The word “photography” comes from two Greek words meaning “light” and “drawing”, together meaning “drawing with light”.

Without light it would be hard to create a photograph. Learning to use natural light effectively and understanding how the light works is essential for all photographers.

We take photos with the aim to tell stories, to convey a mood and an atmosphere, to communicate to the viewer what it was like to be there at that exact moment. By finding the best light and angle to a subject before clicking your shutter can help you take your image to the next level.

I’ve outlined five steps you can take to improve the way you use natural light in your photography without spending a penny.

1. Expose for the highlights

When exposing your photo, look for the brightest part of the frame and expose for that. If you opt to expose for the shadows, especially in a high contrast situation like middle of the day sun, your highlights will be blown out and most likely unrecoverable in the editing process. Overexposed images like this are unpleasing to the eye and pull the viewer from your desired subject.

Choosing to expose for the highlights creates a more pleasing image with good tones that don’t distract the viewer. If exposing for the highlights does not work in highlighting your subject as the focus of the image, consider moving your subject so the light falls as you desire on them/it.

The LCD monitor on the back of your camera is a great tool to use when checking your images for focus and composition, but when it comes to determining exposure, using the LCD can be somewhat deceiving. I always make sure that Highlight Alert setting (“blinkies”) is enabled. It will show to you where the overexposed/blown out areas in your images are located. The image preview blinks in areas that are completely white and have no detail.

pic of kid jumping in the waves by Anita Perminova

2. Consider the color of the light

Be aware that the quality and color of the light will change according to the time of day, season and weather. That means that different kinds of natural light will make the same scene look different.

  • At high noon on a sunny day the light is the most neutral.
  • The color temperature of light in the shade is always blue because the light source is the blue sky.
  • The light can appear white or grey on an overcast day if the cloud cover is thick and the sun is higher in the sky.
  • When the sun is lower in the sky at sunrise or sunset the light passes through a thicker layer of atmosphere which filters the blue light leaving the red color.

picture of girl by a greenhouse with sunflowers in it by Anita Perminova

To a photographer, it means getting correct white balance right in camera. Digital cameras need help to compensate for different types of lighting and render a white object white. The white balance setting helps to get the colors on your images as accurate as possible. While many cameras have an easy to access button to adjust white balance, I recommend reading your camera manual to clarify.

White-Balance-Color-Temperature-Kelvin-Reference-Chart-for-Photographers

Learn how to use Kelvin to set your white balance here.

3. Find pockets of light

Observe light in your everyday life, how it interacts with everything around you, coming through the trees, or hitting the grass, the snow, or the streets.

Look for pockets of light, the areas where the light shines in and is dark around the edges, observe how the light falls on your subject and how it casts shadows. Using these pockets of light to highlight your subject will result in more dramatic images and help to create layers of depth within a photo.

picture of girl on a rocky beach by Anita Perminova

4. Use locations based on your light choice

To me, when shooting outdoors, the location scouting is based on the type of light I want to get in my images. For instance, if you want to get a lot of haze and flare, search for open areas. Make sure the background is shadowed and there is something that can block, filter, or direct the light like buildings, trees or mountains.

photo of woods with pretty light and a starburst by Anita Perminova

5. Utilise the available light to your advantage

Take the time to look at the light around you and think about what you are trying to achieve. It’s critical to find the right time of day to shoot your outdoor scene.

Golden hour and backlighting:

In photography, the best time to have a soft, diffused light in your images is the golden hour. The golden hour, sometimes called the magic hour, is roughly the first hour of light after sunrise, and the last hour of light before sunset. This type of light is more directional, has less contrast, and easier to control.

Golden hour is perfect for backlighting. The sun must be in the background of your subject, which will also show the rim light around the edges of the subject. Another way to make backlighting easier is to find something to filter the light through like some bushes or trees, clouds make a great filter on cloudy days, or you can try using your subject or a building to partially block the sun. You can also add haze into your images by allowing the sun to enter the lens and hit the camera’s sensor. The result is a backlit image with a beautiful, hazy glow (warm in evenings and cooler in mornings). The best way to control haze is trying different angles by simply moving around until you get the perfect spot.

backlit pic of girl in a yellow dress on a beach by Anita Perminova

Overcast and cloudy day:

The sky becomes a giant soft box for the sun on overcast days and it means that you can work throughout the day with a consistent light source. However, there can be some challenges to deal with.

First of all, although the light is soft and diffused it’s coming from overhead. If you can’t subtract overhead light, just get your subject to look up in order to help the light to reach the eyes, create beautiful catchlights, and make sure the deep shadows in eye sockets (i.e. racoon eyes) have disappeared. Second, with the light coming from above and all the sides images can appear flat and two-dimensional. You can remove the overhead light by giving the light direction and force the light to hit your subject at a better angle. Look for a natural barrier to provide the shadows, a row of trees, or a building, or basically any place that is blocking some light from overhead and/or on the side. Always know where the sun is, even if you can’t see it, and face your subject towards the sun.

portrait of young girl with leaves in the foreground by Anita Perminova

Shooting in full sun:

I adore how the midday sun creates amazing blue skies and turns the whole world vibrant. This is the light in which we live our life and want to document it. Remember that harsh or hard light creates dramatic shadows. Pay attention to where the sun is and try to capture the whole scene instead of attempting a portrait. Make sure that the sun is shining directly on your subject.

photo of girl in a yellow dress by the water by Anita Perminova

Please remember, you must practice shooting in unique types of light. The aim is to train your eyes to recognise different lighting scenarios and eventually to be able to predict accurately when the light is interesting by looking at it so you know exactly when to take a photo that will convey your vision to a viewer.

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Without light it would be hard to create a photograph. Learning to use light effectively and understanding how it works is essential for all photographers.

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