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How to Use Natural Light for Macro Photography

I have to admit that the sun is one of those things in life that intrigues and fascinates me. When I was a kid I remember laying on the floor looking at the sky, watching the sun changing its position during the day and casting different types of shadows and reflections.

Natural light is the term we use in photography to refer the light of the sun. This, as opposed to artificial light that is usually created by the transformation of electricity into light through the use of light bulbs.

Even though natural light has the sun as a starting point, it can look very different depending on many factors. Time of the day, the season of the year, weather conditions and various other circumstances may influence the way sunlight reaches the earth and can be captured in a photograph.

How to Use Natural Light for Macro Photography

As photographers, it is our job to understand the way it works and make the best out of it. In this article, we will explore the way natural light works and how to apply it in macro photography work. Let’s start with the basics.

Quality of Light

Quality of light is a term usually used by photographers to refer to the “hardness” or “softness” of a light source.

This quality is determined by the way a given light source produces the transitions between the highlights and shadows.
Soft light produces smooth transitions, while hard light produces abrupt transitions between the tonal areas, therefore giving the image less or more contrast.

The basic principle is: The larger the light source, the softer the light.

This means that sunlight gets softer closer to sunrise and sunset and harder closer to midday, due to the changes of distance between the sun and the earth during the day (and the angle at which it enters the atmosphere).

Lighting macro photography 01

Left: Image photographed at sunrise. Right: Image photographed at midday.

Direction of Light

The direction of light refers to the position of the light relative to the subject. This positioning determines the width of the shadows it casts creating the sense of texture and shape.

The basic principle is: Shadows fall to the opposite side of where the light is located.

Frontal lighting has a flattening effect on most subjects as it casts the shadows on their back, removing the three-dimensional effect.

Side lighting accentuates the texture of the subject as it casts side shadows creating the sense of dimension and volume.

Backlighting creates an outlining effect on the subject separating it from the background, making it more dominant.

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Color and Contrast

The color of light, or white balance, and contrast in natural light is mainly affected by two factors:

#1 – Time of day affects the position of the sun. The closer the sun is to the horizon, the less contrast and warmer is the light. This phenomenon happens mainly because sunlight has to cross more atmosphere which gives less contrast and filters the blue light resulting in a yellowish tonal effect. Closer to high noon the higher the contrast and less color variation it has because the sun is further away from the horizon.

#2 – Weather which affects contrast and color of light mainly by the presence of clouds which act like a huge diffuser resulting in less contrast and a blue color cast.

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Diffused and Reflected Light

Even though you cannot control sunlight, it doesn’t mean you cannot modify it to suit your needs.

Diffused light is achieved by sending a beam of light thru a semi-transparent surface resulting in lower contrast and feathered edge shadows.

Reflected light is achieved by bouncing the incident light off a reflecting surface onto the subject resulting in a change of direction and intensity of the light.

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Basic tools like reflectors and diffusers are fundamental resources for natural light photography. Even though there are a lot of macro photography dedicated gear options available, if you don’t want to spend your hard earned money on them, you can just build your own with things you probably already have around the house.

Tracing or baking paper and aluminum foil are great materials for building custom diffusers and reflectors. Just cut them to the size and shape that best suits your needs.

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Light diffusion materials range from nylon to translucent paper, plastic or acrylic. Here is a good example of a macro shot of a quarter dollar coin with direct side natural light and with tracing paper sheet diffuser.

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Left: Direct sunlight from the side. Right: Diffused sunlight from the side.

In this particular situation, the diffuser acted as a light softener and a reflector creating the highlights that give volume to the coin engraving.

Adding more light

Even though sunlight is only one light spot it is easy to simulate additional spots with reflectors. Take a look at this example of an old pocket watch photographed with side natural sunlight.

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Even though the light on the watch’s face is good, the rest just fades to black, making it flat. Another light spot would really help to get the right image volume. So we will add a mirror reflection on the opposite side of the main light for better definition of the object.

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And here is the final image

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That small spot reflection from the mirror on the left side of the image was enough to create the right volume, and give the image depth and ambiance.

These kinds of reflections can be created with different types of materials. A mirror like the one used in this image gives a narrow and intense reflection. While materials like aluminum foil create a broader reflection that can be scattered if you crumple the foil making it reflect light in different directions.

White surfaces like cardboard are also good reflection materials, giving a softer and less contrasted reflection than aluminum foil.

Background Separation

In photography, there are many factors that can influence background separation; focal length, aperture, distance between the subject and its background and lighting.

But because macro photography is such a specific subject that happens in a very small area, all these factors become critical as every small change translates to a big difference in the captured image. Because of the highly enlarged capture area, it becomes very difficult to use a camera handheld. A tripod and a shutter release cable are a must have for macro photographers.

The “Boogie Man” in the macro photography world is without a doubt the depth of field. In most macro circumstances the focus area is so shallow that a minimal change in the distance to the subject or aperture results in failure. This shallow depth of field can also be used as an advantage point to create background separation.

Both of these images were photographed in the same position with a 100mm macro lens. The difference here is the depth of field created by different apertures.

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Left: f/32. Right: f/11.

The image on the left gets confused and overcrowded with information. While the image on the right gets separation between the main focus subject and the background making it simpler and more appealing to the eye.

Another way to get background separation is to use the position of the light to create separation.

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This image was done using a simple and monochromatic background and backlighting which creates overexposure in the background, making the main subject stand out.

Mixing Natural Light with Flash

Sometimes natural light just isn’t enough for the image you want to create. Mixing natural light with flash is not an easy job, as flash usually overpowers natural light, giving the image an artificial look.

However, mixing the right amount of these too light sources can give some interesting results.

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This image was created with the use of a ring flash that created the specular highlights in the water drops, and a longer shutter speed that allowed the background to capture some natural light.

This result could only be achieved by the mix of these two light sources. Using only natural light would result in dull water drops without the flash sparkle, and artificial light background if only the ring flash had been used.

Mixing Natural Light with LEDs

In the past few years, LED light has become a valuable resource for photographers that want to use continuous light but don’t want to deal with incandescent or fluorescent bulbs and all their associated problems.

LEDs are very energy efficient as they convert about 80% of the energy they use into light, while incandescent only converts about 20%. They also don’t generate much heat and are available in many colors.

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This image was created with the mix of natural morning light shining through a window, and a simple and inexpensive cool white LED pocket flashlight.

The overall look was created by the use of a light painting technique with a 2-second exposure. Moving the flashlight on the top of the table created the texture and blue cast, while the diffused backlight from the window illuminated the food.

Final Thoughts

I guess light in photography is not what you start with, but what you make out of it. Once you know the rules, you can adapt yourself to what you’ve got and transform a bad lighting situation into great images.

Don’t be afraid to experiment, as trial and error is the best way to success. Use and abuse natural light, after all, it is free and is for sure different every day!

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Ivo Guimaraes
Ivo Guimaraes

is a Portuguese photographer and college teacher. His passion for lighting and image editing has gotten him to the next level in studio photography and led him to work with leading brands in the Portuguese market. You can check some more of his work on his blog and Youtube channel.

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