Updated: Nov 4, 2019
Light is an images most crucial ingredient; it's literally the only reason an images exist. Upon clicking the shutter on your camera, light enters the camera, transferring the image into electric signals that then turn the pixels into a digital photograph. Without light, there is no photograph.
What is Natural Light?
The most basic and important form of light is natural light, generally referring to any light created by sunlight.
In other instances, ambient light (meaning the available light in an environment) can be considered as natural because it isn’t directly influenced by the photographer’s lighting equipment. This usually indicates natural lighting from outside that lights up a room through a window.
Natural light is abundant (so you get to practice all the time, FOR FREE) and, by paying attention to certain factors such as how the sun behaves throughout the day and in different weather conditions, you will learn to see light better, maximize its potential, and apply the basic techniques in any genre of photography.
What are the Characteristics of Natural Light?
Before learning the different types of natural light, let’s look at the four main characteristics that are used to categorize them: colour, intensity, direction, and quality.
Colour temperature refers to the various shades of colour that are produced by different light sources.
It is measured on the Kelvin scale, from the cooler, blue-ish end of the spectrum to the warmer, orange/red-ish end.
Colour temperature changes throughout the day, depending on the time and the amount of clouds in the sky. At sunrise, the sky appears light blue. At sunset, the sky appears orange (this is what photographers refer to as magic hour); and at dusk, the sky appears violet-blue (which sometimes varies depending on your geography).
The intensity of light is a measure of its brightness on a subject and determines how much light is present in a scene. Intensity is basically the quantity of light in an environment.
You can estimate how intense light is based on the contrast (The balance between shadows and highlights) of your image.
Light is usually most intense at midday when the sun is directly above you. Contrast at noon, therefore, is high and tends to make shadows more pronounced / darker. On the other hand, light and contrast are less intense early in the morning or evening.
As mentioned, depending on the time of day, the direction of light changes due to the sun’s movement.
Granted that the sun is below the horizon at dawn and dusk, almost horizontal at sunrise, and is highest and nearly vertical midday, photographing at these different times of day produces greatly different images.
The cycle reverses towards the night with the sun medium to low in the afternoon, almost horizontal at sunset, and below the horizon at twilight and dusk.
Quality combines the other characteristics and can either be classified as hard/direct or soft/diffused.
The smaller the light source is compared to a subject, the harder the quality, and as the light spreads and becomes bigger, the quality also becomes softer.
In reality, bad light does not exist; the light is either suitable or not suitable for your shot. Therefore, if you're searching for good quality of light, you just need to figure out the kind of images you want to create and then decide if you want to work with soft or hard light.
What are the Different Types of Natural Light?
Based on these characteristics, we can now identify the different types of natural light. Below are some you might find useful in your photography:
Hard / Direct Light
Hard/direct light may come from the sun on a cloudless day at noon or a couple of hours before sunset.
Color: neutral white midday, cooler early in the day, and warmer later in the afternoon
Intensity: high contrast, producing very sharp, defined shadows and edges
Direction: vertical to low
Quality: hard Hard light offers many possibilities to create striking images. For instance, you can create interesting images by photographing shadows that fall away from your subject
Soft / Diffused Light
On the other hand, soft/diffused light may come from the sun on an overcast or cloudy day or as the sun starts to set. Snow, fog, air pollution, or a shaded area can also soften the light in a scene.
Color: cooler in the day, warmer later in the afternoon, and cool pastel at twilight, dawn, and dusk
Intensity: low contrast, softening light and dark areas and producing mild shadows and soft edges
Direction: low to below horizontal
Reflected light is the result of the light source bouncing off of an object, creating a softer color cast or glow.
Color: inherits the color of the surface
Intensity: low contrast, filling in shadows
Direction: equivalent to angle of reflected light
The rougher the surface is, the softer the reflected light will be
If you intend to shoot indoors, window light will serve as a major source of lighting.
Color: depends on the time of day and colors in the scene from which light might bounce off
Intensity: depends on distance and angle of subject from the source
Direction: depends on where the window is, but usually produces side lighting
Quality: can be hard or soft
Window light can be modified directly by adjusting the amount of light you let in. For example, you have the option of placing a see-through / lightly hazy (Wax paper) material across the window to serve as a diffuser, which reduces the light intensity and helps to create softer silhouettes.
You can also block off a section with a solid material to enhance a darker setting, creating a moodier effect.
Dappled light is the result of sunlight that has been filtered through various objects and projected on a nearby surface. It casts interesting shadows on your subject and could make your image more compelling.
Color: depends on the time of day
Intensity: depends on distance of filter from the subject—the closer the filter, the higher the contrast
Direction: best shot in the morning and late in the afternoon, mid to near the horizon
Quality: can be hard or soft
Using Light for your compositions
Figuring out how to create a balance between the direction of light and the position of your subject can be a bit tough, but it will most definitely help in setting the mood of your images.
Be creative by finding the best angle for the light to hit your subject, which can typically be from the front, from the side, or from the back.
A subject is front lit if the light is behind you and is directly hitting your subject.. Light coming from this direction will partially or fully eliminate shadows.
A subject is side lit if the light hits the subject from the left or right side, adding drama and emphasizing texture.
A subject is considered backlit if the light is coming from behind the subject, which can produce a glow, silhouette, shadow, or light flare.
Some Best Practices
When working with natural light, you need to know that the odds won’t always be in your favour. The weather can turn on you at any time, and the quality of light can go from soft to practically non-existent in a blink of an eye.
In such cases, you need to be prepared.
So To End off...
...Get up, Get Out, and Go shoot!
Stay Safe and Have fun:)