Although there are many different ways to achieve fantastic lighting effects, many photographers love to use natural lighting. It takes a little skill and some practice, but the natural light cascading through clouds, trees or brightly shining on a clear day can provide a myriad of very different effects in a photograph.
As a starting photographer, you don’t need to purchase tons of expensive lighting equipment, there is a lot you can do with natural light. Using natural lighting doesn’t have to be a challenge, but you have to know what to look for. Since you can’t force the clouds to move or the sun to shine right when you want it to, there are a few other things you should take into account when you’re setting up shots using this type of light.
To start playing with natural light, you don’t need a very expensive camera either. You can already achieve some interesting effects with a camera under 300 dollars or an entry-level DSLR like the Nikon D3300.
Playing with light
Many photographers feel that it’s essential to train your eye to appreciate the spectrum of natural light. The only real way to do this is to practice a lot, so just have fun and take lots of pictures!
Start with considering what kind of atmosphere you want to convey with your photo. The range of depth, tone, warmth and darkness can all change drastically based on the light produced at different times of the day, as well as the angle you approach your subject.
For practice, you can experiment by taking pictures of the same object from various angles, at different times of the day, and changing the settings on your camera.
You can achieve a deeper range of depth simply by adjusting the size of your camera’s aperture, so play around with that too. Test shots are interesting because they really can change a lot, so take notes of what you think looks the most interesting, or what is closest to the effect you’re going for.
The golden sky
The “golden hour” is a good place to start when learning to work with natural light. This is a period of time favored by many photographers, when the sky is looming with a certain glow produced slightly before the sun rises or as it is setting down to sleep.
While it depends on the weather, this is a great time to see how the sun provides a beautiful, glowing light source and plenty of chances to work with shadows. The golden hour is when the light isn’t excessively bright from a hot midday sun.
No matter what the season, there is always a variety of texture and color available for you to work with during this time. Some say this is when the shimmering sky has its most depth, although it’s a great time to play with natural light even when shooting indoors. Tip: you can check the golden hour at your location on this website.
Painting with shadows
Darkness is an important attribute to consider when working with natural lighting. A beautiful night sky can produce amazing depth and beautiful silhouettes against a swath of stars. A person’s face looks dramatically different depending on where the shadows fall.
You can essentially “paint” with natural lighting at night or during the day, if you know how to manipulate shadows. This can be achieved in various ways, using a reflector or shades, or even sometimes gently placing your hand near the lens to cast a shadow. Take some test shots, and compare them.
Stark, deep shadows can produce a beautifully contrasted image, or they can create an edge that is too harsh or forced for the overall composition of your photo. It really depends on what kind of feeling you’re trying to conjure.
For something warm and glowing, consider using your reflector, as it will allow you to use the shadows and reflections to soften hard edges and bring out the naturally brighter areas.
Portraits aren’t mere pictures
When shooting portraits, natural lighting can really capture the emotions or personality of your subject far beyond what staged light can provide. Even if you’re working in an environment with a low level of lighting, it’s possible to adjust your camera to make the most of it.
A dim light can come across as sad, sallow and dank, or glowing, soft and warm. Consider what kind of expression you want the light to convey. We watch events play out in our everyday lives, the lighting drastically effects the mood of the overall image, and the same is true in films and still photography.
Adjust your shutter speed and change your range of exposure so that you can still get a great level of depth and a crisp image. This is sometimes difficult when using a handheld camera, but it can create incredible imagery, especially in portraits.
The right kind of lighting cast on a person’s bone structure or eyes can give a lot of emotion to the image, so the viewer gets to know your subject in the context of the photo.
Composition and atmosphere
Above all, when using natural light, make sure you have a vision in mind. Think about exactly what you’re trying to say with the completed photo. All of the world’s most renowned images are so popular because they engage the viewer, as photography is a visual form of storytelling.
While not all the most famous photos use natural lighting, many of them do. For example, traveling photojournalists often have to think fast and snap photos with minimal equipment, so having an eye for natural light is an incredible tool that takes up zero space in your bag.
Really capturing the essence of your subject means bringing out the most important details so that the viewer can see what caught your attention. The more familiar you are with your camera, its particular settings, and how lighting relates to visual atmosphere will all work together to produce an image that resonates with whoever sees it.
Have fun and be flexible
The real key to working with natural lighting is to be adaptable. Any time of the day is a good time to take pictures, but you learn to work with what the sky gives you.
Spend some time getting to know how different levels of light and exposure work together to convey a particular essence or overall tone that you want to portray in your image. When you train your eyes and mind to work cohesively with the camera, you’ll be able to create images with memorable impact and fluid expression.