Natural Light and Photography Qualities of Light Lighting and Photography

Without light, photography as we know it would not exist. Not only does light make photography possible, but it has the ability to completely alter the way a photograph is perceived by the viewer. Next to possessing the knowledge of good composition, understanding light and how to use it is one of the best ways to capture more compelling images. There are many sources of light, but this article will focus specifically on the use of natural light.

I See the Light!

The first step in using natural light to your advantage as a photographer is your ability to recognize its presence in the first place. Too often we are so caught up in the details of camera settings and of creating good composition that we ignore the way light falls on our subject matter. One of the best ways to become more aware of natural light and its effect on your subject is to plan a day to go out without your camera. Start early in the morning as the sun is rising, pick a subject like a rock, a tree, or a building, and watch how the light from the sun changes over time. Notice the highlights, the mid-tones and the darker shadows. Where do they fall on your subject at that time of the day? Visit the same spot at around noon and take a mental note of how the light has changed the scene and how it affects the feeling of your subject matter. Follow this up with a visual inspection near sunset but be patient and wait a bit longer for the sun to disappear. Watch how the shadows are cast and how the light begins to change in temperature.

After a day or two of experiencing the light without your camera go back and repeat the exercise with your camera in tow. Take your time when composing your shots during each point of the day and try to use the light to emphasize your subject. Be aware of the angle of the light as it falls on your subject matter and adjust your position in order to get the best effect. The last step will be to print your photographs from the various times and place them side-by-side in order to view the differences in the quality of the light and how it changes the mood of each photo.

The Qualities of Natural Light

Physicists have been studying light and attempting to understand it’s complexities for decades. There is a lot of scientific information written about the physical characteristics of light, but for the purposes of photography we will focus on three qualities: intensity, diffusion and direction.

While you are out on your trek to study light and its effect on your subject matter, hopefully you will notice the difference in intensity that the sunlight displays at different points during the day. Morning and evening light is dimmer than the brightness of the noon day sun and is often coined by photographers as “golden light”. The level of intensity of natural light dictates the choices we make for setting f-stop and shutter speed on our cameras.

Sunlight can be harsh and cause dark shadows and offer little contrast. When sunlight is diffused by clouds or fog in the sky, the shadows that are cast take on an entirely different quality and can become soft, ill-defined or even non-existent. Taking a photo indoors with natural light that shines through a north facing window can create a pleasant diffused effect on your subject matter even at midday. Moving your subject into the shade or adding scrims to either side of your subject will serve to diffuse the intensity of directional light.

It is important to always be aware of the angle or direction at which the natural light is hitting your subject matter. Is it coming in from the side, the front or the back? When the sunlight hits your subject from the side, texture and surface are emphasized. Backlighting creates dark shadows but can illuminate the edges of your subject with a beautiful halo effect. When the sunlight falls upon your subject from the front, shadows and texture become minimized.

Studying the qualities of light is one more step towards better control over the photographs that you compose. Understanding the basics of reflection of light can take your photos to that next level.

The Power of Reflection

The more you study light, the more you become aware of reflection. Light reflects off of surfaces in an extremely predictable manner based on the angle of incidence and the angle of reflection. To avoid delving too far into the study of physics we will focus instead on the basics in order to improve the end result of our photographs.

So, you have discovered on your journey that you prefer the morning light for your next photo shoot. You recognize the soft quality of that “golden light” moment just after sunrise. You gather up your subject and pose them in front of the old brick building down by the pier. You adjust your f-stop and shutter speed to accommodate the level of intensity and you spend time composing your shot. Because you have trained yourself to notice the light that is falling on your subject, you gasp with excitement as the rising sun illuminates their face from the side with a soft angelic light. Right before you click the shutter you realize that the left side of your subject’s face is lost within the dark shadows. This is the key moment for artistic decision. Either you decide that this is the look you are going for or you whip out your 32″ reflector and angle it up towards the left side of your subject to reflect light onto the dark side of their face.

Reflectors can be made out of almost any material, and with any shape and size. Even a piece of white poster board can be utilized to add needed light to a scene. Reflectors are used to not only add light, but they can also be used to change the quality of light. Using a white reflector creates a neutral tone, gold adds a warm tone, silver is neutral yet brighter than white, and blue will create cool tones. When you become very aware of the environment around you, you can even begin to utilize reflections off of water or windows in buildings to your advantage.

The more you recognize light and how it falls on your subject, begin to understand its qualities and develop the ability to control its source through the use of reflection, the more visually compelling your photographs are bound to become.