I consider myself a natural light photographer, which means I work exclusively with our closest star—the sun! As a photographer based in California, I’ve been told, “it’s easy to be a natural light photographer when you live in California,” but the fact is, I haven’t always lived in the sunshine state; I began photography while living all the way up in the cold and moody northeast. Natural light can be found everywhere, and I find that the most challenging lighting situations are some of the most beautiful. Even though you can’t control the sun, there are many different ways to use natural light to your advantage and find the best natural light for photography, no matter what you shoot. Here are five that I love to use in my work.
1. GOLDEN HOUR
Tried and true, golden hour (known as that luscious time right before sunset) is coveted by photographers around the world and widely considered to be a time for the best natural light for photography. I schedule almost all of my outdoor portrait sessions for golden hour. As an added bonus, most people are leaving public locations like beaches and parks in the late afternoon, so you’ll have spaces to yourself.
Keep in mind: if you are shooting at a beach or exposed area, this is the time when wind starts to pick up and tides may come in and out. Be prepared for changes in weather.
I find the best angle is to photograph my clients with the sun behind them. Make sure that whatever location you want in your background has you facing west where the sun is setting—otherwise, you’ll be shooting with sun directly on your client’s faces. While this can also be interesting and artistic, it might not yield the shot you want.
Scout in advance and make sure you’re on time! Golden hour only lasts for a short while, so it’s easy to miss if you or your client is late to the shoot. Explore the location the day before so that you know which angles are the most pleasing and when your window to shoot will be.
2. DIRECT LIGHT
If golden hour is just a bit too romantic for you, play with directional light. In the early afternoon or late morning you’ll find the sun starting to create striking shadows. If you can see the complete shape of your shadow on the ground, you’re standing in direct light.
Direct light can be harsh, but it creates interesting lines and blocks of light. Because it is so crisp, you can use it to your advantage and let your light source take on an architectural or sculptural element in your work.
3. DIFFUSED LIGHT
My work tends to be romantic and soft, so I use direct light very rarely. However, because I shoot on film and film is so hungry for light, I still love using bright light during the day. I simply diffuse it and shoot in its shadow. My studio is indoors with large openings so that I have bright space without any directional rays, which I consider some of the best natural light for photography. The majority of my indoor work is created in this type of lighting. This type of diffused natural light tends to stay consistent for several hours of the day.
If you’re outdoors and you are trying to avoid direct light, you can create this softer studio lighting by using a diffuser or reflector. At many of my events, I am asked to photograph outdoor settings in harsh afternoon light. Table details tend to look too contrasty in direct light, so I hold a diffuser a few feet over the scene.
This can also be applied to portraits. Hold a white diffuser over your subject until all evidence of direct light, such as shadows under the nose and eyes, are gone and their face is in consistent, even lighting.
I’ve heard often that photographers prefer cloudy light for this very reason. While this is true because clouds act as a natural diffuser, I find that cloudy light tends to dull colors. I prefer to shoot on a sunny day with a diffuser so that colors in the background still pop.
4. EVENING LIGHT
Evening light, after sunset, is the most challenging because there isn’t a lot of light to work with. The sun’s rays are gone, so the only remaining “natural” light is the reflection of the sky from beyond the horizon. This type of light is blue and moody.
While I don’t photograph many portraits in this light, I do love when the skies begin to turn dark and tungsten bulbs start to illuminate landscapes or event scenes. This is when I turn to long exposures. While long exposures aren’t the best at capturing detail, to me they are a romantic and dreamy rendition of evening scenes.
5. CANDLE LIGHT
Say what you will, but I consider candlelight and fire to be natural light as well—after all, the sun is a giant ball of fire! Candles provide some of my favorite lighting at events and some of the best natural light for photography at night. I always ask my planners and caterers to fill tables with them. The soft glow of candlelight is especially beautiful in black and white. I find that it is more pleasing on faces than flash or strobes, and it gives photos a timeless quality. When my wedding couples are asked to cut their cake, I often bring extra candles from tables over to illuminate them rather than using flash or video light.
Jen Huang is a fine-art wedding and portrait photographer who, over the last decade, has photographed in over 20 countries and on six different continents. A photography educator who offers a variety of instructional and inspirational materials, she’s an author of several guide books relating to wedding style, portraiture, the fine art of film and more. She last wrote about posing shy clients and how to style flat lays for detail shots.