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A Post by Mitchell Kanashkevich – author of our eBook, Natural Light: Mastering a Photographer’s Most Powerful Tool which is on sale for 24 hours today only for just $7!
Natural light is the most important and powerful tool available to photographers, and it is free to everybody in the world. Understanding how natural light works and how to work with it effectively is one of the key ways in which all of us can improve our photography without spending more money on fancy photographic equipment. In this blog post I’ve outlined five tips which I believe to be most vital to improving the way we work with natural light and in turn improving our photography.
Before getting to the tips I want to draw attention to one very important fact. We take photos to communicate visually. With our photographs we aim to tell stories or to convey a mood, an atmosphere—what it was like to be at a place or with a certain person. This fact is very important to keep in mind because it helps us put everything in perspective. It helps us realize that ultimately our use of natural light is nothing more and nothing less than one of the means to communicate visually.
The characteristics of natural light change due to the time of day, because of the weather and due to various other circumstances. You can essentially say that there are different kinds of light. The different kinds of light will make the same scene will look quite different, as you can see in the photographs above, which were taken during different times of day (left – twilight, middle – sunrise, right – middle of the day).
To the photographer this means that if a scene doesn’t look the way you’d like it to look at the time of day or in the weather you initially see it, you may have a chance to capture it looking entirely different at another time, in another kind of light.
Many of us are virtually indoctrinated with the idea that light during the golden-hour is “good” or even the best kind of light to photograph in. The harsh light around midday is generally considered to be the worst kind of light. In reality, this way of looking at light can be very limiting creatively.
The golden-hour light makes everything look beautiful and magical because of its soft and golden tinting qualities. The image above is a great example of the golden-hour light beautifying a scene. But, what if we want to create an image which isn’t about the beauty of a place or a person? Golden-hour light might not be appropriate in such a situation.
The above image is a good example of when the harsh light around midday might be the preferred kind of light. With this photograph I primarily wanted to communicate what it’s like to be working in a harsh, sun-bleached environment. I wanted to say something about the hardship of manual labor. If the image were shot during the golden-hour, the scene may have been beautified and romanticized and the message may have very possibly been lost. In the harsh midday light, the hard shadows and the bleached colors helped me communicate exactly what I wanted to.
In conclusion my advice is to look at the different types of natural light as tools in a tool-set. None of the “tools” are good or bad, just right or wrong for what you’re trying to communicate.
Observe light in your everyday life—how it interacts with everything around you, with particles of dust, water, observe how is changes when you move from place to place, how it casts shadows. Observe how the photographers you respect use light in their work. The aim is to educate yourself, to train your eyes to recognize different lighting scenarios and eventually to be able to predict when some of the more elusive lighting scenarios might occur.
The photograph above came to materialize because I had observed similar lighting scenarios before. I knew that narrow light sources and smoke can create dramatic looking light-beams, when the light illuminates the smoke at a certain angle. In this situation the sun was setting, hence it was illuminating the smoke at just the right angle for the “light-beam-effect.” I had a narrow light source, the doorway, which I was able to make even more narrow by asking my friend to block most of it, hence accentuating the effect.
No matter how much you observe natural light or how many tips you read about it, to truly make the most of it photographically, you need to take photos.
Experimenting doesn’t necessarily lead to masterpieces, but it does help you understand how light works in a very practical sense. With digital cameras there is absolutely no reason to hold back frames. If you see an interesting lighting scenario and you’re wondering how it would look in an image—photograph it! That’s exactly what I did with the above frame. I saw that the scene was backlit, but at the same time light was coming from behind me. The first thought that entered my mind was “I wonder how this might turn out?” I experimented, made a few exposures and ended up with what I consider a strong image.
No matter how good our cameras are, we will not be able to capture the entire tonal range created by some of the more challenging lighting situations, without the aid of post-processing software such as Adobe Lightroom.
To make the most of such situations it’s important to expose in a way where you give yourself a chance to capture maximum detail. This might mean under- or over-exposing certain elements in a scene. Let me explain using an example.
You can see in the first image above that the faces of the men are looking dark, they are under-exposed. This is the image that came straight from the camera and my decision to under-expose was very deliberate. Exposing properly for the faces would result in extremely over-exposed clouds. In this case I would likely be unable to bring out the detail in those over-exposed clouds and they would become large, white blotches. On the other hand I knew that I could brighten the faces of the men and bring out the necessary details in Lightroom with a simple tweak of the Fill Light/Shadows slider.
