4 Types Of Natural Light To Improve Your Photography

As I have grown in my own photography, I absolutely love helping others grow in theirs.  Over the course of the next four weeks, I am excited to share a few simple tips to help you create not just beautiful memories but beautiful photos.  The one thing I have learned along the way as I taught myself photography, is that there are so many different concepts to know and learn and apply to your photography.  There is lighting, composition, color, subject, etc.  However, in order to actually learn and not become overwhelmed it is always best to start small and build big.  

Four types of natural light you should be using to improve your photography, photography tutorials, learn photography

Start with one new concept and apply it to your shooting today.  Learn one thing and learn it well before moving on to something new.  If you feel like you struggle with lighting, then read about lighting and practice, practice, practice.  Shoot every day if you can and step out of your comfort zone.  Stop shooting the same thing over and over.  Find new subjects and perfect that lighting, then try something else new.  Take pictures of your food, take pictures of your dog, take pictures of your flowers or your home, your kids, the sky is the limit (really! take pictures of it too!).

On instagram, I frequently hashtag a lot of my images #chasinglight.  It's a popular hashtag and it gets my photos out there in the social media world, but it's also incredibly true.  I think that lighting is one of the most important, yet often overlooked aspects of photography.  Without it, you end up with images that are overexposed, underexposed, flat, dull and boring.  Composition means nothing without good light.  So that is exactly where I would love to start today.  This will not be anything extreme or overwhelming, but just a few simple tips to help you improve the lighting in your photography, starting today.

1) Side light

One of my favorite ways to light an image is by finding the side light.  Side light is exactly as it sounds.  Your light source, whatever it may be, is hitting your image from the side.  Now, as a photographer, it is your responsibility to not only find the light, but to position your subject in the light so it is well lit and flattering.  Side light can be beautiful, it can also cause a lot of shadows and problems when not used properly.

Photographer tips, how to properly light your image, J Kaiser Photography

This image is well lit using side lighting from the closest window.  This room had a lot of windows so I had to position the person holding the baby just perfectly as not to overexpose, and not to create too many shadows.   While photographing people, use side lighting cautiously.  It can create too many shadows and result in an unflattering image.  However, it can also create just the right shadows when used properly and tell the perfect story.  Experiment and find how to use side lighting perfectly for your own photography!  

Below is another example of side light.  This high school senior was standing in an open doorway of an empty barn.  The sun outside was coming from directly behind me and I positioned myself between her and the sun.  I then had her turn her body and face just enough so that rather than the light hitting her from the front, it cast on the side of her face, creating shadows and dimension and adding to the emotion of the image.

Tips for photographers, how to use side lighting

2) Back light

As a photographer, back lighting will be your friend.  It should also be used correctly and carefully.  Backlight images are beautiful.  They often create a dreamy look that so many photographers crave yet struggle to achieve.  It took me a long time and a lot of practice to learn how to properly create a back lit photo, and then when I did achieve it, I had an even harder time re-creating it.  It is important to understand how to perfectly position your subject to create the perfect backlit image.  The most difficult struggle I had with backlight was underexposing my subject or overexposing the entire shot.  

When backlighting an image, it is important to position yourself so that the light source is just perfectly filtering through an object to create a creamy glow while properly exposing your subject.  I often have the most success when using a lens hood to assist with filtering out too much light.  For example, the following image was created by placing my subject between myself and the light source (sun) but having a third object between the light source and my subject (trees) to diffuse the light just enough so that only remnants of the sun were peaking through and creating that perfect glow.

Tip: Use spot metering and meter off of your subject's face to properly expose the skin.  

3) Full sun

I do not believe in "good" or "bad" light.  I do believe that there is preferable lighting depending on the situation.  But as you are just starting your photography journey, never be afraid of the sun.  Find ways to use the sun perfectly to create whatever story you are trying to tell.  It is true, shooting in full sun can be difficult.  For all of my clients, I always schedule portrait sessions during the golden hour.  This is approximately 1 hour after sunrise and before sunset.  When shooting outdoors, this allows me to have more control over the type of lighting I receive during each session.  

However, when shooting at home, I never let the sun hold me back!  Full sun will create a plethora of light and shadows, it is all a matter of learning to embrace the light and using it to add depth and dimension to an image.  It can be difficult to control full sun, which is why most photographers avoid it. However, it is realistic and can add interest to any image when used properly.  When shooting in full sun, I often look for shadows and start there.  The one thing you will want to watch for is avoiding "dappled light" and creating hot spots on your subject.  Below is an image of my daughter on her swing set in the afternoon and full sun.  

Tips for photographers, using natural light

Notice the harsh shadows cast on the ground behind her, and the line thrown across the side of her face.  It is by no means a "perfect image," but it is one full of laughter and play and even now I can hear her giggling as she twists the swing and lets go into a spiral of fun.  I did my best to capture the moment when her face is in the most shadow so that the image is not overexposed.  

Also, consider post processing.  In color, this image was very "busy."  The bold colors in my daughter's clothes were competing against the already harsh and contrasting light.  But when converted to black and white, our eyes naturally settle on the subject and let the light and shadows help tell the story. 

The following two images were shot in full, overhead sun.  The first image is properly exposed by moving the subject into the shade or ensuring that the face is evenly lit.  The second photo; however, has harsh shadows cast under the eyes, nose, and chin as my daughter is running through the yard with the sun directly above her.  This creates an unflattering image where the viewers eye falls on the shadows rather than the subject.

4) Overcast

For portraits, you may just find comfort on a cloudy day.  Clouds create a very beautiful and flattering light when shooting portraits outdoors.  The clouds act as a natural diffuser, softening the sun light as it falls through the clouds and to the subject.  The light is hitting the subject from a multitude of directions, limiting harsh shadows and creating what we describe as "soft light."  This look can also be achieved indoors by using a white sheet or curtain to cover the windows and create a soft, diffuse light.  

Cloudy days can also make the perfect light to practice in when working on composition.  Here you can focus on your subject and their surroundings, rather than being controlled by light.  As the light will be very consistent, it actually forces you to rely on composition and color to create an interesting image.  The one thing to avoid with cloud cover is creating flat light which will eliminate dimension in your image.  Flat light is usually caused by having a light source directly behind you, hitting your image from the front.  This is easily achieved on a cloudy day, and can be flattering for portraits, but can also bring less emotion to a photo.  The following portraits were taken on a cloudy morning, creating a beautiful, soft light.  

Phew, that was a lot of information but I hope it helps.  Remember, the best way to learn is to simply get out there and practice, practice, practice!  Happy shooting and check back next week for a few tips on composition!