How to take pictures with natural light
Photo by Romiana Lee

How to take perfect pictures using natural lighting

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Many of the best photos are the least difficult to set up because they use natural light. There are no flashes, no strobes, and no fancy studio gear—just plain old simple natural light. Here are some tips on how to get the most out of that big old ball of gas: the sun.

Get outside during the golden hour

Photographers talk about golden hour, that glorious time of day when the sun is going up or coming down and the light streaks across the landscape in great swathes of yellow, red, gold, and purple. If you have a particular shot you want to get, this is the time to get it. But act quickly, because these special conditions won’t last.

If you’re taking pictures of people, make sure the sun is at your back and have your subjects look at you. When the skies are clear, the light is always epic this time of day. You’ll get some great shots simply by shooting in the best light.

Use overcast conditions to your advantage

Even when clouds are obscuring the dramatic colours of golden hour, you can still take amazing shots. In fact, the clouds work as a giant diffuser, scattering the harsh, hard rays of the sun. This indirect light works great for people and flowers, though it’s not so great for landscapes. Indirect light is ideal for shooting close-ups because it reduces depth and contrast in a scene, but adds great tone and texture. And if it’s sunny out and you want to work with indirect light, get into the shade.

Avoid harsh midday sun

The worst light to shoot in is midday summer sun. It creates harsh highlights and low lights so contrasting that it becomes difficult to balance your image. So if your goal is to take better pictures using natural light, shooting in the middle of a sunny day isn’t the way to accomplish it. Find some shade if you want to take pictures at this time.

Dial in your exposure with bracketing

Often, while looking at a scene, you know the effect you want to capture, but you just can’t get your camera to do it. It either overexposes or underexposes compared to what your eye is seeing. A great technique for dealing with this is bracketing, which will help you get the exposure you’re looking for.

Here’s how you use bracketing to capture natural light the way you’re seeing it. Choose what you want to do in your photo. Then set your camera to program, shutter priority, or aperture priority. There’s a display in your camera showing a + or – scale. Go to the plus to expose more. Go the negative to expose less.

This is a way to control what your camera is doing, as well as which parts of the image are dark and which are light.

Bounce light with found objects

Bouncing light is a slightly advanced technique, but it’s amazing how much natural light you can bounce without any professional equipment. If you’re taking a shot of something that isn’t getting enough light, try bouncing some light towards it with something white: an old pizza box, a t-shirt, or even a piece of paper. Anything white will bounce light, and it’s always worth a try. You’ll be able to see the difference a big white card makes with the naked eye, and the bigger your reflector is, the more light you’ll be able to bounce. Your reflector will need to be fairly close to the subject, but trial and error is a great way to learn what works and what doesn’t.

Shoot, shoot, and shoot         

Nothing will make you a better photographer than shooting, shooting more, and then shooting some more. Practise is everything, and gradually you’ll learn how to take advantage of natural light.

When you’re taking photographs, remember to pay attention to light. It does incredible things, whether it’s streaming through a window, bouncing off a spoon, or sparkling in someone’s eye. Once you start watching what light is doing, your images will improve dramatically.