Exposing with post-processing in mind is a bit of a mental battle. You constantly have to ask yourself: Which element is more important to the image? What are the details which I can afford to lose and which are those which I can’t? Ultimately there might be situations where details cannot be preserved by under- or over-exposing and until the photographic technology gets better, that is just something we have to live with.
As I already mentioned, no matter how much we read about photography, to become a better photographer—nothing beats actually making photos. The best way of improving and bettering your understanding of natural light is to keep the above mentioned tips in mind and to photograph as much as you can, in as many different lighting scenarios as possible.
Learn more about how to see and utilize Natural Light in your photography with Mitchell’s eBook Natural Light: Mastering a Photographer’s Most Powerful Tool.
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June 29, 2013 08:10 pm
Nice Article.. I always used to think that pictures are blown out when you are shooting a landscape in harsh light .. Sometimes you dont have a choice when you cant
afford to spend more time at a place and are racing against time..
June 29, 2013 08:08 pm
hello friends!!! Photography's most basic lighting option, the sun, is also one of the most versatile. It can be bright and hard or dim and soft. It can be warm and highly directional, casting long shadows. Or, behind clouds, its light can be blue, diffuse, and shadow-free. As it crosses the sky, the sun serves as a front-, side-, back-, and/or hair-light.
September 14, 2012 12:06 pm
All excellent words of photographic wisdom!!!!! thank you!!
September 12, 2012 12:49 am
As a beginner, will work on the points discussed here. Great article!
May 3, 2012 07:28 pm
Nice article, I'm a fan of natural light. Interesting though, in example 5 I actually preferred the shot which was underexposed, has more 'depth' to it (in my humble opinion)? You can go too far to remove tonal contrsts, that's why I'm not a fand of HDR techniques.
May 1, 2012 05:40 pm
A great article, couldn't agree more on point number 2. The amount of photographers who say they don't like bright sun light and would rather shoot in cloudy conditions I find astounding, granted, bright light can bleach out certain areas, but it equally creates amazing contrast and shadows that can really make an image pop.
May 1, 2012 05:18 pm
My mum and pup..the sunlight coming in from the right highlighted the right parts of the photograph !
April 30, 2012 05:36 am
April 30, 2012 05:36 am
My girls with the sun coming through the window. 2 flashes made the wall go seamless white. The window is at their back. Great tips again Daren!
April 29, 2012 09:14 pm
thanks,it is new to me 'to under expose the photograph and to correct it at post-processing software'
April 29, 2012 08:50 am
I usually carry my camera with me and just shoot what I see at whatever time it is without thinking about the lighting, but it is always natural because I don't use a flash. Then I look at the photo and then I see what effect particular lighting had on the photo. I guess if I was a highly motivated and/or professional I'd have to think more about the lighting before I took the photo.
April 29, 2012 07:32 am
For some types of photography, golden hours are best without a doubt but other types must be shot when they are happening. I shoot mostly raptors and the eagles decide when to fish so they dictate the light I have to work with. I can get there before first light but if the subject does not show up until three hours later, what can I do but shoot them in the available light and work on them in post? I think many of the articles on golden hours and blue twilight are simply pointing out that if you sleep through them, you are missing out on what might be a great opportunity. But as you say, they are not the only opportunity. If you are doing nothing but landscapes you might be best to get the golden hours and go home, but other types of photography are not as limited and people would do well to bend those rules. One other thing I have found is that if you are limited on lenses, like say a 400mm f/5.6 lens, you are going to fight the shadows at first light and sunrise. You might even have focusing problems for lack of light. In those cases, shifting a few hours beyond sunrise can really help your shots.
April 29, 2012 03:44 am
Another thing that has worked for me, is to consider bracketing your exposures (with inanimate objects works better) in order to obtain the best color contrast and tonal range from natural light.
I took this shot: http://500px.com/photo/5894607 while witnessing an espectacular sunset going around above me. First, I tried shooting exposing for the sky, but this almost obscured the building with no possibilities of much post processing. So then I decided to take an intermediate exposure and to overexpose the sky. I ended-up with some 5 or 6 images total, but after doing some HDR blending on them, I think it was all worthwhile!
April 28, 2012 10:36 pm
I don' prefer post processing of photos.
here is one unaltered photo shot in natural light
April 28, 2012 11:01 am
I built an exercise out of "Obsess with Observing Light" and "Experiment and Photograph just for the Sake of seeing how Everything will Translate Through the Viewfinder".
