Using natural light to create beautiful photos

How natural light affects your pictures
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Three elements go into making an appealing photo: Subject, composition and light. The light can come from an artificial source. It can also come from a natural source, like the moon... or even fireflies. Of course, the natural light we use for photos usually comes from the sun. We can use these light sources to enhance our photos, to stage a scene, or inject drama and magic. So in this article, we’ll show you the right way to use natural light.

The different types of natural light...

  • Directional light
  • Non-light (shadow)
  • Backlight
  • Rays of light
  • Diffuse light
  • Colored light
  • Patches of light

Light

is more than just brightness. Leo Tolstoy put it this way: "All of life’s diversity, charm and beauty are composed of light and shadow.” Capturing this light as a photographer – as an artist of light – can be the most demanding of tasks. And to capture this light, one must first appreciate it. So for now, put the camera down...

Look at the scene and your subject. Intentionally notice the light. And the shadow. Which direction is the light coming from? Where do the shadows fall? Pay attention to the nature of the light, and to whether its attributes are suitable for the kind of photo you want to create. Because light comes in many different forms...

Directional light

This term encompasses all light that clearly comes from a certain direction. This includes non-light (shadow) as well. We use directional light when we want to make our subject appear bolder, more vivid... when we want to elevate drama. The more sideways the directional light, the more intense and longer the shadows become. In the photo below, the seat of a French garden chair is illuminated by sunlight streaming through a loft window at a steep angle. The light creates a play of colors on the distressed seat. The shadow not only reveals the photo’s light source, but also casts a dark copy of the actual subject onto the floor.

wood floor with shadows

For a portrait, though, this kind of strong sideways light could do more harm than good. The nose would overshadow half of the face.

Diffuse light

For faces, we generally recommend more diffuse lighting. Eye sockets require particular attention. Light falling too strongly from above can plunge the eyes into darkness, turning a beautiful face into a raccoon. A face’s subtle three-dimensionality calls for subtle, three-dimensional lighting.

raccoon close up

A portrait in the blazing sunshine may seem appealing, but it’s a better idea to work under the parasol or awning of a nearby bar. You’ll get the diffuse light you need for a better-lit picture... and maybe even an Aperol Spritz into the bargain.

women with curly hair

Diffuse light can be a very lovely stylistic device in landscape photography too. In the photo from Brittany shown here, two types of light create the atmosphere of the image. First, the diffuse light on the boats in the foreground. The world is in order here; the boats lie calmly at anchor, and the sea is serene and untroubled by waves.

But the background looks quite different. A whirlwind rages along the coast. The commotion of the wind-driven clouds is shot through by a ray of light, entering from a steep angle. This generates dynamism and suspense, creating a contrast with the more placid foreground. To achieve a more consistent aesthetic impression, I subsequently modified the colors of the sky and the sea to match more closely.

storm in the see

Colored light

We take light for granted, both in the way we perceive it and in the ways we use it. But light makes our existence possible. And from a scientific viewpoint, understanding this natural phenomenon is not quite so simple. Light can seem to be a particle or a wave, depending on the type of experiment used to understand its nature. And individual light phenomena are no less complex.

The blue of the sky, for example, is created in our brains as sunlight is dispersed by the earth's atmosphere. The atmosphere scatters the blue part of the light much more strongly than the other colors. If this were not the case, the sky would be as black during the day as it is at night. It’s this so-called Rayleigh scattering that lets us experience a sky as “blue”. Because we associate a blue sky with sun, warmth and growth, it has become a positive symbol and stylistic device for us.

When we look at the way a prism splits sunlight, we can observe that light is composed of several colors. Our cameras and our brains each perceive this range of colors differently.

Illuminated objects in the shade are lit more coolly. Objects in direct sunlight are neutrally lit. Our minds can correct for this effect because the brain knows that, for example, a face always has the same skin tone, whether it is in the shade or the sun. A camera doesn't know that. So we might see a pale hue in the shadowed area of a photo, while a warmer shade is seen in the sunny part.

This is where so-called white balance can help. This is a camera setting that allows you to tell the camera about the light you are shooting in. Apps or computer image-processing programs can also make this correction, after an image has been taken. Our cameras’ artificial intelligence (“AI”) is making these adjustments less and less necessary, because AI can analyze our subjects and the light around them.

But let’s leave technology for a moment and get back to atmosphere... in the literal sense of that word. When the sun is low, light has to travel a longer distance through the earth's atmosphere, scattering more blue light into space. Less blue light makes it to earth, and more reddish light arrives. That’s how we get such wonderfully romantic sunsets! White balance is a good idea here as well. Although – sometimes you just can't get enough of those gorgeous, gaudy colors...

sunset

We call this time of warm, red-gold colors the "Golden Hour". There’s one in the morning, and another in the evening. If you don't want to rely on guesswork to determine the “Golden Hour” where you are, special apps can find it for you. You can use the "Moments" app, for example, to look up light conditions and the sun’s course for almost any place in the world on various days.

The "Golden Hour" is followed by the "Blue Hour" which, despite its name, may only last a few minutes. It is the light at dawn or dusk, just before the sun rises or shortly after it has disappeared beyond the horizon. When skies are clear, the special thing about this time of day is that while all sunlight has disappeared, a greater amount of blue light is scattered in the atmosphere. This phenomenon allows us to create images that feature an especially deep-blue sky.

Patches of light

We now come to a phenomenon in which, when we look through the viewfinder, we generally see a little less shadow than the finished photo shows. I’m talking about the light-and-shadow pattern cast by trees or other objects that block the sun. Our brain usually “corrects” the image before we press the shutter release... but a camera reproduces whatever is in front of it. The result: Unattractive shadows on the face:

blond women

But where there is shadow, there is also structure. We can use this effect photographically. For example, window blinds can create an artistic and expressive presentation:

women with brown hair and blue eyes

While on the subject of patches of light, we’d like to tempt you with the much-sought-after spots of light better known as "bokeh". This term comes from the Japanese, and means something like "blurred" or "fuzzy". Now, we’re not advising you to take blurry photos. Instead, bokeh is about how a particularly aesthetic arrangement of light-spots can create a photographic background that we subjectively perceive as beautiful. Backlighting and individual reflections have a strong effect on bokeh. But lens design also comes into play. There are even portrait lenses with aperture-blade designs that magically create particularly beautiful bokeh.

A pretty bokeh can play a decorative role in the design of landscape photos, too. With a wide-open aperture, for example, you can get these beautiful circles of light:

light without motif

Light without subject or subject without light: both are problematic. As Andreas Feininger opined, "When lighting conditions are unfavorable or subjects unattractive, art consists in NOT pressing the shutter release.

We wish you many successful releases of the shutter, with good natural light... and of course, great delight in printing and presenting your masterpieces!

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