Understanding Natural Lighting


Image by Anne McKinnell


Understanding Natural Lighting


According to John Wade, “During the course of just 24 hours the colour, intensity and direction of natural light changes dramatically, leading to countless photographic opportunities.” To be able to master lighting within photography we first must understand how light changes over the course of the day. To be exact, light changes from hour to hour throughout the day which goes unnoticed by the human eye. Mainly because the eye seamlessly adapts to the various conditions. Within this article, we will go through how to see the light and how it might affect your photography.


Colour of the lighting


When we think of lighting we think of bright white light. In fact, light has colour which can be seen in the visible spectrum; red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet.  Each of these colors have different wavelengths. Some shorter at the blue end and longer at the red end. Mixing all these colors together we get white light.


Direction of the lighting


We all know that those couple minutes after a sunrise and shortly before a sunset is perfect for outdoor photography. These minutes are known as the ‘golden hour.’ During this time the light is softer and warmer in colour; not actual temperature. This is the same for the twilight hours. Which come right after sunset. Now that the sun is below the horizon, the shorter blue wavelengths are diffused across the atmosphere which is known as the ‘blue hour’. So, in a course of one day the light changes from black, blue, red, orange, yellow, white, yellow, orange, red, blue, then back to black.


As the light moves the direction of the light changes. For example, when the light is over head it has a harsh light on a subject. This is not a good time to photograph outdoors, but if you know the limitations, you could get away with it. As the sunsets, the light becomes more directional. If the sun is behind the camera, it will provide the light to shine on the subject. This will show more detail because the light will get into every crack and crevice of your object/subject, creating a pleasing and dramatic image.


For the best natural lighting, you want the sun to be at a 30-45-degree angle. This helps creates shadows, adds more texture and depth to the image. A 90-degree angle will add more dramatic look to the image. This is where the subject is lit from one side. Against a dark backdrop, this will help them stand out. Although, when the sun is facing the camera it changes again. Indicating that you can focus it across water and see the reflection in your image. When used behind a subject, it creates a halo around their profile. Which then softens the edges of the subject. Translucent objects lit from behind like a flower or leaf creates a glow, but more solid objects can produce a silhouette against the sun or more dramatic sky.



Summer vs Winter Lighting


Even the time of the year matters. Summer versus winter. Most people think Summer is the best time for taking photographs but, in actuality, winter is the best time. Reason being, is that the sun appears lower in the sky. Creating photogenic low light qualities and creates a more dramatic golden hour.


Overcast Lighting


Not all the light we photograph with has to come directly from the sun. We recommend photographing in overcast or slightly raining conditions. This style of light is still directional but has a natural diffuser over it which helps spread the light more evenly. Shooting with diffused light, could add more drama to the image. Therefore, a specific light happens even before and after a storm, which adds an amazing tone to the images.




Sunsets are a great time to photograph with natural light. This will bring out a red sun which makes photographing irresistible. On clear night, once the sunsets you might get lucky enough to see an afterglow as the sky fades to red then orange hues. Finally fading to purple and then blue; creating the blue hour.



Inconclusion, the best time to photograph under natural light is during the golden hour. Which is either in the early morning or late afternoon. We lightly touched on how using frontal lighting, reveals strong details in a subject you are photographing. Revealing more texture to the object/subject, which gives a more three-dimensional look to the image by using side lighting. By using backlighting, you can create clear silhouettes against a bright background. To avoid direct sunlight coming into the lens, use a lens hood to stop any extra lens flare. Using spot metering mode on your camera will help correctly expose the image to have well-lit and shadowed areas within the frame. Lastly, if you are photographing the sun, in your photo use plus one or two exposure compensation. This will open the lens one or two stops to rebalance the tones so the photograph is not to bright.