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5 Tips for Controlling Natural Light

A Post by Mitchell Kanashkevich – author of our eBook, Natural Light: Mastering a Photographer’s Most Powerful Tool.

In the post “Are you practicing these 5 Tips for Natural Light” I discussed 5 things which I consider to be the core ideas behind working with natural light effectively. In this post it’s time to discuss some of the specific ways in which we can control natural light or rather, control the impact that natural light has on the scene which we frame within the camera viewfinder.

1. Wait


As I mentioned in the past post, the characteristics of natural light always change. Shooting the same scene or subject through different parts of the day or in different weather conditions can lead to completely different images. Waiting is the first, the easiest (as far as effort goes), but at the same time, potentially most frustrating thing that we can do in our quest to control light.

The wait can last for a few minutes, for example for the clouds in the sky to part, a few hours, for the sun to start setting, or, for weeks, for particular weather conditions.

While we are at the mercy of mother-nature when waiting for a particular kind of natural light to shoot in, we can reduce some of the frustrations and be better prepared to take advantage of whatever light we are dealt. We can do this by checking weather reports before going to places, observing light-effecting weather phenomena in those places and understanding what might cause certain conditions such as fog or even a sand-storm.

The image above came to be because I observed the weather phenomena in the area that I photographed prior to the shoot, and, because I waited. Mornings in this part of Romania at this time of year regularly brought fog, which had a dramatic reaction to the light of the rising sun. The fog would dissolve before the sun made its full ascent, so the most dramatic photograph could be made during the early stages of the sun’s ascent. I waited, came back to this place at the right moment and got the image you see. The smoke from the chimneys was a bonus.

2. Diffuse light


We don’t diffuse natural light at its source—the sun. The first and the simplest way to diffuse it is through the way we position ourselves and/or our subjects in relation to the sun. For example, we can ask our subject to move (or place it, if it’s an inanimate object) into the shade or indoors, or we can simply look for subjects who are already in the shade or indoors—this will give us considerably diffused natural light to work with.

The image above was taken in the middle of a bright sunny day. The direct light from the sun was very harsh and not appropriate for the particular image I wanted to make, so, to diffuse it I asked the subjects to move into the shade created by the walls of their home.

We can also diffuse light with human-made diffusers, which are usually large pieces of satin stretched over a frame. The effect is the same, but the diffuser is portable. Pulling curtains over windows is another perfect example of diffusing natural light.

One downside with diffusing natural light this way is that we can’t really do much in the case that we have a large subject, like a tall building or a mountain range. In such cases, there’s nothing we can do, but wait for nature to diffuse light for us, with clouds for example.

3. Direct light


We direct natural light in a similar manner to how we diffuse it—by moving ourselves and/or our subjects in relation to the light-source, which in this case might be the sun, if we’re outdoors and in the open, but it can also be an opening like a window, when indoors.

A perfect example of directing light outdoors in the open is when we end up with a silhouette image, as in the case above. You position the subject between yourself and the sun, hence you direct the light from behind the subject or back-light it.

The great thing about natural light, is that there are virtually countless ways to direct it in this manner, depending on the position of the sun or the light source (if indoors) and of course on the position of yourself and your subject.


Notice how there’s a kind of a bright outline around the grandmother and the cow in the above photograph. This too is because of the way I directed light or in other words because of my position in relation to the light-source (the sun in the beginning of its descent) and the subject. I made a conscious choice to get to a spot where the sun would illuminate the grandmother from a particular angle – a little from behind and a little to the side. This is what caused the bright outlines.


This next photograph is a perfect example of directing light when indoors. The easiest way to do this is by positioning the subject fairly close to the light-source, which in this case was a narrow door. As you can see, the results can be pretty dramatic, particularly if the interior is fairly dark and the only light-source is the one near your subject. In such circumstances light helps us create a progression of light-dark tones, which results in a sort of sculpting effect, the subject’s features look defined and there’s a sense of volume.

As is the case with diffusing natural light, we are limited when directing it too. We can ask a subject to move, but we can’t for example move mountains around. However, we do have some control. With transportation and some prior planning we can move ourselves around the mountains and at a particular angle in relation to the light, hence, we can still position ourselves in a way which is favorable for our photographic purposes.

4. Reflect light


We can reflect light in a few different ways. Human-made reflectors with special reflective surfaces (sometimes different colored) are the easiest to reflect light with. I used one of those for the above image to give it some life, because in some cases, the diffused light can make everything look a little bland and flat.

The human-made reflector “works” by reflecting the light off of it and directing it towards the subject. For a more pronounced effect it’s best to have the subject in diffused light (as was the case in the example image) in the shade or indoors and to have the reflector reflecting fairly bright sun rays. The closer the reflector is to the subject, the stronger the light from it. For the image above I had a friend who was holding the reflector step about fifteen feet away from the subject. He then found a spot where the rays of the sun would fall on the reflector and directed them back towards the subject from the side.

Almost anything flat and relatively bright can become a reflector, to various degrees – snow, water, even bright sand.

5. Look for situations with multiple light sources

These situations occur in interior spaces, whether man-made or natural (e.g. a cave). In these cases, windows or other openings act as the light-sources, and, if there are a couple or a few of them, we can essentially end up with multiple light-sources.


Take a look at the image above, the man is back-lit and has the bright outline around his head, but at the same time, he is illuminated enough from the front for us to see detail in his face and body. This is because the light is coming through two light-sources, the window behind him and the door towards which he is walking (not in frame).


A similar scenario is taking place in the next image (above). The main light-source is the window to the left of the frame. It creates a progression of light-dark tones, hence making the subjects look sculpted (same way as when directing light). There is however another light-source here, a window which is right behind me, with curtains were pulled over it. The curtains diffuse the light, but the source is still strong enough to act as a fill-light.

Final words

Now that you are familiar with some of the ways in which we can control natural light’s impact on the scene we plan to photograph, go out and experiment. Feel free to post links to the images you end up with.

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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