Natural Light - The Types of Light and How to Use Them

As I've mentioned before, light is everything in photography. Without light there is no photograph, and with bad light there may as well be no photograph - At least in nature photography.

Okay, so that last statement may be a slight exaggeration. If you see a once in a lifetime opportunity for a photograph you shouldn't pass it up because the light isn't at it's best, but for most photographic situations (eg. your typical landscape of wildlife image) poor quality light is a killer. It transforms a well thought out composition into a somewhat bland and flat image, whereas the right light will let it shine.

This is where we learn about that light and how to use it to enhance our photographs in the most beautiful way.

The presence of gorgeous light can transform an otherwise unremarkable scene into an image of beauty and complexity.

The presence of gorgeous light can transform an otherwise unremarkable scene into an image of beauty and complexity.

Preparation is Key

I talked about the value of preparation in my landscape photography tips, but I think it's importance needs reiterating.

Knowing where the sun is going to be at what time is imperative to planning a successful shoot when using natural light. This goes for landscape, wildlife, and portraits alike. If you know where the light is coming from and what it will do to your subject then you already have the upper hand. This doesn't mean you have to plan each frame like a military operation (although you can if you want, and some do.) It just means we want to know in advance the general direction of the light and what time it's going to be in certain locations.

There are plenty of tools out there for this. My favourite is the smartphone and desktop app The Photographer's Ephemeris. This app does it all really, giving you the sunrise/sunset times and allowing you to drop a pin in any location in the world, which then tells you the orientation of sunrise and sunset and everything in between. Their website is full of useful tutorials on using the tool, so I urge you to read through them.

The Right Light at the Right Time

I'll make this clear before we dive in - We're focusing on shooting during the golden hours of photography here. That means when the sun is low enough in the sky to provide that gorgeous, soft, warm light that we love. 

Generally this means an hour before sunset and an hour after sunrise, but it does vary depending on location and season. For example, in higher latitudes in winter we can easily shoot throughout the whole day because the sun never gets high enough in the sky to become harsh, whereas in the summer the golden hour may only last 20 minutes. 

This isn't to say that shooting at any other time of day is pointless by any means! We can shoot black and white or infrared at high noon to great effect, and we should definitely utilise the 'Blue Hour', which occurs before sunrise and after sunset. However, we're focusing on these main types of light for this article, with other areas such as the Blue Hour and Infrared Photography deserving their own, standalone article.

1. Back Lighting

The backlight in this scene brings out wonderful shadows in the landscape and adds a lot of drama to the sky.

The backlight in this scene brings out wonderful shadows in the landscape and adds a lot of drama to the sky.

Back lighting occurs when the light source (in this case the sun) is behind our subject in relation to the camera. In simple terms, a backlit scene is when our camera is facing towards the sun.

This can create some of the most dramatic and impressive photographs. In landscape photography it can create beautiful sun stars and dramatic silhouettes, whereas when photographing people and animals it can provide a lovely halo of light around the edges of your subject. When you combine back lighting with mist or fog you can reap some truly special rewards as the sun beams pierce the mist.

However, back lighting is not without it's challenges. In fact, it's probably the most difficult type of lighting to work with because of the huge contrast within the scene. The sky around the sun will be incredibly bright, and it's important that we don't lose the detail in it. Meanwhile, we want to retain enough detail in the foreground subject so that it's not rendered completely black.

This requires some practise and a few techniques. One way around it is to use graduated neutral density filters to darken the sky. Another is to take a series of photographs at difference exposure levels, ensuring we have enough detail in both the shadows and the highlights and then blending the images together in post-processing. This is a process called bracketing.

Getting a backlit scene properly exposed is a challenge, but if you put the work in the rewards can be absolutely breathtaking.

When to use back lighting

To emphasise the shape of an animal, To surround a portrait with a halo of light, to silhouette subjects in the landscape.

2. Front Lighting

A frontlit scene allows the higher altitude areas to get illuminated by the sun, but usually has a low enough dynamic range to be manageable without bracketing.

A frontlit scene allows the higher altitude areas to get illuminated by the sun, but usually has a low enough dynamic range to be manageable without bracketing.

This is the opposite of back lighting, as you might have guessed. In these situations the sun is situated behind us and will be lighting up the front of our subjects as the camera sees it.

In many ways this is the most uninteresting type of light to work with, but it can be utilised in some situations. For example, if we're on top of a mountain looking into a valley the early morning sun can light up our foreground subject but leave the valley below in shadow, which emphasises the importance of your main subject. 

