A Guide to Using Natural Light for Macro Photography

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Working with natural light can seem daunting. Yet as a macro photographer, I love natural light. I’ve spent years studying it, playing with it, observing it, and watching it fall.

I use it in all of my photographs. In fact, the last time I picked up a flash was over five years ago.

natural light macro rose abstract

But how do you take advantage of natural light? Are there some simple principles that can be learned and quickly applied, so that you can take stunning macro photographs in no time?

Actually, yes!

In this short tutorial, you’ll learn all about natural light for macro photography. I’ll explain the types of natural light that I like, the types that I avoid, and how you can best use natural light in your own photographs.

When you’re finished reading, you’ll have the know how to use natural light like a pro!

natural light macro birch leaf in clover

Five Types of Natural Light in Macro Photography

There are five types of natural light that all macro photographers should know:

  • Sunny light
  • Cloudy light
  • Evening frontlight
  • Evening backlight
  • And evening shade

Let’s discuss each in turn.

natural light macro poppy

Sunny Light

By sunny light, I am referring to the light that you find at noon on a clear day.

It’s very bright, very strong, and really contrasty. So, let me just get this out of the way and state it simply.

Do NOT use sunny light for macro photography!

natural light macro clematis

I couldn’t bring myself to take a photograph in direct sunlight. I just dislike it too much! So I photographed this clematis in the evening.

I know that it’s very tempting. After all, bright sunlight is very powerful, and everyone loves to get out on sunny days.

The problem, however, is that direct sunlight is extremely tough for cameras to deal with, resulting in blown out (that is, totally white) highlights and underexposed (very dark) lowlights. It also creates shadows that are unpleasant to look at.

Now, there are some genres of photography that make use of a sunny type of light. Street photography, for instance, relies heavily on the gritty, contrast-heavy look that sunny light provides.

natural light macro aster

Macro photography, however, requires softer light such as the next type of light.

Cloudy Light

Cloudy light is pretty self-explanatory. This is the kind of light when there are clouds, at any time of the day.

natural light macro fall leaves

What does this mean for your photography?

Clouds diffuse the light, causing it to become pleasant and soft. This is an ideal type of light for bringing out colors in your subject. I work a lot with flowers, and I go crazy over cloudy light.

There’s nothing better than a nice cloudy day for flower photography.

natural light macro tulip

I photographed this flower under cloudy skies.

Therefore, if you enjoy doing flower-focused macro photography, cloudy light is for you. Shooting in cloudy light will ensure evenly illuminated subjects, lovely colors, and really pleasing images.

Yet sometimes you might want to create images which are slightly less soft. You might want to work with more striking light, which brings us to . . .

Evening Frontlight

Evening frontlight is found during the golden hours of photography. The golden hours are the first two hours after sunrise, and the final two hours before sunset.

During this time, the sun casts a beautiful golden glow over the world. If you venture outside, and you make sure that the sun is behind you (point your shadow at your subjects), you’ll find that you’re looking at a beautiful landscape.

natural light macro red flower

Is this type of light good for macro photography?

In a word, yes. Such natural light tends to look lovely and soft when rendered by a camera.

I must admit, however, that I am not the biggest fan of evening frontlight. I find that it’s a bit too bright. I also prefer more dramatic lighting. Which brings me to my favorite type of light.

Evening Backlight

Evening backlight is extremely similar to evening frontlight. Except, rather than having the sun behind you, you have it directly in front of you.

I love evening backlight for macro photography. I’m drawn to its dramatic presence and warmth. I suggest that you try it, yourself.

natural light macro aster backlight

I photographed this aster in evening backlight.

To use evening backlight, you simply point your camera into the light. I recommend placing the subject between yourself and the setting sun so that the sun is obscured by the subject. Or put the actual sun slightly outside the image, so that it can be felt rather than seen.

Of course, these images aren’t for everyone. But I personally find them to be stunning!

natural light macro backlight

Yet if you’re looking for something a little less punchy, I do have one final recommendation.

Evening Shade

Evening shade is pretty self-explanatory, as well. Your subject is shaded by some object (a tree, a building, the photographer) in the evening.

What makes evening shade natural light so special? I like the evening shade for one specific reason.

If you can shade your subject while using an unshaded background, your images will really pop. The background will be rendered as liquid gold, while your subject is lit fairly evenly.

natural light macro daisy abstract

I photographed this daisy in some evening shade. The background was lit by the setting sun.

Don’t believe me? Try it!

Conclusion

Natural light may seem difficult to work with, but I hope that after reading these tips, you are feeling far more confident in your abilities.

natural light macro dahlia

Simply remember to avoid sunny light, and you’re halfway there. Use cloudy light if you want soft, evenly illuminated subjects and beautiful colors. Use evening light if you want a bit more drama.

Which type of natural light do you prefer? Share your opinions and images in the comments below.

natural light macro leaves

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Jaymes Dempsey is a macro photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan. To see more of Jaymes's work and read about his time in the field check out his website and blog or follow him on Facebook.

  • Adedotun Ajibade

    Great!

  • Engstein

    This article is a rare find. This is actually the first time I read about these because usually in macro photography they talk about gears, techniques, etc. But i am curious about the lens you use. Some of images were not sharp, or maybe you intentionally do it for the sake of explaining the different lights? Do you recommend to use extension tubes or reversing the lens if a macro lens is not available? Cause I found this http://www.tyudorials.com where in some macro lens alternative were discussed. If you experienced to use them, which is better to use between the ext. tube and reverse? Thank you.

  • Great article, Jaymes.
    When your only option is to shoot in sunny conditions, you can opt for moving into the shade, like a forest and find macro subjects there. Alternatively, you can also use a portable diffuser/reflector disc to either create shade or to diffuse the light on a subject located in direct sunlight, but without adding flash or other artificial light.

    Thanks again for sharing the article,

    Peter
    _______
    Get my free e-book with 8 tools you should master as a photographer:
    http://signup.dam-photo.com/get-free-photography-resources

  • kenneth

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/ae01f6bcb178f395ca6e30ccc88e502dbbc619601625bb98246c8440ad0b3407.jpg Jaymes,indeed bright sunny light is not so suitable for macro photography, if really want to take the photo a shade can put over the flower,such as a translucent reflector.This photo was taken after rain and overcast sky gave a very soft and pleasant light.

  • Hi, Jaymes,
    I am happy to read your macro photography guide. Really you are wrote a useful article for macro photography. I have enjoyed it very much. Thanks.

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