Natural light makes for amazing photos, especially when shooting living things like people and animals. However, when you’re working with strong contrasts and auto mode tries to balance things by producing washed out exposures, it can feel like you need a low light camera. However, with a better understanding of natural light and lighting directions, you can take amazing natural light photos with just a simple lens hood and some good timing.
Think about the overhead direction of the (sun) light.
The most mixed blessings of sunlight are the downward angle can be very extreme, and it changes throughout the day. You get virtually no shadows at noon, bright light and hard shadows for the hours on either side of midday, and long, creeping shadows after sunrise and before sunset. The light at that time is also the most generous and diffuse. Compared to studio lighting, which you can control to make it come from whatever height you want, natural light has a more complex range of variables you have to adjust for. It can also be easier and more relaxing because you have no control over the light. However, you can choose what time of day you shoot to get the best light for your subject once you have considered overhead angles and how that changes the quality of the light.
Deliberately Position Yourself and Orient the Subject Relative to the Light Source
Light can either be behind the subject (shining in your eyes), to the side of the subject, or behind you. Each position has different benefits and drawbacks.
Frontal lighting (light source at your back): This produces rich colors and brings out sharp details while eliminating shadows. While good for easy exposures, it reduces the appearance of textures, depth, and three-dimensional forms.
Side lighting: Sunlight to the side of the subject emphasizes textures and 3-D forms, highlights shadows and makes simple scenes more dramatic. However, it hides details and undermines complex scenes by reducing the clarity of object outlines.
Back lighting (light behind subject, in front of you): This is the most difficult lighting for exposures because you have to control the brightness of the sky without letting your subject get too dark. It outlines shapes well for beautiful silhouettes and mutes bold colors into a more seamless tableau. However, it also hides details and detracts from bright contrasting shapes and colors.
Use the choices available to you.
You can’t move your light source, but you can almost always move and you can sometimes move the subject. You can also choose the time of day. So if you’re shooting children playing, like family photos, just after mid day on a cloudy day offers ideal even, flat lighting that brings out natural skin tones. Then just orient yourself with the light on the side of your subject so pull out the dynamism of their play. Or get the light behind you if you want close ups of faces with strong facial feature details.
Some people devote their lives to the study of light and its characteristics. Even if you don’t become an aficionado, with these tips and some attention to detail, you can take advantage of the beauty of natural light without resorting to low light cameras and other complex setups.