Learning Light: Natural Light

Considering our readers have been following our series ‘learning light’, we find ourselves comfortable and confident with the basics and nature of light and the importance it plays in a photographers life. Now the time is right to discuss the role of different sources and how we craft our photographs to maximise impact. As the title suggests, we will cover all the necessary scenarios and information regarding Natural Light.

Natural Light: An Introduction

‘A photographer must be prepared to catch and hold on to those elements which give distinction to the subject or lend it atmosphere. They are often momentary, chance-sent things…Sometimes they are a matter of luck…Sometimes they are a matter of patience…’ No truer words were ever said about natural light than this insightful quote of Bill Brandt. This only goes to prove that it is the photographers job to pick the moment when the ‘light is right’. 

When pursing to photograph in natural light, patience is the key to be successful. As the light changes (and with it changes the colour quality) from the unique golden pinks of the first light of dawn, through the harsh white light of noon to the rich yellow glow of evening. Not only do the colours change, but the direction and angle of the light changes as the sun rises, transits the sky and sets.

This also brings us to acknowledge that when it comes to natural light, we have only source of light – The Sun.

Some photographers are prepared to wait hours for the sun to be in the right position; others will wait months for the seasons to change and finally bring illumination back on to some natural feature. There are certain dramatic landscape features- slit canyons, waterfalls in gorges, for example- that are only fully lit for a few hours on a few days of the year. Compositional aspects, how the light models the land to crate form and texture form landscape features, are the important considerations. 

The sun is a single point light source of light, of varying colour temperature, moving up and around subjects in the real world. The qualities of daylight- colour temperature, whether it is diffused or harsh, its angle (elevation) and direction- are associated with certain moods and feelings. Knowledge of these is also useful to the studio photographer who wishes to recreate a certain mood using controlled lighting in the studio- for example; strongly yellow light casting long shadows would evoke feelings of an autumn evening. 


In everyday speech, we use the word ‘daylight’ very loosely. However, it has a very special meaning in photography. Daylight film, or daylight white balance on a digital camera, is a closely defined quality of light. Photographic daylight has a colour temperature of 5500K. This was the choice of film manufacturers for colour film to be exposed roughly between 10 am in the morning and 4 pm in the afternoon to give acceptably neutral whites. 

Daylight is not the same as sunlight as it is a combination of direct light from the sun, from the sky (skylight) and reflected light from the clouds. A cloudy overcast day, when the sun is not shining is much bluer than many people think. It is worth remembering that any light that falls into the shadows of an image are illuminated by the skylight alone, which has a far higher (bluer) colour temperature setting for ‘shade’, as well as ‘daylight’ and ‘cloudy’ settings. The quality of the daylight can be dependent on the prevailing weather conditions. Conditions that many probably reject as unsuitable for photography may surprisingly create dramatic results.


In earlier days photographers used to refer to sun tables’ to determine the position of the sun and estimate its angle. However, in the digital era we are more lucky to have specific app which will accurately estimate the position of the sun at the tap of a button. One cannot stress enough on the importance of knowing the position of the sun, as it will make all the difference in our photographs.

Morning Light

The time immediately before and after sunrise is a magical time for photographers. Before the sun rises, the light is richly red towards the sign sun and deep violet blue away from it. Immediately before the sun rises, this light will become pinker, only becoming golden yellow as the sun breaks over the horizon. When there is a mist on the ground, broke the sun’s heat has burned it off, it is possible to pin the camera straight into the rising sun. Light is dramatically scattered, which reduces detail while emphasising shape.

As we will be pointing the camera straight into the light, flare should be avoided. Thus a lens hood is a good choice to invest in. Also, an early rising photographer is often rewarded with stillness, light and colours not often experienced by the majority of people.

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Noon Light

When the sun is at its highest point in the sky, specifically during summers at noon, it is often considered too harsh for photography, though it is in this kind of light that many beginners photograph. Sunlight high in the sky may produce unattractive shadows below the eyes and cause quitting, though it does give saturated colours. The major problem is noon time light tends to be flat and create ugly shadows on the face.

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A wide majority of the photography industry suggests using reflectors and cutters to in a way diffuse the harsh light. The simplest form of diffusion will be to use polystyrene flats as reflectors, which can be painted matt black for use as cutters or black bounce. One of the most famous manufacturers of reflectors for outdoor use is California Sun-bounce system.


Evening Light

The time after mid-afternoon onwards, the morning’s progression of light is reversed. Colour is not the only attribute of evening light as it is still apparent in a black-and-white photograph taken during the evening. We judge evening light by the lower power of the sun and the length of shadows it cats. Where morning light is soft and diffused, evening light is stronger, low-angled source that casts long shadows.

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Sunsets are possibly the most photographed of all subjects. The rich red and gold evening colours never fail to please the eye and often tap into deeper emotions. Just a technical glitch that  most beginners commonly experience is that they tend to shoot sunsets in Auto-WB, which results in dull colours. Technically, one must switch to Daylight or equivalent Kelvin temperature to realise the vivid colours in photographs. 

Night Light 

Photographing at night provides the photographer with inky blue sky depending or softly coloured backdrop depending on the degree of light pollution. This time of the day also opens up the possibility of try various creative techniques like ‘long exposure’, ‘stare trails’ and light painting. Torches and car headlights are commonly used in the cinema to create suspense before some secret or horror is revealed to give an example.

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Circumpolar Star Trails

At night, readings from a sensitive hand-held light meter need to be interpreted carefully as they will give an exposure to produce mid-grey. However, today with advanced modern day DSLRs, with the use of histogram, we are better equipped. Care should be taken to keep the histogram below the centre line, to accurately depicting the darkness. Special care should also be taken to not raise ISO too high, as it will result in a lot of noise and produce a low image quality. 

The Seasonal Quality of Light 

One of the major considerations for any photographer who chooses to photograph in natural light, is the diverse lighting conditions created in a given location in different seasons. This goes to prove why different features are illuminated by the sun on its seasonal progression also because quality of light and its elevation changes with the seasons just as it does during the progress of the day.

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Winter light will have a lower colour temperature and fall across the landscape, as opposed to summer light which will have a much higher colour temperature. As we experience three major seasons in India, we will witness the same area differently and thus create various images without repeating the mood. 

Next up in the series, Artificial Lights. Until then, read on shoot on.


             -Chanakya Wable  

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