos and in turn helping your portfolio and photography career.
Components of Natural Light Photography
Unlike using and buying lights for indoor shoots, natural light photography limits your control. It also dictates when and how you plan your photo shoot.
Now, just because you’re giving up control in some ways doesn’t mean you have no control at all. There are a few different factors and things to consider about natural light before you go into your next photo shoot. The obvious first step is to consider the weather and what the clouds are doing. But overall, the main components of natural light are the color temperature, the direction of the light, and the intensity of the light. Once you know what to expect from these components, you can better understand the light you’ll be working with.
1. Color Temperature
Understanding color temperature is a crucial part of knowing how light and color works together to affect your final product. Put simply, the color temperature of lighting is either warm or cold. The temperature is measured on something called the Kelvin scale, which starts at 1000 kelvins (warmest light) and goes to 10000 kelvins (coldest light). The color temperature of natural light shifts with the time of day.
- Cold blue light occurs before sunrise and after sunset
- Bright white light occurs midday
- Warm golden light occurs after sunrise and before sunset
For a full breakdown on color temperature, read our guide to the Kelvin scale.
When it comes to natural light, intensity refers to how strong or bright the light from the sun is. Lux is just the unit of measure for lights strength. For example, bright daylight is anywhere between 111,000 – 120,000 lux, while shade during the middle of the day is around 20,000 lux.
It’s important to know how intense the light will be before going into the shoot so that you can play ahead. This will include things like picking the right speed film (160, 400, 800), or bringing neutral density filters based on the lighting. More on that later.
3. Direction of Light
The direction of light is the angle at which the sun is beaming. It’s an important component in understanding the shadows and positioning of your model or subject. The sun is always moving throughout the day, so you need to keep track of what angle it’s taking and how this affects the scene in front of you. At midday, the sun is directly overhead, creating intense light. At golden hour, the sun is casting light horizontally, creating softer light and longer shadows. As the direction changes, you might need to reposition the model, find a different angle of a building, or wait for a particular time of day.
Determining shadow placement as well as the angle and color temperature of the sun are a perfect job for the Sunseeker App. This is a cheap solution that allows you to look at the sun’s trajectory for any given day. It also offers timestamps and an augmented reality overlay letting you know at what time the sun will be where.
Now that we know the science behind what certain times of day will look like, let’s get into what you can do to adequately prepare for natural light photography throughout the day.
- Color Temperature – 5600K – When the sky is clear and the sun is highest in the sky, the general color temperature is around 5600K
- Intensity – around 100,000 lux – The sun’s absolute intensity maxes out around 111,000 lux and when covered by clouds can be as low as 1,000 lux. Be sure to check cloud cover and UV intensity before leaving for your shoot.
- Direction – 30 – 90 degrees – Because the sun is at its highest in the sky, expect harsher shadows throughout the middle of the day.
This is objectively the hardest time of day to shoot. No matter what you’re shooting, be it landscapes or portraits, the sunlight will be harsh and the shadows will be a directional nightmare. First, try to avoid shooting during this time of day. Second, that never works and you’re always going to find yourself shooting at this time of day. These are the keys to midday photo shoots.
You can only control the sun’s shadows to a certain extent, whether it be the way they cast across a model’s face or the way they add contrast and depth to your image’s background. To combat the harsh shadows of midday light, pick a location in a shaded area. Whether it be on the side of a building or from a tree, in the middle of the day, shadowed areas are still bright enough (around 20,000 lux) to illuminate your subject’s face.
If you’re taking portraits, don’t make your model stare into the sun for an hour-long shoot. Not only will they have to squint while looking into the giant flaming ball in the sky, but the shadows might be cast downward across their face from their brow or nose, covering their face in unappealing ways. So, look for shade in any way possible. Even if your subject is completely covered in shade, there will be enough sun to provide a softly diffused light for your shoot. Open up your aperture and bring a reflector to provide a little bit of fill light on their side.
Read our tips for shooting portraits with natural lighting.
Another obvious solution for harsh midday light is neutral density filters, or ND filters. This is essentially putting sunglasses over your lenses. These filters will allow you to open up the aperture for a shallower depth of field, while not letting in too much light.
You can purchase different sizes and strengths of ND filters. Just be sure to check that it’s the strength and size that your lens needs. Every photographer needs one or two ND’s on hand for natural light shoots. Read this explanation of ND filters for everything you need to know about picking and using the right one.
Now perhaps my favorite method of shooting portraits during the middle of the day is…inside! The light spilling in through windows provides a bright, soft key light if you position your model the right way. You can even throw up some diffusion, like a shower liner across your window, to make the light even softer. The photos below were taken indoors, right next to a diffused window.
Golden Hour Lighting
- Color Temperature – 3500K – As the sun sets, the warm, tungsten light spilling out is going to be the most orange and saturated temperature you can find throughout the day.
