In most styles of photography, whether it be portraiture, sports, or weddings, it’s pretty common to use artificial lighting such as flashes and reflectors to illuminate your subject. In outdoor photography, however, you’ll typically be working exclusively with natural light.
This is due in part to the fact that most of the time you’re trying to capture the natural world without false enhancements, and also because as hard as you might try, your flash just isn’t going to illuminate that mountain peak on the horizon.
Mastering natural lighting can be tough, but it’s an essential skill to practice for both budding photographers and experts alike, because learning how to use natural lighting to your advantage will take your outdoor photography to a completely new level.
The hardest part about using natural lighting for outdoor photography is that there is very little that we as photographers can do to “control” the lighting conditions outdoors like you might in a photography studio or indoor environment. Instead, rather than control the light, we have to learn how to work with it, using it as best we can however it might present itself based on timing, weather, and location.
Those three environmental variables are going to set the lighting conditions for the majority of outdoor photos. While lighting conditions at any given time aren’t controllable, you, as the photographer can decide what time to attempt to take your photo to give yourself the best chances at getting the best light.
Of course, this introduces the question of “What exactly is the best light?”
The best light occurs during the “golden hour”, which is an hour before sunset and an hour after sunrise. During the golden hour, the sun is low on the horizon, and casts long soft shadows and warm glowing light over the landscape. This is in contrast to the light that occurs around noon, when the sun is high in the sky, and creates harsh dark shadows and aggressive highlights that cameras have an extremely hard time dealing with.
Of course, timing is only one of the factors that contribute to the lighting conditions. Clouds, for instance, can completely wipe out the nice light that the golden hour provides, but at the same time, clouds around noon can act as a natural diffuser and allow you to get great shots during a time of day when typically, the light would be too harsh.
Location is also an extremely important factor to consider when trying to work with natural light, especially if you’re traveling in mountainous areas.
Depending on what side of a mountain or slope you’re on at a given time of day, the sun may or may not be visible to you. If you find yourself on the east facing slope of a mountain during sunset, chances are you’re not going to see much!
Because the factors for lighting conditions are environmentally based, there’s a lot of opportunity for planning before heading out for an outdoor photography session. For example, you can try to plan your hike so that you’ll end up where you want to be to take your best photos by the time the golden hour rolls around, or at least when the weather will cooperate with you.
However, how do you figure out how the sun is going to striking a certain spot? Or what the weather will be doing around the time golden hour hits? Luckily, “There’s an app for that.”
One of the best tools for planning outdoor photo sessions is a free web application (Paid App available for smartphones as well) called “The Photographer’s Ephemeris”. With this tool, you can pick any point in the entire world and it will tell you exactly when the golden hour will be on that day, what the weather will be like, and what direction the sun will be shining at each minute of the day. The Photographer’s Ephemeris is without a doubt the best all-in one outdoor photography planning tool that I’ve ever seen, and it’s used every day by outdoor photographers all around the world.
Planning an outdoor photo session beforehand is a big part of getting great shots with natural light in the outdoors, but unfortunately even with tons of planning, sometimes things just don’t work out the way you wanted them to. Sometimes it’s not feasible to only shoot during the golden hour, and other times just when you think everything is lining up for great light, a rogue cloud bank rolls through and you lose your great light.
To truly master natural lighting, you need to plan to give yourself the best chance of getting great light, but you also need to know how to work with whatever you get. It’s just not practical to only take photos in “perfect” light, because that kind of light won’t present itself every time you go out to shoot.
Instead, learn to flexible and practice with various types of outdoor lighting scenarios, and eventually you’ll find that you can get great shots in lots of different lighting situations.
One good tip for getting quality shots in the middle of the day is to take advantage of the shadows cast by large objects. If you want to get a good photo of your friend during a hike, have them stand in the shadow of a big tree. This will give you nice even lighting for your shot, even if most of the other areas around you have bright top-down sunlight.
Another lighting scenario you might find yourself in is when the sky is very bright but the landscape is relatively dark. It can be frustrating when it seems like in every picture you have to choose between the sky being bright white and the landscape being visible, or the landscape being black and the sky being visible.
The key to mastering these shots is to use your cameras manual settings to adjust the exposure such that the bright sky, which contains the highlights of your image, is only slightly over-exposed rather than completely blown out and bright white. This is preferred over exposing for the shadows in the landscape of the shot, because in post-processing software such as Adobe Lightroom it’s much easier to brighten up shadows than it is to darken highlights.
Above all else, the key to mastering natural lighting is to practice. The more that you expose yourself to different lighting scenarios, the more often you’ll be able to get good shots even when the light isn’t perfect.
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