A 3.12MP mobile camera at hand, I went out for a walk around 3pm, into the glare of our tropical sun. Out of 50 photographs I thought the following 3 worth keeping.
Gustavo J. Mata
April 28, 2012 09:00 am
Even at sun set, natural light is the best.
April 28, 2012 08:00 am
I really appreciate the tips! Lighting really is one of the most important aspects of photography. You have inspired me to experiment some more! : )
April 28, 2012 03:49 am
I've always liked they way light travels through water and glass
April 28, 2012 02:18 am
The time of day examples are really amazingly different. It really puts it in perspective when you see more or less the same shot at different times of the day. I often think "This would look a lot nicer a few hours from now." but I seldom go back. These examples provide a more motivation to try different times of day.
April 28, 2012 01:35 am
all natural light always!! into cinematography so have always had an obsession for light.
April 27, 2012 11:56 pm
Really liked this article on lighting. Unfortunately we sometimes don't get really great lighting in Scotland. Two extremes..rain or more rain. However the weather here can produce a very even lighting without too many extremes. Certain that your article will come in handy one day so keeping a good look out for that opportunity. Phil Walker, Perth Spotland
April 27, 2012 11:13 pm
Thanks for your insight and experience. You have helped clearly articulate many of the things that I have thought about over the years. I have always preferred natural light and rarely use a flash. I do not use Photoshop or any other editing software, and so I also look for lighting that I like and compose the photo accordingly. Sometimes less is more.
April 27, 2012 10:08 pm
One of the best articles in ages!
So many times I gone to places, it's been awful and I've returned later in the day or next morning the light has been infinitely better. I can never understand why people climb out of bed at 9am and then turn up to a scene and complain the image results are all bland and no character! Get up before dawn ( or a hour before dusk if you like) , arrive at the scene early and study the light as it changes, suss out how you think the scene will change as the light changes. The more scenes and lighting conditions you watch and study the easier it is to suss out how a particular scene will play out. There really aren't that many different types of weather and light interplay scenarios but understanding how they work under certain conditions makes you 10 times more prepared to snatch that one-in-a-million shot.
April 27, 2012 04:04 pm
Thank you so much for the eye opener - I have been getting a bit obsessed with the golden hours.
April 27, 2012 02:47 pm
All excellent points. Great summary.
April 27, 2012 02:24 pm
Excellent article...best I've read all week :)
April 27, 2012 02:22 pm
Thanks for the tips on using natural lights.
April 27, 2012 01:46 pm
Nice Article.. I always used to think that pictures are blown out when you are shooting a landscape in harsh light .. Sometimes you dont have a choice when you cant afford to spend more time at a place and are racing against time..
Post-processing indeed helps to a certain extent
I took the picture below in a very harsh backlit situation. However, I was surprised with the result that came out thanks to Light room.. I know it could have looked better, but it was much better than the original one ..
April 27, 2012 01:06 pm
I love natural light! I love the harsh white light of mid-day when it streams through the window for my food shots. Food is very photogenic...
April 27, 2012 12:29 pm
excellent article and great photos...
yeah i did it...as mentioned at point #4. the following photograph was taken at noon in different light conditions are very high. I did a bit of post processing to illuminate the rock under the shadow.
April 27, 2012 12:26 pm
I don't do post processing
here is a picture taken with natural light
April 27, 2012 11:52 am
I guess you could say that I am obsessed with trying to get it right with my camera, so I'll probably wear out my shutter faster then I want to. Looking at an image on my cameras LCD, I never think about what I can make better in Post, but then when I do download I still see room for improvement, but I try harder the next time out cause I am NOT obsessed with sittiing at my computer when I can do better with my camera.
April 27, 2012 11:28 am
The last tip is one that I hadn't really considered too much until this last weekend. I was taking some photos at a bicycle race and was able to walk all around the course, so I had my choice of there to take most of my shots, depending on the available sunlight. There was one section where the sun was behind the riders, so as I took shots of them coming at me, I knew they would mostly be in the shadows. For that reason, I avoided taking very many shots from that viewpoint. Later, when I processed them in Lightroom, I was able to turn lousy images into pretty good ones by increasing the fill light. Fortunately my 7D is a pretty good camera and it still captured a lot of the details in the shadows. I'm relatively new to Lightroom, so I was amazed at the dramatic improvement I was able to get with a quick adjustment. Now I won't be avoiding so many backlit scenes like that one.