- Intensity – around 400 lux – The sun is setting during golden hour and the lights intensity has dimmed so much that you can put away all ND filters you own and prepare to open up that aperture. This is when you’ll maximize your lens’ potential.
- Direction – 30 – 0 degrees – The sun is just about to fall below the horizon, which will cast long shadows from everything its touching.
Often regarded as the best time of day for photography of any kind, this period lasts anywhere from thirty minutes to half a day. It occurs twice during the day – right after sunrise and right before sunset. The length of golden hour depends on your proximity to the Earth’s equator; the closer you are, the shorter golden hour lasts. Color temperature for this type of light is around 3500k. This provides a warm, tungsten hue that’s also very soft, making for an overall heavily diffused light source.
Because it’s such a warm and diffuse light, golden hour photography isn’t especially tricky. But there are a few things to keep in mind when you get out your camera.
Because the light is closer to the horizon as it sets or rises, expect there to be longer shadows cast from whatever you’re photographing. You also need to consider your own shadow so it doesn’t make its way into your shot. I like to use a wider lens if I’m shooting towards the sun, and a longer lens if I’m shooting away from the sun to avoid my own shadow appearing in the frame.
If your subject is blocking the sunlight you might find that their face is somewhat underexposed. Bring some type of reflector or poster board that can bounce light back onto their face.
Also, this might go without saying, but expect your images to be more on the golden/orange side of things. Plan your model’s wardrobe and overall shoot accordingly.
You learn more about this special type of light in our guide to golden hour photography.
Blue Hour Lighting
- Color Temperature – 10000K – The sun has now dipped below the horizon and the remaining light is a cold, blue-ish tint.
- Intensity – around <1 lux – Now that there’s not a viable light source in the sky, the intensity of the suns light is now reduced to almost nothing. The only remaining light is a fraction of the suns rays that haven’t been broken up in the atmosphere and ozone.
- Direction – 0 degrees – There are no shadows because the sun is gone. This is when you pull out your trusty tripod and get ready for longer shutter speeds, with no worries of harsh contrast or shadows.
Lasting for about half the time as golden hour, blue hour comes before sunrise and after sunset as the small amount of sunlight is broken up throughout the ozone, leaving nothing but a blue hue. It just might be even more dreamlike and visually attractive than golden hour. It’ll be over before you know it, though, so come prepared with these tips.
Supplement with Artificial Light
This brief period of time is a bridge between daytime and nighttime. Business and city lights begin to turn on, when the sun has just set or is just about to make its appearance. It’s a great opportunity to capture interesting artificial light sources, like neon signs or street lights.
Bring a Tripod
There’s a significant lack of light, so you’ll want to bring a tripod. That’s because you’ll need to open up the shutter for a bit longer. Think anywhere between 1/60th of a second and slower. There’s always the option to crank up the ISO, but this could bring unwanted noise. If you’re shooting portraits or long exposures, you want as little noise as possible.
A good way to seal the deal on a still, non-blurry photo is to buy a cable release of some sort. They’re going to vary based on the make and model of your camera, so be sure to check that the cable and camera body are compatible.
Getting away from relying on the timer has made me a more comfortable photographer. It’s a matter of actually hitting the shutter and taking the exposure for exactly how long I want, as opposed to a set time on the camera. It’s about the photographer’s intuition (and also making sure your camera doesn’t blow over by a sudden gust of wind).
There’s more to discover in this guide to blue hour photography.
I know this article is about using natural light as your lighting source for your landscape and portrait photography. But, darkness is still natural light, and there are a few quick things I need to mention about shooting at night.
- Always bring a tripod.
- Open your shutter to let your camera collect all of the available light.
- Use your timer on your camera, or buy a cable release, to minimize the shake of pressing the shutter.
Most of the time, night photography involves long exposure photography, which is super simple to do and can produce insanely stunning results no matter the camera you’re using. You don’t necessarily need artificial lights like businesses, cars, and signs. You can also use the night sky if you’re somewhere away from the city; leaving the shutter open can actually collect enough light from the stars and the moon.
Get more tips and insight in this guide to night photography.
It doesn’t take expensive equipment and huge lights to pull off a photo. In fact, some of the most beautiful images you’ll ever capture will all be thanks to the sun. Keep practicing at different times of day and you’ll start to intuit how to photograph the scene based on the intensity and direction of the light.
Want to learn more about lighting your photography? Check these out.
- 6 Tips for Portrait Photography Using Natural Lighting
- The Secrets to Shooting Perfect Portraits with Natural Light
- The Ultimate Guide to Artificial, Natural, and Mixed Lighting
- Color Temperature and 3 Point Lighting Basics
- 13 Photographers on Lighting Techniques for Small-Budget Shoots
Cover image via Sarawut Aiemsinsuk