How To: Shoot with natural light

Unless it’s really your jam, strobe photography isn’t exactly the favorite of some shutterbugs due to a number of things: 1) there’s extra effort required to carry the equipment, 2) it takes extra time to set them up, and 3) you need extra skills to sculpt the light properly.

Still, no matter how sweaty you get in setting up studio lights, at least you are able to set the tone to warm or cool, adjust the intensity of luminescence to your liking, and point the light wherever you wish. But even though the use of artificial light enables photographers to customize the look of their frames, the lion’s share favors the quicker method of using natural light.

Natural light, or “available” light, is any illumination that wasn’t set up intentionally. It could be the brightest bulb in the room, a spotlight, a candle, and the truest “natural” form—sunlight. But don’t be fooled! Using sunlight is actually easier said than done. You may need to be extra resourceful in finding the right environment and have lots of patience to capture the perfect moment.

But the good news is, you can always look forward to the “golden hour”—the hour before sunrise and the hour before sunset—when the sun provides additional warmth, texture, details, and depth to photos, fitting exquisitely in shooting portraits and scenic views.

In terms of portraits, the kind of illumination formulated by the sliced sunlight can also be seen at hotels and beauty salons. Have you noticed how soft the lighting is in those places? It is carefully engineered to mellow the guest’s or customer’s face while glowing up their skin. Meanwhile, in the field of landscape photography, the golden hour helps photographers equalize the exposure of each element in the frame, adding more detail and dynamic range to save some parts of the photo from getting washed or darkened out.


What if you missed the golden hour?

During a period of time when the sun is at its strongest, you may still find a break to capture a nice shot depending on your subject and overall frame. The simplest way to get through it is to wait until the clouds cast over the sun. In this case, the sky replicates a soft box—a device use to diffuse the light from strobes or bulbs—which reduces contrast and saturation in your portraits. However, this technique doesn’t taste the same in shooting landscapes as overcast sun means less detail, less color, and washed out skies.

What if there are no clouds?

Hold your head up because this is not a dead-end ballgame. Although shooting through the harsh sunlight might cost you a well-balanced exposure, this kind of light dramatically produces contrast and proportional saturation. The technique is to place the sun behind your subject, let the sunlight hit a reflector (you can use any flat white surface like the back of an illustration board), and bounce the light to your model’s face. By doing so, you are molding a highlight around the subject’s head while filling out the supposedly shadowed area of your model’s face.

Another trick is to find a shaded location and place your model in it to waive off the harsh sunlight. However, you might find the background elements washed out and shooting under stuff that furnishes a shade could limit your creativity.



The last piece of advice in shooting with natural light is to take advantage of windows. Notice how wedding photographers frame brides and grooms near the window pane? It’s not because of the fancy curtain. They are basically after the light casting through. This method hatches more dramatic effect caused by the light coming from a different direction while reducing the sunlight intensity through the pane. If you’re still getting a harsh ray, placing a plain white curtain over it would be a big lift.

With improved sensors and chipsets on the latest camera models, playing around with available light has only gotten easier. This factor helps artists focus more on their style as gadgets continue to take over the more technical side of the art. The common denominator among these techniques is not getting the most out of the sun but getting the most out of the circumstance.


Words Patrick B. Alcantara
First published Speed Magazine June 2018


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