Exploited Natural Light | NZ Photo Art

Exploited Natural Light

Exploited Natural Light

A paint artist needs to know what colours are on their palette before starting a painting. Since photography is an art of painting with light, it is just as important for a photographer to know what is on their palette. One of the beauties of natural light sources like sunlight is that it can create many stunning spectrums of colours throughout the day. No wonder it is a preoccupation of professional outdoor photographers to chase the light, patiently waiting for the light, sometimes helping it, and finally capturing it. For some it becomes an obsession.

If you are a keen amateur photographer with an SLR camera, family and friends are going to ask you to take family photos, or even to photograph weddings. If this request fills you with dread because you don’t have studio lights or even a studio background, you have no reason to panic. With natural light, and also Mother Nature for a background, you can take stunning photos. In fact, there is an increasing tendency from professional photographers to get out the studio and only use natural light. There are also film producers who shoot entire films using only natural light.


Don’t expect natural light to be the same at different times. Depending on the time of the day, weather conditions and seasons, the quality and colour of the light will change. Natural light’s unpredictable nature forces us to find ways to work around it. For this reason you need to have a few tricks up your sleeve to take flattering photos no matter the colour temperature or the direction of the light. Fortunately there are many techniques you can use to manipulate natural light, and I would like to share some of them with you.

Natural light sources are typically sunlight, moonlight, candlelight, firelight, etc. Most of the time you’ll be using the sun as your main source of natural light, therefore I’m going to discuss sunlight because it is impossible to cover all the natural light sources in a blog post. I will also share some ideas to take photos using only candlelight. If you apply the three characteristics of light I discussed in the previous blog post ‘Light‘, you will be able to use any natural light source to take beautiful pictures.


The lighting of the sun produces many different colours depending on what time of the day, and weather conditions. The colour temperature at sunrise is about 2,000 Kelvin and changes rapidly as time elapses. It rises to about 10,000 Kelvin at noon. (See ‘Colour of the light’ in the blog post ‘Light‘)

The sun is also powerfully bright, which is exciting for photographers who don’t have the money to spend on expensive lighting equipment. Unfortunately sunlight is a hard light source and creates very harsh shadows which can sometimes be horribly hard and unforgiving. The good news is, sunlight can be easily and cheaply manipulated to give you the desired softness you require.

Depending on what time of the day, you will face some challenges working with natural light. I will shortly discuss some of them and share techniques to overcome them.


Natural Light - Blue hour 1The hour before sunrise and after sunset are referred to as twilight during dawn and dusk, or often also as the ‘blue hour’. Although the sun is not visible, the sky is still bright and colourful, with one side appearing warm and reddish, while the other side has a deep blue hue with a cold colour temperature and saturated colours. During this time of the day there will be no shadows to create depth on the subject, but you get soft, multicoulored lighting that gives a calm and peaceful mood to a subject or landscape. Because of the colour of the light, the blue hour is treasured by artists, and also by photographers.

It is an ideal time for cityscapes or urban photography, because the buildings are still lit and the streetlights on, and the yellow glow of their lights cuts through the deep blue. The different shades of the sky and colour saturation also make beautiful landscape photos. You have probably seen blue hour photos with that beautiful blue/purple hue, but didn’t realise that they were anything more than well-timed photos.

Natural Light - Blue hour 2Because you’re working with limited light, your exposure time can be a concern, and can result in motion blur and camera shake, and a tripod might be essential to stabilise your camera. It is also important to set a proper white balance, because on ‘Auto White Balance’ (AWB), the camera might try to correct for the blue tone the light has.

The window of opportunity for blue hour shooting is small, and you need to plan your shoot well in advance. The blue hour almost never lasts a full hour, and is impacted by where you are on earth and what season you’re in. It lasts longer during winter and summer, and shorter during spring and fall. Also the farther away from the equator, the longer the blue hour lasts. Cloudy weather also shortens the blue hour.

The Blue Hour Site can be helpful to find out when the ‘blue hour’ starts and ends at your location.


Natural Light - Golden hour 1The ‘golden hour’ is roughly the hour just after sunrise and just before sunset, sometimes also called the ‘magic hour’, and you get some stunning colours in the sky. This is typically regarded as the most desirable light for outdoor photography, and things just look more dynamic in the golden hour. The light is soft and warm with a golden tint, which adds a pleasing feel to a landscape. Even when photographing people, warmer tones are generally more flattering. People tan because they like their skin to be golden brown. Sunset colours tend to be a bit more red than sunrise colours. The light also produces long soft shadows to add depth to the picture. The light just has a magic that can’t be replicated, no matter how many filters you use, and it’s totally free and comes around almost every single day. Twice!

