In today’s market, there are hundreds of strobes, diffusers, hand held flashes, reflectors, and other lighting supplies available for photographers to purchase. Each has their own set of merits and difficulties to overcome and can be used to produce gorgeous images. However, a photographer’s most helpful lighting tool isn’t available for purchase

The largest, most accessible, and least expensive light source available to any photographer is, of course, the sun. Anyone that’s been outside at the break of dawn or just before the sun peaks below the Earth’s horizon can attest to the rich, colorful tones that can be attained naturally. However, one thing that deters many photographers from using natural light alone is its inability to be fully harnessed and controlled. Atmospheric conditions and chance play a major role in the way sun shines upon a scene. However, by understanding the factors that go into natural light, it’s possible to predict the way light will reflect on an object and compensate to create whatever your ideal image may be.

Listed below are just a few factors to take into consideration when shooting with natural light:

1.) Consider your location in relation to the sun

It may seem obvious, but the look of an object changes drastically when exposed to direct sunlight as opposed to a more diffused setting. The easiest way to demonstrate this is by looking at something as simple as your hand and comparing the differences on how it looks in the shade in comparison to the sun. It quickly becomes apparent that direct sunlight creates harsh shadows and bright highlights. Meanwhile, the light that reaches subjects in the shade has far less contrast in tonality.

Windows work as a natural diffuser and often produce soft, flattering light

Keep in mind that utilizing natural light does not demand that a model and photographer be outside, directly underneath the sun. Often times, diffused window lighting can produce even, flattering light perfect for portraiture, product shots, and food photography

2.) Take a look at the time

Not all light is created equally. Several factors concerning the light change throughout the day. For instance, just as it would with any other light source, the placement of highlights and shadows changes drastically between midday, when the sun is directly overhead and evening, when the sun is closer to the horizon and hitting at more of an angle. In addition, color temperature of natural daylight fluctuates – later in the day, the sunlight is much warmer and the ambient light changes from a light blue to deep purples, oranges, reds, and yellows.

Although this model is primarily lit by natural daylight, a fill is used to bring out some of the folds in her dress that might otherwise be lost.

Some times of the day are generally regarded as prime shooting moments, while other times are generally avoided by image-makers at all costs. For instance, many photographers schedule shoots to align within the golden hour, or the hour just before the sun goes down. On the other hand, portrait shots are rarely scheduled outside between 12-3pm because of the dark, unflattering shadows that can distort a model’s appearance

3.) Check out the weather forecast

Just as location and time makes an impact on the outcome of an image, so too does the weather and atmospheric conditions. Unlike a bright sunny day, cloudy and overcast skies essentially work as a gigantic soft box, scattering light and minimizing shadows. So, have no fear if the sun decides not to make an appearance – it can actually work in your favor and create completely different yet equally appealing results

Keep in mind the way weather conditions could directly help or hinder your image. For instance, fog might add a foreboding and interesting layer to a foreground. Fresh snowfall on a sunny day may act as a natural reflector. Things such as raindrops resting on an object or fresh morning dew at the crack of dawn can be beautiful yet often overlooked details that enhance your image.

A model highlighted by bursts of sunlight breaking through the shadows.

4.) Play with highlights and shadows

With natural light, shadows are an inevitability. Rather than working around them, incorporate them into your frame. Light peaking through a canopy of leaves within a forest can create patches of light capable of highlighting certain areas of a model shrouded in shadow. Structures and objects can become infinitely more interesting when broken down by the graphic patterns of their shadow.

Take into consideration shadows cast by objects outside of the camera’s line of vision. Even something as simple as window blinds streaking across a model’s face can make a dramatic difference to the mood and composition of an image.

Shadows can add an interesting graphic element to any composition.

5.) Prevent loss of details

One of the biggest problems that many photographers face when attempting to utilize natural light, is properly exposing every area of the photo between contrasts, unexpected shadows. The trick is to use the tools around you to create fill light to lighten the darkest parts of an image without completely losing contrast.

One way of adding fill light to a scene is to simply use a white or mirrored reflector to bounce existing sunlight towards an area of the composition that is in desperate need of additional light. Another way of adding fill light is to use a supplemental artificial light in the direction of the shadows. Although you can use artificial lights to completely drown out what’s naturally there, working on a low setting can add just enough to keep everything well exposed while still highlighting beautiful natural light already within a scene.