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Explorations in Natural Light for Photography

Can you guess one of the most important elements in photography? No, it is not gear, or subject or even location. Yes, all of those are important, but not critical. The most important element in photography is light. And light can quite literally make or break an image. It took me a long time to understand this concept. I used to always think that light can be either good or bad. Have you ever tried to photograph indoors in that horrible florescent light? Or at high noon where you place your subjects in the light, and everyone is getting really mad at you because they are squinting in the sun.

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Well, let’s just say we all learn from experience. Once I understood that there really is no such thing as bad light, life as a photographer just became a little easier. Light is different and understanding all the different qualities of light is what can help you photograph at any time of day and get the results you want.

For the sake of this article, we will focus only on natural light. Natural light is one of the main sources I use for most of my photography.

There are several reasons why natural light photography is so popular:

  • It is readily available and free
  • It provides a range of light variations
  • It is a super large light source a.k.a the sun
  • It changes constantly
  • It can be challenging to master and who doesn’t like a good challenge, right?

Let’s dig right in and understand all the complexes of natural light!

1. Light changes through time

The fascinating thing about natural light is that it changes constantly. Depending on the time of day, the season, or even the direction your window faces – light fluctuates minute to minute.

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Just before the sun dipped into the horizon.

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And 10-15 minutes after sunset when the sky just exploded with sun-pretty colors.

2. Light travels in a straight line but also has direction

Where is the light coming from? What angle is it coming from? I personally love the very one-directional, low-angle light that gives deep shadows that leads to a moody look. The best way to understand light direction is to look at a scene and see if it is coming from one plane, backlit, front lit etc.

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By facing the subjects directly into the light streaming through the window, we almost can create a spotlight effect.

3. Light has intensity

How intense is the light? On a sunny day the light can be quite intense, but on a cloudy day the clouds act as a natural huge diffuser, and the light not only takes on a softer quality but also has less intensity.

4. Light has color

Is it a warmer light, such as in direct sunlight, or such as at dusk? The color in the light affects the color and white balance of the scene and hence your photograph.

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At sunset, the light is warm – exactly what I wanted for this editorial shoot.

5. Light reflects off of surfaces

This is particularly important because you have to be aware of your surroundings. This is also commonly known as a color cast in photos. Look at what’s around your scene including yourself. Your own clothing can reflect off the subject and cast unwanted color in the scene. This quality of light also allows us to try to modify light by adding a reflector to fill shadows, or a black surface to discourage any further reflections.

6. Character of light

Light can be harsh or soft or even a combination of the two which is known as dappled light. The best way to see dappled light is to stand under a tree in full sun. You will see spots of shade and sun on the ground or even on your clothes. This is dappled light. And if done right, is actually quite pretty in photos.

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I love photographing food in this uneven, dappled light…the play of light, shadows, and patterns are what make this image work for me…instead of a boring white backdrop.

7. Proximity of light

This one is a little difficult to grasp because the sun is so far away. But the closer we are to the light, the more power it has. Try this out for yourself and sit closer to the window. Is the light more intense? Now move further away from the window and see if the light feels less intense?

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One of my absolute favorite images of all times and almost no editing involved. Side lighting and diffused window make the dancer stand out and everything else fades away.

8. Relativity of light

This is a powerful aspect of light in that the way light hits various subjects is relative. If you have light hitting the primary object without hitting the background, the background will fade into shadows no matter if it’s white/black. You can achieve a black backdrop even with a white backdrop. Our eyes have incredible dynamic range and can see everything, but by selectively lighting objects, we can take photos that let objects fade into oblivion.

Conclusion

One of the best ways to create a mental checklist of all these properties of light is to do a small exercise. Walk around your area, be it your house or office space, look at the light in a scene and categorize it. Where is it coming from, what is the quality of light, and how can you use it? The more you look and analyze, the more you add to your light repertoire and pull it out when you need it for shoots.

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Karthika Gupta

Karthika Gupta is a culture, people and travel photographer, based in the Chicago area. Her images are fun, fresh and natural, and her love for nature makes it way into most of her images. She also has a Free Travel Photography Demystified E-Course, a 5-Day video series to help you improve your travel photography.