Natural Light - Golden hour 4During midday sunshine, the position of the sun will determine the direction of the shot most of the time, and therefore your background. That is the beauty of photographing during blue hour and golden hour, you can shoot in any direction. As the sun shines through the atmosphere of the earth, the light is soft and diffused, and people can actually face the sun without squinting. It is also ideal for backlighting, as the sun can gives a nice glow outlining your subject. And don’t forget the long soft shadows when using side lighting to give your subject a three dimensional look. (See blog post ‘Shadows‘)

Just like for the blue hour, you need to be prepared for shooting in the golden hour. Know exactly what you want to photograph and allow plenty of setup time. I know how valuable every minute in the bed can be, especially in the winter, but when the sun appears, the golden hour starts surprisingly suddenly. There are various on-line tools like SunCalc to determine when the golden hour and blue hour starts or ends in your area, which can be quite handy in your planning.Natural Light - Golden hour 2

To photograph landscapes, try to do it within the first 15 minutes after sunrise, as the sunlight casts a beautiful warm light on the landscape just after sunrise. The light changes remarkably quickly during the golden hour, and your scene can look vastly different with every few minutes that passes. Therefore, keep on shooting to capture the full range of effects. When shooting a wedding, it often happens that the golden hour is during dinner time. Try to sneak the couple out for a few quick portraits, it will totally be worth skipping the salad for.

During this time of the day you need to be careful with your camera settings. Your camera is most likely to make an error with its exposure when the lighting is dramatic. Also make sure you adjust your camera’s white balance accordingly.


Clear midday sunshine is the least desirable time of the day to take photos. Most professional photographers won’t even take out their camera in bright sunshine, as the sun has a very harsh appearance on a subject and is hard to control. For most professional photographers this is the time of the day they search and plan photo shoots for the golden hour and blue hour.

But life tends to happen during the day, especially during bright sunny days. Photographing in bright sunlight causes a number of problems. The sun’s light is at its brightest, creating the most contrast between shadow and light, usually to the point of being too harsh. When shooting people you will find the eyes will be dark, and there will be ugly, sharp shadows under the nose and chin, or on the side of their faces. Often you will see that the photographer would have the people facing the sun, probably to get bright light on the subject. But this is a bad idea to look directly into bright light. You often get washed out colours due to the bright sunlight, and you have deep shadows which makes everything worst. And a group of squinting people does not make a good family photo. Photos like this have scared photographers away from shooting in clear midday sunshine for ages. There are a number of techniques that you can try to make the most of the light on offer.


Natural Light Diagram - ReflectorTo reflect the light give you some control over sunlight, and the size of the reflector determines the softness of the light. With reflectors you can also increase your light sources. For example, and also one of my favorites, is to have the people turning away from the sun until you can’t see direct sunlight on their faces. The sun should be to their back at about 30 degrees. This will separate your subject from the background and it also gives them a nice glow to the edges of their hair. Use a reflector at the opposite side of the sun to reflect some of the light streaming in from the front side onto the subject. The reflector will become your front light source, and the size of the reflector will determine the softness of the light. This will give you side lighting with soft shadows to create depth and making the subject look more three dimensional.

You can buy a folding reflector which is inexpensive and very practical. If you don’t have one, you can use anything that reflects light and is relatively large in relation to your subject, such as a white card board, foam core board, white umbrella, a piece of cloth, etc. You can even use a white or light coloured wall or vehicle that faces the sun.

You will probably need to set your camera on spot metering so that it reads the light from the subject’s face rather than the overall light in the background.


Natural Light Diagram - DiffuserTo get softer light, you need to make the light source larger in relation to your subject. That is the purpose of a diffuser. A diffuser is a white or light coloured translucent material you position between the sun and the subject to make the light source appear much larger. Depending on the size of the diffuser and the distance from the subject, you will get soft shadows which are much more flattering, especially when photographing people. It is always a good idea to have the people turning so that the sun comes from the side or an angle from the front side with a diffuser in between the sun and the subject. The soft shadows will create depth, and your subject don’t have to look into bright light.

As reflectors, diffusers are also inexpensive, and you can buy a shoot-through umbrella or a folding diffuser, or you can simply use a piece of semi-transparent white paper or cloth. White nylon fabric or frosted plastic sheets make good diffusion materials. Even wax baking or tracing paper can be used.

The light through a diffuser is slightly more controllable than using a reflector but with reflectors you can increase your light sources.

Reflectors and diffusers are also great tools to use for indoor portraits, whether you use artificial light or harsh sunlight streaming through a window.

