A Crash Course On Natural Light Photography

Let me be honest here for a minute....

When I first started I thought I knew everything about shooting with natural light.

Really how hard could it be?

Fast forward half a decade and I'll admit that I've only just begun to scratch the surface. 

If we take the source of lighting as the dividing line in the photography world then there are two types of photographers:

One - someone who shoots almost entirely with natural light

Two - someone who shoots with artificial light.

What camp do you fall in?

A vast majority of photographers (raises hand) however will end up shooting with both natural and artificial lights, and that’s perfectly normal. It all depends on what your subjects want and the limitations of your equipment, budget, and location. 

As you grow as a photographer you'll be able to combine both natural and artificial light to offer more shooting options for your family, friends, and clients. 

Manual Exposure - Friend or Foe?

Before we delve deeper into the concept of natural light photography we need to understand a few things about manual exposure.


Manual exposure is the ultimate in terms of creative freedom you can get as a photographer.

While you can produce great images using the Program or the Auto modes on your camera, Manual mode allows you to control both the depth of field and the exposure.

This ensures that you have better control over how you want to portray the scene in front of you.

Never Ignore White Balance 

kid blowing bubbles

White balance is a critical aspect of photography.

Regardless of the type of lighting that you use, you need to use the right white balance so that there's no color cast on your images.

Color cast is one of the factors that can make your images appear weird (or interesting).

Images look blue when the light source is a fluorescent light rod.

When you shoot indoors under the light produced by a tungsten bulb the images appear orange. 

Even sunlight has a color cast.

There are two ways to counter for color cast.

1. You can either dial in the right white balance (color temperature setting) during the shoot.

2. If you don’t dial in the right white balance initially, you can opt to correct it during post-processing.

I personally prefer to spend a little extra time to dial in the color temperature setting when I'm just starting out a session.

Later on when I am editing the images I'll adjust the color temperature according to my preference.

Quality of light – Soft Light

soft light photography

There are two main types of light (regardless of the source of light that you use).

These's soft light and there's hard light.

Examples of soft light are when you're shooting under shade or when you're shooting with the sun behind the subject or under an overcast sky.

Even golden hour sun is considered soft light because the light is warm and produces little shadow.

Make no mistake: it's very easy to produce great images under soft light.

I personally know photographers who only shoot in the golden hour for this exact reason. 

This is a way to photograph your subjects and make they sure they likely have very little or absolutely no shadow.

If flattering light is what you need, aka something that is not going to accentuate skin flaws, soft light is the way to go.

You can have your subject face in any direction, regardless of the direction from which the light is coming in, and be able to create fantastic images.

Quality of Light - Hard Light

Hard light photo

An example of hard light is when you're shooting under the mid-day sun.

Hard light is rather difficult to work with for the simple reason that it produces strong shadows.

The best way to handle hard light is to create some shadow.

Use a large white piece of cloth, or hold a reflector on top of the subject's head or ask him / her to stand under a tall building. These techniques will block the sun and produce shadow.

Low Light Photography

Low light photography

Low light photography is both an art and a science. 

There was once a time when low light scenes were a huge problem for photographers.

Nowadays, with high ISO sensitivity sensors and their incredible ability to produce noise-free images, it's become comparatively easier to shoot great images in low light.

The Myth About Quantity of light

There is an oft repeated mistake in photography.

People mistake quantity of light with quality of light.

These are two completely different things.

What really matters is the quality of light.

More light is not always better.

If the quality of light is strong you can adjust the exposure later in post-processing.

All of this of coarse is largely dependent on location and the time of the day you're shooting.

If the timing of the shoot is early in the morning or late afternoon then you're likely to find lighting that's easier to work with. 

Natural light is an asset, no matter how much or how little you have. 

Always use it to your advantage. 

Christine Mathis is a portrait and lifestyle photographer based out of Orange California where she lives with her husband Jeff and two kidos Ema and Sean. Her primary loves are coffee, a good weekend hike, and spending time capturing memories with family and friends.


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