April 27, 2012 11:12 am
Great article, thank you!!
April 27, 2012 10:43 am
I want to add that point #4 is a good tip. I share your thoughts on experimenting, not holding back..just to see what it would look like in an image. You get surprisingly great results sometimes.
April 27, 2012 10:36 am
Good mention on point #2. I am one of those guilty of thinking that harsh mid day light is bad.
April 27, 2012 10:26 am
Fantastic article. Great tips not talked about enough
April 27, 2012 10:04 am
Great article. I remember doing some outdoor shooting for a band, in the woods, at dawn. when we got to the desired spot, it was so cloudy that the photos got crappy. we had to get up early again next day!
April 27, 2012 09:31 am
I was a person who never thought about lightning!
But after reading a few similar articles about lightning, I started to think about the effects of natural lightning on my photos. I usually do post processing, but sometimes just keeping the natural look of a photo is a better option.
April 27, 2012 09:15 am
One question regarding "shooting with post-processing in mind". I was once told by a very experienced photographer (although mostly motion picture photography) that a good rule of thumb is that it is better to over-expose than to under-expose, because post-processing techniques are much more effective recovering details from the white end of the spectrum.
I was wondering if this is still a valid rule, when using tools such as Lightroom.
April 27, 2012 09:10 am
Great, exemplary, photos and some nice reminders on the best of light.
So true, there really is no "bad" light.
April 27, 2012 08:37 am
Really felt this article was useful thanks a lot.
April 27, 2012 08:20 am
This is so good! I'm working hard to really SEE the light that surrounds me. I'm a work-at-home mom, so I've been trying to look at how the house looks at different times of the day. I'm having so much fun and can't wait to dig in to your book!
April 27, 2012 05:04 am
Great Article! I also love working with natural light. Sometimes it is hard though when the sun here is so bright. Check out my pictures at Disney Hollywood Studios in the Bright Florida Sunshine and the Tower of Terror.
April 27, 2012 04:56 am
If you travel a lot sometimes you do not have the choice of when to photograph but just have to seize the moment when you come across something on your travels that deserves a shot.
I often find myself at a location in the middle of the day and in a sunny climate.
As in this example. The light was harsh - everything was reflecting blue from the azure Mediterannean but the shot was there so I took it and then calmed it down during post processing.
Not perfect but still worth the effort.
April 27, 2012 03:46 am
About a week ago my wife and I were on a photographic journey in the woods. While there, I saw some things I wanted to comeback for. It was mid afternoon. Two days later we went back in the morning and I just could not find what I was looking for. It was if we were in a completely different place.
So true, Darren, so true. Thanks
April 27, 2012 03:45 am
Any comments for dealing with low, hazy light situations? I always find the results to be more dull than I would hope.
April 27, 2012 03:30 am
Excellent tips, Mitchell! It is amazing to me to realize how much I pay attention to light, even when I don't have a camera in my hand. Four years ago, was a different story.
I particularly appreciate #3. At times, I can be very obsessed with light. #2 is a great reminder. Any light is good light, it's just a matter of knowing how to work with what you have, this is an area that I am still working on.
I had te accidental opportunity to shoot some amazing sunset images a few months ago. I love the progression of light in these images:
April 27, 2012 01:59 am
I always love to work with natural light.
Check out some of my works here:
April 27, 2012 01:36 am
I have to let go of obsessing with good light! I sulk and sulk when I get to shoot under under harsh light.
April 27, 2012 12:50 am
Great tips Darren! I think the 4th point is one of the most important. The one true way to learn how light translates to the camera is to simply take photos and experiment. I currently do wedding and portrait photography and I made sure I knew what I was doing regarding light and exposure before I started charging people for my services. Each photo I take I am always aware of where the light is coming from and what would happen if I moved around to a different angle.
April 27, 2012 12:50 am
** 'wasn't' at the golden hour **
April 27, 2012 12:49 am
I'm definitely working on all of the above, especially experimenting with different times of day. After a week of waiting for the light to be just right, and just right was at the Golden Hour or with everything lit the 'right' way. I came out with a pretty decent photo, IMO of course!
Thanks for tips!
April 27, 2012 12:41 am
great article, thanks.
expose with post-processing in mind is one of the greatest advices ever. here's an example..
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