Sunlight to shadows: A beginners guide to natural light photography

Post by
Ruth Stephensen
Sunlight to shadows: A beginners guide to natural light photography

The number one thing you can do to improve your photography right now is to understand how to utilise and manipulate light. It doesn’t matter whether you have invested in an expensive digital camera or use the smartphone in your pocket, light is at the heart of every image you take and the best photographers know how to work it to their advantage.

Every time you click the shutter on your camera or smartphone you allow light to enter your device, hit the sensor and transform into pixels resulting in the photo you see at the end. Without light, the resulting image would not be possible. When you alter the incoming light you alter the outcome of your image so it is vital to have a good understanding of this element in order to use your equipment effectively and get the best results.

Outstretched legs in striped hammock at the beach under the sun
Outdoor photography with dappled sunshine. Image by Creatively Squared for OzTrail Hammocks.

There is no such thing as bad lighting, the trick is learning to use whatever light you have available to achieve different outcomes. The light changes constantly throughout the day and although sometimes it might be unsuitable for your needs at the time, having experience in how to control and enhance the light you have available will allow you to produce more consistent and creative results.

The basic foundations of light can be broken down into three different characteristics: Intensity, Colour and Direction.


Often referred to as hard or soft lighting, intensity refers to how bright the light is. Assessing the shadows on your subject matter is usually a good indicator of how bright the light is. A gentle light will cast soft shadows where there is only a subtle difference between the dark and light areas of your subject. Hard lighting however will result in long, bold shadows and a high contrast between the light and dark areas of your image. The challenge here is to make sure that you aren’t losing details in your dark or light tones as your camera isn’t as sophisticated at perceiving all the tones in high contrast images as your eye.


Not all light is the same colour and sunlight changes colour throughout the day. You’ve probably heard of the photographers term ‘Golden hour’ which is due to the orange hue from the sky at sunrise or sunset. All of these different colour temperatures are referenced on the Kelvin scale which ranges from cool blue tinged light to the warmer reddish spectrum. These different colour tones can have a direct affect on the mood of your image and also impact how other colours are depicted. Choosing which time of day to shoot your photo will have the most impact on the resulting emotions of your shot and can

Golden hour at the beach with macrame hammock and cushions
Golden hour photography in warm light. Image by Creatively Squared for OzTrail Hammocks.


The evolving colour of the light is due to the sun moving across the sky which also changes the direction of the light and where your highlights and shadows are cast. Starting below the horizon the sunlight becomes horizontal at sunrise and moves to a vertical position by midday. Each different time of day opens up fresh possibilities for your image as you allow the light to hit your subject from different angles. The direction of the light can help set the mood of your image and although it may take some time to learn how to best position your subject it will get easier the more you experiment.

The best way to learn about light is by starting with the most abundant light source that comes from the sun. The spectrum of brightness, colour and direction of natural light provides the perfect foundation to experiment and compare results as it changes throughout the day.


Tips for Working with Natural light

The term natural light refers to any light that comes from the sun. The light produced by the sun changes constantly throughout the day, altering its direction, colour and brightness. Fortunately it is generally plentiful and doesn’t cost a thing to use. This allows us to closely watch how the sun moves and learn how to maximise its potential in our own homes or preferred shooting location. When shooting indoors during daylight hours, the light is often referred to as ambient light which is when sunlight enters the room or your home through a window.

The downside to relying on this wonderful natural light source from the sun is that it is inconsistent and weather is unpredictable. It can be frustrating when the sun suddenly disappears behind some clouds so it’s good to be prepared and understand how to maximise whatever light you have available.

Outdoors at the beach in a striped hammock under dappled sunshine
Outdoor photography in natural light. Image by Creatively Squared for OzTrail Hammocks.

It can feel limiting when you can only work at certain times of day in order to achieve the optimal light for your image. One of the best items to have on hand in your photography toolkit is a five-in-one reflector and diffuser kit. Reflectors allow you to direct and enhance the light and soften shadows. The gold and silver sides can help you warm or cool the colour of the light you are directing towards your subject while the internal diffuser is great for softening direct sunlight. They even have a black side which is handy for reducing glare and reflections on shiny objects.

Want to learn more about how using a diffuser can help you take great photos in direct sunlight? Read our post Outdoor photography hack: Diffusing harsh light with a reflector

As photographers we are all visual storytellers and to truly embrace this medium it is vital to allow room for creative expression and experimentation. Manipulating natural lighting can help improve the technical qualities of your photo as much as it can assist with the composition and mood of your image.

While you can plan to shoot at a certain time of day to capture your subject in the ideal lighting, the key to successfully using natural light is to be flexible and accommodate the conditions that arise. Embrace any changes in the light that may occur and see how you can use them to alter the mode and feel of your images, you might be surprised at the new narrative that arises and the emotions that are evoked.

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