See the light like a pro: everything you were afraid to ask about natural light

See the light like a pro: everything you were afraid to ask about natural light

Natural Light Photography: how time and place affect lighting


The great thing about shooting outdoors is that the light is constantly changing – and not just because of the weather. One of the most important factors when shooting outdoors is the time of day.

Early and late in the day, the sun is low in the sky, creating an angular light that reveals form and pattern, because shadows are longer than those created when the sun is higher in the sky.

Natural light at dawn  Natural light at mid-morning

How high the sun rises in the sky – and how quickly it rises – vary greatly depending on where you are in the world, and on the time of year. The so-called ‘golden hour’ just after dawn and before dusk varies in length. It is much shorter in summer, and the closer you get to the equator.

However, it is not just the angle of light that changes throughout the day. The lower the sun is in the sky, the greater the amount of the earth’s atmosphere the light has to pass through before it reaches your photographic subject.

This softens the light, as dust particles and water vapour diffract the light, scattering it so it appears less harsh. The softening effect is emphasised by the fact that skylight is less variable, so seems to soften the shadows more significantly.

The time of day also affects the colour of the light. Some wavelengths of light are diffracted more readily than others, and this means that direct sunlight will look more orange at the beginning and end of the day.

Fast-moving times of day
Landscape photographers don’t just get out of bed before dawn and stay out late in the day because the light is softer and warmer. At the start and end of the day lighting conditions can change dramatically over a relatively short period of time – increasing the chance of you getting the picture that you want, or allowing you to get a sequence of dramatically different-looking shots of the same scene.

In the infographic below you can see how quickly the light can change within a span of less than an hour during these fast-moving times of day.

Natural Light Photography Cheat Sheet: the quality of light changes rapidly at dusk

Take control of temperature
If left to its own devices, your digital camera will automatically adjust for the colour of a light source. Usually, this works well, but it can mean that the camera loses some of the atmosphere of a scene – making a sunset less orange, for instance.

It can therefore be useful to set the White Balance manually for some scenes to get the colours right in-camera.

Photography Tips: change the colour of natural light using your White Balance settings

Image copyright Steven Hanna

With sunsets, a simple trick is to set the White Balance to Shade to make the colours more red. But sometimes it can pay to do the opposite. Just before dawn or just after sunset, scenes look blue, because the landscape is lit by reflected skylight alone.

Photography Tips: change the colour of natural light using your White Balance settings

To make your pictures look more blue, set the White Balance setting to Tungsten. If you shoot using the RAW Quality setting you can alter this White Balance setting, easily on your computer using a program like Photoshop Elements.

PAGE 1: Where is the light coming from?
PAGE 2: Using shadows
PAGE 3: Soft and hard light
PAGE 4: Time and place


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