As artists and photographers, we know that light is fundamental in creating good work, and it can make a big impact when it comes to shaping the story you’re telling. To me, there really is no good or bad light in photography; it’s about how to shoot natural light photography no matter the time of day that makes all the difference.
Natural light is abundant and, perhaps most importantly, at no cost to you to use in your work.
I want to highlight different ways you can use three types of natural light—morning, afternoon and evening light—in any given space, all while still staying true to your voice and style as an artist.
Why is Light Important When Composing a Photograph?
The three main elements of any strong image are light, composition and story/emotion, but light has a particularly unique quality—it brings your story to life by highlighting shapes, textures, lines, tones and contrast, and it can shift the perspective in a scene.
Creating different looks within the same scene or location means rethinking our understanding of light as an element of composition. While light is the dynamic element at your disposal that brings the image to life, composition is about how you use that light in your work. Although studying light is important as an artist, how you use that light to tell the story is even more important in the success of an image.
Studying the natural light around you is one way to help you up your game as an artist. Because no light is bad light, and every kind can be molded to create different looks, here are a few different ways you can play with three different types of natural light.
Type of Natural Light #1: Morning Light
Morning light is usually perceived as “calmer” and often softer on your subjects. If you are photographing your subject around sunrise, you will have some beautiful backlight to work with, a golden glow, and you’ll be able to create an overall warmer, dreamier look.
Morning light is one of my favorite types of natural light to use when photographing a family with a newborn in their homes.
This type of natural light can be flat, even when shooting indoors with window light, but it can really help you focus on the connection between your subjects without having to work with harsh shadows.
Type of Natural Light #2: Afternoon Light
Afternoon light is harsh and uneven, which means you have to rely on composition and perspective so that the shadows are not distracting. It can also be quite challenging to work with, especially if you apply the same principles you do when shooting in a softer light. This is where you can get creative and play with light to create different scenes using shadows in your work.
One of my favorite ways to shoot in afternoon light is to embrace shadows and use them creatively. Shadows help give definition to the image and give viewers an additional element of visual interest. Another way I shoot afternoon light or harsh light is to change up where I am in relation to the subject:
1. When shooting in open spaces
When the light is super harsh and you are shooting in an open space with no trees to filter the light coming through—and there are no reflectors to redirect the light—this is the time I like to shoot an environmental portrait. Try to showcase the environment more in situations like this by going for minimalism in portraiture. This could mean using light to help accentuate color, a scene or shapes and textures at the location.
2. When surrounded by trees and buildings
It’s not always easy to find spaces where there are absolutely no trees or buildings blocking our view of the light—especially if we live in a busy urban environment. In situations like these, your best bet is to incorporate those trees and buildings in your scene and use them to frame your subject creatively.
Perspective can also come into play here. You could try shooting from different angles (from above, from below or with the light shining directly on your subject) while shooting for the highlights. Using naturally available props such as leaves, scarves or hats can also help create beautiful and unique dappled light.
Type of Natural Light #3: Evening Light
Shooting in evening light is similar to shooting in morning light—it can produce results that are dreamy with that beautiful golden glow—except, of course, you don’t have to get up super early and you can have plenty of time to plan for your shoot.
When it comes to shooting in evening light, you can create different looks in the same scene by simply changing your perspective with respect to your subject:
- Backlight your subject while producing warm, aesthetically pleasing, light-inspired images.
- Face your subjects to the light so that they are cast in a beautiful golden glow. This light can appear harsh and very orange, so it may make sense to ask your subjects to close their eyes (to avoid them squinting) or have them look away from you despite them facing the sunset.
- Use rim light or place your subjects in silhouette with rich color and bold light.
- Create light flares to produce an entirely different look and visual feel.
- Shoot during blue hour (or twilight) to get creative, dreamy and different photos from sunset.
Shooting with a particular type of natural light will give you different and creative results as long as you bring in a bit of compositional play into your creations. That means you’re treating the light as the subject at times and using perspective to bring meaning and intention to the image.
Jyotsna (Jyo) Bhamidipati is a former electrical engineer turned fine-art lifestyle photographer and has been creating images that challenge the notion of perfection in artistry for a few years now. She’s based in Northern California and mainly works on portraiture and commercial work. She’s a mom, an educator, a writer and a speaker. She has taught at numerous conferences including Click Away, Imaging USA, The Reset Conference and WPPI. She is the author of the self-paced class “Shadows and Light” and the co-founder of “Call Me Artist” retreats, where she and her business partner host intimate educational photo retreats every year. Currently, Jyo can be found teaching her 4-week workshop through Click Photo School called The Imperfectionist throughout the year.