Digital Camera Tips > See The Light

I'm Beginning to See The Light

How to make yourself aware of the changes in natural light

Photography is the art of capturing the light reflected off objects. Natural light (as produced by the sun) is constantly changing. Once you are able to see these minute changes in light with your eyes, your photographs will come alive.

Characteristics of Natural Light

Natural light has many different characteristics: intensity, angle and color. Exceptional nature and outdoor photographs use all three to their advantage.

Intensity

As light becomes more intense, contrast increases. Light and dark areas become more defined. High contrast light is typical at high noon on a clear sunny day.

As the intensity of light decreases, shadows soften, glare is reduced and objects tend to look flatter. Patterned surfaces lose their texture in flat neutral light. This light is typical on overcast days.

Angle

The angle of light works in conjunction with the intensity to produce patterns and texture. Objects that are lit straight-on do not have a well-defined texture. The same object lit from an angle will display a clear pattern. Angular natural light can be captured early in the morning or in late afternoon.

Try this simple experiment: find an object with texture. Grab a flashlight and your camera. Make sure that the object is not lit by too much natural light, or the effect we are about to see will be diminished.

Point the flashlight at the object so that it is evenly lit from the front. Take a photograph. Next, position the flashlight to the right or left of the object so that the light strikes it at an angle. Take another photograph.

Compare the two photos side by side. You should see more texture in the object when you have applied angular light to it.

Color

Light at different times of day has different colors. This is typically referred to as color temperature.

Color temperature can affect the mood of your photograph. The exact same object photographed under different color temperatures can produce surprisingly different results.

How to Use Natural Light

Now you know light has intensity, angle and color. But how to you see this? How can you use it to take better photographs?

Luckily, there are some typical situations where paying a small amount of attention to the light can greatly improve a photograph.

Portraits and Intensity

Most portraits turn out better when the light is less intense. Severe contrast on a person's face produces very dark shadows that are not flattering.

Since you are looking for less intense light, overcast days are great for people photography. But what if it's not overcast? Find a way to artifically reduce the intensity of the light hitting your subject. Put them in the shade, or create shade using a diffusor.

Patterns In Nature

Sand dunes. Rocks. Grass. Waves. Any pattern in nature stands out in the morning and in the evening. At high noon, most patterns disappear.

You probably know why. In the morning and evening the light from the sun hits natural subjects at more of an angle. This results in clearer patterns. What works with a flashlight also works with the sun.

This photograph was taken in early morning light in Death Valley. I actually got up at 5am so that I could be on the sand dunes at sunrise. Sometimes you have to be willing to get out of bed to get a shot.
The pattern that you see in the sand is only because the sun is low on the horizon. By about 8am, none of these patterns were clearly visible anymore.
nature pattern

Evoking a Mood

Moods are sometimes associated with color: "feeling blue" and "red with anger". Colors can also create a response in the person seeing your photograph.

If you want your photo to express a feeling or mood, wait for the right time of day to take it. Colors tend to be cool and blue in the morning and orange and warm in the afternoon.

A shot of snow at sunrise should make the viewer feel the cold. The beach at sunset should feel relaxed and warm. There are many colors and moods in between these two extremes, so feel free to experiment. Once you find what works for you, you'll be able to capture that same feeling over and over again.

This brick building on Key West in Florida was photographed at sunset. Notice how the entire wall seems to be infused with an orange glow.
This light is typical in the late afternoon and early evening. Just make sure you take photos fast — five minutes later this wall was in shade.
sunset color