When I started out as a photographer, one of the trickiest things to master was natural light.
By natural light, I’m referring to the light created by the sun, and not by artificial lighting sources.
So if you’re working to improve your photography, the first thing to understand about natural light is that it’s very different throughout the day. It differs in intensity and color depending upon where the sun is in the sky and its proximity to the earth. In other words, you can shoot the same scene or subject at different times throughout the day and the results will be quite different. Here, I’ll cover 4 types of natural light scenarios.
The hours just before sunrise and sunset result in the most pleasing light for photography — hence the name the “golden hour.” The light from the sun is really low to the ground, which results in spectacular colors created from the light passing through the atmosphere and its objects. That’s why scenic sunrises and sunsets are commonly shot just before the sun actually sets or just after it rises. Often times, movies and portraits are shot during the golden hour because the light is particularly soft, warm, and makes almost everything look gorgeous.
The twilight hour is the time when the sun is below the horizon. This occurs just before sunrise or just after sunset. Objects on the earth often appear dark or in silhouette in photographs taken during this time of day, because the sun is below the horizon and it only illuminates the sky.
Midday or overhead light is when the light comes directly from above. Light isn’t diffused by the earth or atmosphere, since it’s directed straight downward. Sometimes this is referred to a postcard light, since most postcards are shot during mid-day in order to evenly illuminate buildings, structures, and scenes. Typically though, this light is the harshest light of the day and results in unflattering contrast between highlights and shadows when shooting people, animals, or flowers. So if this is your subject matter, just go ahead and take that lunch break.
Shade or overcast light can work beautifully for photographing people, flowers, and animals. In these situations, objects and textures will yield a much lower contrast, meaning you won’t see vast differences between light and dark. This can be ideal for photographing people, since it won’t cast hard shadows across the person. As you can see from the photo on the left below, direct sunlight on a subject results in harsh contrast between highlights and shadows. In the image on the right, the sun is obscured by a cloud that is diffusing the light and results in a much more pleasing image.
In shade, the sunlight is blocked by an object like a tree or a building. The light is reflected off of objects surrounding the subject or scene. When photographing people, I look for areas of open shade to photograph my subjects in: under a tree, under a porch or overhang, or beside a building.
In overcast light, the sun is diffused by the clouds in the sky, resulting in the same lowered contrast between light and dark. Close-up or macro photography of flowers is often enhanced by cloudy or overcast light.
If you’re just starting out with DSLR photography, the key to mastering natural light is to practice, practice, practice. Just get out there in different times throughout the day and just experiment. See what the same subject looks like at the different natural light scenarios I mentioned, and compare them. And remember, no one becomes an expert overnight, so stick with it and just keep shooting!