To use reflectors or diffusers take some effort and you often need someone to help you hold them in position if you don’t have stands. If you are not a professional photographer, this is perhaps not for every day use, but surely worth while for those special occasions or once-in-a-while family photos. And I can assure you, your subject will thank you!


It is not always practical or even possible to use reflectors or diffusers. Sometimes you simply don’t have the control to turn your subject depending on the sun’s position. Often you also want to take action photos or natural photos in clear midday sunshine. Then you can use your camera’s pop-up flash to soften the shadows. This is known as ‘fill in flash’. It might be necessary to turn the flash power down as you only need the flash to fill in the shadows and not to be the primary light source.


In daytime sunshine you get the most neutrally-coloured light which result in lower colour saturation and can result in washed-out colours on the photo. Polarising filters can be use to manage contrast, and are often the most impactful in clear midday sunshine. However, this time of the day they can easily make the sky appear unnaturally dark and blue.

Controlling the light for large subjects such as landscapes is impossible, and a polarised filter might be your only solution to increase your colour saturation.


On cloudy days you get the most diffused natural light. The clouds are effectively a massive diffuser that lies between the sun and your subject, with the sun shining through them. The clouds effectively become the new light source, providing a soft, pleasing light. There are virtually no shadows to create depth, textures appear more subtle, and reflections on smooth surfaces are more diffused and subdued. However, colours usually stand out more as the light is very balanced, which is great for photographing things like flowers or any kind of close-ups where you want to emphasise colour over depth. It is important to select the correct white balance for these cool light conditions.


To get a shade spot while photographing in bright sunny days can often rescue a photo shoot. The light is similar to overcast sunlight, but shade is usually darker and colours don’t stand out as much as they do with overcast conditions. Just as with overcast skies, there are also no shadows to create a sense of depth. Photos straight out of the camera often appear more bluish in shade, so it is important to set your camera on the correct white balance. Shade is not ideal for photography, but usually still better than the horribly hard and unforgiving shadows in bright sunshine. And you also don’t have a group of squinting people.


Natural Light - CandlelightCandle lit scenes can produce pictures with a nice warm atmosphere. The same principles as with any kind of lighting applies with regards to the quality (hardness/softness) of the light, colour of the light, intensity of the light, and direction of the light. Candlelight has one difference compared to most other types of lighting though: usually the light source, the candle, is part of the picture. That means you can not manipulate your light source, e.g. using diffusers, etc. I’m just going to share some ideas with which you can start experimenting.

Shooting by candlelight means you’re shooting with very little light. When your scene has no moving objects, you can simply mount your camera on a tripod and use whatever shutter speed is needed. However the balance of the light on the entire scene might need some attention.

When you have moving subjects like a person in your scene, it becomes more challenging. You can ask your subject not to move during the shot, but with a shutter speed less than 1/30 of a second, it might be too much to ask from your subject. You also don’t want to unnecessary increase your camera ISO speed over 400, because the grain (noise) can become noticeable, especially if you’re enlarge the photo.

The solution; using more candles to light up the scene. If you only want a small number of candles appear in the photo, or even only one, position the additional candles in such a way that they are not part of the composed photo. Just make sure they are placed in a way that it make sense, and do not create shadows that do not appear normal in relation to the candle in the photo.

Candlelight is a small light source and produce harsher shadows. If you want softer candlelight, simply spread the candles which are outside the composed photo. If you want to create harder candlelight to produce more defined shadows, move the candles closer to each other.

Unless you’re after a dramatic effect, position some candles on the other side of your subject as well to light up the dark areas. Don’t lit the sides completely evenly, otherwise you will eliminate the shadows that create depth on your subject. Usually the candles on the other side will also be out of the composed photo.

The angle of the candles is also important. If the candles are placed in a much lower position than the person’s face, it can create a scary effect. It is not always possible with the candle in the picture, but you can position candles outside the composed photo at the same height as your subject.

It is always a good idea to use a tripod when shooting candlelight scenes to eliminate camera shake. Again, make sure your camera’s white balance is set properly. Your camera may want to compensate for the reddish light produced by candles in ‘Auto White Balance’ (AWB).

To take advantage of natural light’s many different colours, it is important to tell your camera what the colour temperature of the light you are using is. This can be done by using the white ballance setting which all digital cameras have. The human eye is excellent at adjusting to different colour temperatures, but cameras are not so clever. For more info on colour temperatures and how to adjust your camera accordingly, see ‘Colour of the light‘ in the blog post ‘Light‘. You will also find a colour temperature chart (Kelvin scale) on the blog post to help you set the correct colour temperature for the different lighting conditions.

Play around with natural light; it can be a lot of fun.

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