Natural Light

Natural light is something every photographer has to work with and there are several things to consider.

All forms of light have several characteristics. There's the color which we covered previously. There's the intensity of the light, or how bright it is. The "softness" of the light, or how hard the shadows are. And there's the direction of the light.

With natural light we can't really control the light itself. We can only choose when, where, and the direction in which we take a picture. And we can't always control even those things.


Lets consider a potential setting with several options. In the following image there are three primary types of light we could choose from.


Dappled Shade:

Generally this situation should be avoided. This lighting is just too inconsistent and has mixed colors which makes setting the correct white balance difficult.


Open Shade:

This is possibly the most desirable lighting in this scene. It is "soft" and even which means it will not create any harsh shadows. If photographing people it will also minimize squinting and allow the eyes and pupils to open up for a more "natural" look. 

But it also has some issues. First, it is "cold" in color. You will need to use shade or cloudy white balance setting or fix it in post.
The other main issue is that it can be too soft which can result in a "flat" image with no "depth" or "definition."

The time of day can make a big difference in how "flat" and "cold" open shade is. The denser/darker the shade is; the colder/flatter it will be. 

Think of open shade as a type of light rather than a lack of light. There is "direction" to the lighting and you can see it if you just place your hand near the ground and look for the shadow direction. If there is no shadow cast by your hand then the shade is "too dense." The direction of the lighting will be stronger near the edge of the shade. Near the edge is often the best place to be.

Open Sunlight:

Time of day makes a huge difference with open sunlight.
The "golden hour", sunrise/sunset time, has a nice warm temperature to it and is much less harsh because the sun is so much further away. This is one of the best lighting situations for portraiture.
Midday sun is very harsh and generally should be avoided. It will cause very dark/hard shadows and blown out highlights. But midday sun can be used for effect. For instance, by placing the sun behind the subject and exposing for the background you can create a silhouette. And very dramatic images can be made if you add additional lighting (that will be covered later).


Overcast Skies and Open Sunlight:


This is probably the best natural light setting for general photography. Unfortunately it usually comes with rain. But if you are lucky enough to have a thin high cloud cover you get all benefits of shade without the negatives. The clouds act as a giant softbox for the sun. The light is warmer and directional. It casts soft shadows which provide depth and detail.

Time of day affects  this situation the same as it does with the open sunlight, it's just not as critical.

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