Front lighting is also the easiest type of light to work with. Because we're facing away from the sun the sky is a bit darker, reducing the contrast of the entire scene and usually allowing us to capture it in a single exposure. Just make sure the shadows still have some detail left in them and ensure that your shadow isn't casting into the frame.

When to use front lighting

To bring attention to the foreground subjects when high up, when shooting evenly lit portraits.

3. Side Lighting

The sun coming in from the left really brought out the texture in the foreground rocks, but also illuminated the spray from the crashing waves and brought the scene to life.

The sun coming in from the left really brought out the texture in the foreground rocks, but also illuminated the spray from the crashing waves and brought the scene to life.

Side lighting is my personal favourite type of light to work with, and occurs when the sun is off to the side of our camera and shining across the scene.

This creates long shadows across our image, and emphasises the shape and detail of whatever we are photographing. This is particularly beautiful in landscapes, such as rolling hills that are illuminated on one side and left in shadow on the other, bringing out their form beautifully.

Side lighting works best when we've got bold or obvious shapes to work with, which can be anything from a set of foreground rocks to the jagged peaks of a mountain in the distance. The difference between the illuminated parts of the subject and the parts still in shadow help to bring out the texture of the scene, increasing the sense of depth and generally creating a more interesting photograph.

In terms of difficulty this lies in between back lighting and side lighting, with a slightly higher contrast than front lighting but without the huge dynamic range of a backlit scene. Take care not to blow the highlights or lose the shadows and you don't have to worry, and if you find the contrast is too high go back to using graduated neutral density filters or bracketing.

When to use side lighting

To emphasise the form and texture of a landscape, to create dramatic portraits.

4. Flat Lighting / Overcast Lighting

An overcast day drove me into the woods to this waterfall, which was evenly lit and didn't have any areas of unsightly glare to distract from the image.

An overcast day drove me into the woods to this waterfall, which was evenly lit and didn't have any areas of unsightly glare to distract from the image.

I'm based in the UK, and as you might well know an overcast day isn't exactly a rare occurrence. The flat and diffused light on overcast days might not seem like the most inspiring of light, but that's no reason to leave the camera at home. In fact, some subjects work best under this even lighting, so it's not to be discounted!

Woodland is one area where a flat and even light is perfect, because the clouds diffuse the light and stop the troublesome dappled light from creating very high contrast scenes when combined with the shadows under tree cover.

However, my personal preference is waterfalls. If it's cloudy out I will instantly start thinking of waterfalls to visit, because that is one subject that can be ruined by a clear and sunny day. The sunlight reflects harshly off the water's surface and produced unsightly highlights in our images, but when the cloud cover is diffusing that sunlight the glare is significantly reduced. It goes without saying that this results in a much more pleasing final image, so there is no need to be disheartened when the cloud rolls in.

When to use overcast lighting

To photograph waterfalls, when shooting woodland scenes

5. Dappled Lighting / Spot Lighting

A stormy morning meant a chance of spotlighting, and when the sun broke through and drifted across the mountain sides I just had to wait until it was in exactly the right spot.

A stormy morning meant a chance of spotlighting, and when the sun broke through and drifted across the mountain sides I just had to wait until it was in exactly the right spot.

We're onto the holy grail of light now, and it requires a perfect storm of conditions to capture this in all it's glory.

This refers to those times when the sun breaks through a layer of cloud to illuminate a small part of the landscape, leaving the rest in shadow. This is exactly the reason it's so rare to capture - Not only do we have to take our chances on a cloudy day, but then get lucky enough to receive some spot lighting and then even more lucky for that spot lighting to hit the right part of the landscape.

Make no mistake though, when this does happen it's pure magic. The sun breaking through onto the right part of the landscape brings that illuminated area right to the centre of attention, and the difference between the lit area and the shadows surrounding it make for wonderful contrast within the landscape.

Obviously this is a light source largely aimed at landscape photographers, although if you're extraordinarily lucky you might get some wildlife subjects right in the centre of the spotlight and come away with the best image of your career!

When to use spot lighting

Make localised areas of the landscape to the centre of attention, highlight animals within the wider landscape.

Conclusion

This is by no means an exhaustive list of all the ways you can use natural light in your photography, but it covers some of the most noticeable types of light you're likely to encounter when heading out and goes over some of the technical difficulties you might face when shooting. Hopefully it's helped you understand a bit more about the hugely important role that light plays in our photography.