Improve Your Photography by Using Natural Light

Nomen est Omen

I did not choose Photo Lightastic arbitrarily. I do believe that light is the deciding factor when it comes no nature photography. Understanding how light works, is perhaps the most vital step for a photographer to improve their photography skills. Light, or what you make of it, is how mood and atmosphere are created in landscape and nature photography. This article aims to provide you with a guideline how to use natural light to your advantage in your photographic endeavors.

Sunset over Rome

I took this picture in Rome. The principles in this guideline don’t apply to nature photography only, but also to urban environments and cityscapes.

The basics of positioning and light

The same amount of thought you put into finding and framing your subject should go into the use of the available light. You have to consider three things:

  • Your position,
  • the subject’s position
  • and the location of the sun.

Although the source of light is always the same, different types of sun light impact your picture in various ways. Different types of Natural Light can also help you create a large variety of theme appearances, even if they have the similar light source. Let’s start with the basics: Sunrise and sunset are the classics in nature photography. The position of the sun close to the horizon allows for adding drama and depth to the picture rather easily. However, it might be difficult to control such an intense light, as the sky might be over-exposed while the shadows are undistinguishable tones of black. In that case you need two expose at least twice, once for the shadows and once for the highlights. This is an advanced technique that I will cover in a later post.

Three types of sunlight

Summing up, the time of day, weather conditions, and where you point your camera are the decisive factors that will influence how natural will impact your picture. With that criteria in mind, there is three types of sunlight we can distinguish:

  • Direct sunlight: high contrast, armer
  • Diffuse skylight: low contrast, cooler
  • Bounced light: has traits of reflecting object

A photograph — at a basic level — records patterns, including color, light and shade. It is the good ligh that turns a common subject into something magical and flabbergasting and the unsuitable light that can ruin your shout. I avoid using the term bad light on purpose, because I am convinced that there is no such thing as bad light per se. The key learning of the following section is to figure out how to match the available natural light to the proper subject, scene and situation.

To illustrate this process, you should focus on the essential characteristics of light, including color, intensity, and direction.

Light’s impact on color and contrast

The amount and direction of light that the subject receives from the sun impacts the result of your outdoor photography. Let’s see how the different times of influence color and contrast:

  • Midday: The contrast will be the highest, the color is neutral white with the direction of the sun being vertical. This is the time most of these professional photographers consider their rest time. However, the bright midday sun is good for the subject or scenery is equally illuminated, which doesn’t have any bright highlights and distracting shadows under the assumption of a cloudy and overcast sky. I will explain the weather factor in more detail later.
  • Evening and morning: The contrast will be high, the color will be slightly warm, and the direction of the sun will be mid to low.
  • Sunrise/sunset and golden hour: The contrast will be medium, the color will be warm to sizzling and the direction of the sun will be nearly horizontal.
  • Dawn & dusk, twilight: The contrast will be low, the color will be cool pastel, and the direction of the sun will be below the horizon. (The contrast features hold true under the assumption of a clear sky.)

The weather factor in nature photography

You don’t have to be aware of the connection between the time of the day and type of light, but also the influence of the weather, as it is between you and your light source — the sun. A cloudy and overcast sky has the ability to turn harsh midday light into dim and soft lighting. This is favorable for illuminating significant details in macro photos and creating warm landscapes. Basically, the sky becomes your soft box illuminating the subject evenly. Additionally, you can photograph marvelous waterfalls scenes in low-intensity light and cloudy skies.

I took the picture below at my favorite hike in Austria, the Ysperklamm. I used the overcast sky to my advantage to be able to create a balanced exposure with rich shadows and soft golden highlights. These scene wouldn’t be worth the shot, if it weren’t for the clouds — nature’s soft box.

Ysperklamm Waterfall

Light at different times of the day

Clear midday sunshine: Midday lighting is mainly direct downward sunlight. In this light, there is less chance to diffuse and scatter the atmosphere or to reflect and light up the subject indirectly. This is not a desirable kind of natural light.

Evening and mid-morning: The time of day becomes a little warmer and spreads visible shadows. As the sunlight appears from the upper side, the scene or subjects appear in 3-dimensional.

Sunrise, sunset and golden our: The golden hour is just after sunrise and just before sunset. A lot of photographers describe the golden hour as the most desirable light for nature photography. The golden hour occurs shortly after sunrise and before sunset. The sun is close to the horizon and the light has to travel further through the atmosphere as a consequence. Thus, its intensity is reduced and the indirect light from the sky appears reddish.

From dusk till dawn: The short period before sunrise or after sunset when the magical blue hour occurs. Basically, the blue hour describes the twilight period early in the dawn in the morning and late dusk in the evening when the sun is below the horizon. Residual sunlight with a significant blue hue lights the subject indirectly. Scientifically speaking, this effect stems from the blue wavelengths that are shorter than their red counterparts. Thus, their higher diffusibility. So the red light goes straight in the space whereas the blue on is reflected back to the surface of the earth. This is the light we absolutely love as photographers, because it allows us to create unique pictures.

Have a look at the pictures below. The first shot is a sunset in Cancun. Notice the predominantly red hues in the skies. Although I took multiple exposures for this shot, I chose to underexpose the shadows in the foreground to create more drama. The second shot is a typical blue hour shot in Lower Manhattan. The skyscrapers reflect the blue hues which adds to the harmony of the image. The last shot is a blend of sunset and blue hour shots that I took in Vienna. By blending moments in time, more purple tones are added to the image creating a surrealistic look.

Cancun, NYC, Vienna