5 Tips for Controlling Natural Light

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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Some Older Comments

  • Alex Miller December 17, 2012 11:40 pm

    Good article - it's all about the light for me. Find great light first, then make your picture.

  • anotherphotographynoob May 23, 2012 10:02 pm

    thanks for the great tips. went out shooting last afternoon when my dad was washing his old race car and got these shots:

  • Amit Jung kc May 20, 2012 09:39 pm

    Great article ever with examples really nice to know about neutral light.

    Picture above are retouched or direct output from camera ? Just want to know :)

    My request is for another article about reflector and bouncer...how it works with different light condition !!

    Freelance photographer from Nepal
    Have a good time everyone :)

  • Paul May 16, 2012 04:01 am

    Lovely article and inspiring photos, I love shooting with available light when ever possible.

  • Lynne May 14, 2012 07:56 am

    I know it must be hard writing for an audience with a wide range of experience but for me your post and your book are full of easy to understand explanations of how light can be used to take more exciting photographs. I truly thank you for that as I have always loved light in art works and photographs but never understood how it worked. As to the people who left picky little comments, look at Mitchell's photographs and tell me you can do better - they are outstanding.

  • Arturomar May 8, 2012 01:36 am

    I think the relevant aspect that contribute to the beauty of the first picture is the light reflected on the houses and the catedral.

  • Boye Adewodu May 6, 2012 09:33 pm

    This is a good posting and encouraging to a beginner like me. Coincidentally this week, I have been taking pictures of sun rise and sun set. Waiting for the right moment to achieve the desired effect was worth the while. Thank you for the inspiration.

  • Ian Mylam May 5, 2012 08:34 am

    Great advice as ever, Mitchell, backed up by stunning photography which illustrates and inspires. Your latest eBook on working with natural light is your best yet - thoroughly recommended, if anyone is considering whether to buy it here on DPS. Thanks for the inspiration.

  • Sam Docker May 4, 2012 06:11 pm

    Embrace the natural light - http://www.samueldocker.co.uk/katie-matt-engagement-shoot-derby/

  • Wairimu Gitahi May 4, 2012 05:30 pm

    Thanks so much for this Mitchell! ... I love using natural light when photographing and these tips will make my experiences even better. Cheers!

  • raghavendra May 4, 2012 01:33 pm

    This is indeed a good tips
    I have recently took a picture related to the natural light


  • Sam May 4, 2012 01:18 pm

    I agree with Roxy, these are beautiful photos taken by someone who knows her / his stuff - light control was one part played in creating a great image - what were the others - Love to know!!!

  • Shane May 4, 2012 12:25 pm

    Great article and wonderful images! "Seeing" the light is very important. If you can't see it you won't use it correctly.

  • Mikhail Anand May 4, 2012 11:57 am

    great tips..natural light is everything in street photography and most of the rules are practical to use on the street......
    some of my links

  • Heather T. May 4, 2012 11:47 am

    Such beautiful shots--thanks for the explanations!

  • Kumar May 4, 2012 10:10 am

    Great tips Mitchell and really wonderful photographs. For amateurs or hobbyists, waiting may not be the easiest or possible thing, but the tips of directing the light or adjusting yourself are great. What I love about your photos is the overflowing life in the setting of nature.

  • ccting May 4, 2012 09:14 am

    Wow.. great article great advice. Thanks very much.

  • Scottc May 4, 2012 08:42 am

    Simple but effective reminders about natural lighting, I still sometimes fail to give it the attention it deserves.


  • roxy montana May 4, 2012 04:36 am

    As a true beginner in understanding the different effects that you describe, it would be helpful to me to know more details- like are you adding flash? When possible, what settings are you using to accomplish these shots? I know for many here that information is more than they need, but I am still working on moving beyond my cameras 'auto-select' modes.

  • John Cundiff May 4, 2012 04:24 am

    Most of these are elements that I have read elsehwere also. I like the one example of shooting midday, showing that good pictures can be done at that time instead of only during the golden hours. I would like to hear more about getting good pictures during midday because some people only have that time to shoot due to work or other comittments. There is enough written about moving to shade and overcast skies for midday shots, something that talks about using CPL and ND filters in direct light would be appreciated as a means for controlling light.

  • steve slater May 4, 2012 03:50 am

    I think the key here is recognising the light that you have and then working with it. If you can pre plan then waiting for the light to give you the effect that you are looking for.
    For this one, as an example, I waited until the sun came down low but just before the golden hour. This gave an accentuated Autumn glow


  • Jason Racey May 4, 2012 03:00 am

    This article is a nice catalogue of different types of natural lighting, thanks.

    I share the opinion that you are not "controlling" light but adapting to it in these examples. The only control we have is when and where to shoot.

  • Shane Fleming May 4, 2012 02:58 am

    Nice article and wonderful photographs! Love the last image!

  • Shella Gardezi May 4, 2012 02:24 am

    Beautiful photos. You must really have a knack for building relationships with your subjects, as well.

  • Mitchell Kanashkevich May 4, 2012 01:54 am

    @Steve - Really depends on which way you look at it. By waiting, you are making the decision on when to make the photograph, hence you are taking control, because you understand that the lighting scenario will change.

    To me giving up control would mean not waiting because there is either no time, the circumstances aren't right, or because the photographer doesn't understand that the lighting scenario can change.

  • Jeff E Jensen May 4, 2012 01:44 am

    I think that waiting for the light to be just right, can be one of the most enjoyable aspects of photography. These two image were taken early one morning in Southern Alberta. I had been out for a bit and waited patiently for the sun to get these.


  • Keivan Zavari May 4, 2012 01:42 am

    Oh great post... :-)
    I loved it. I am more and more realizing how important it is to master the light. It's really fun.
    I took this one with direct light, but sunset light!


  • Erik Kerstenbeck May 4, 2012 01:29 am


    One can also use filters such as a Neutral Density or when dealing with high contrast, HDR techniques.

    Here waiting until the sun appeared, and bracketting exposures helped to create this image at Point Loma California


  • Steve May 4, 2012 01:07 am

    I would add that "waiting" is pretty much the opposite of "controlling" light. It's basically giving up control and waiting for mother nature to do it for you.

  • Mridula May 4, 2012 12:55 am

    Great tips that I will try out hopefully in a trip coming up soon.


  • Mitchell Kanashkevich May 4, 2012 12:50 am

    @OsmosisStudios - Yes, as I said later we "control the impact that natural light has on the scene which we frame within the camera viewfinder." The photos have been jumbled in the post.

  • OsmosisStudios May 4, 2012 12:44 am

    5 Tips to USE Natural Light

    You're not controlling a thing, you're adjusting yourself to fit the light.