5 Tips for Natural Light Photography

320px-Magnificent_CME_Erupts_on_the_Sun_-_August_31The Sun is my favorite continuous light source. We all share this wonderfully hot burning ball of plasma 93,000,000 miles away from our little planet. It’s a fairly large light, measuring in at about 865,000 miles in diameter and has a color temperature of  5,900K above our atmosphere. Pretty neat.

The question is: How do we use this gigantic moving light source effectively for beautiful photos within the limitations of our camera systems?

Five quick tips on how to create great airy, light, delicate, moody, atmospheric photos in natural light:

1. Shoot into the sun

An easy way to avoid hard shadows and squinty eyes is to have the sun act like a catchlight or a bright highlight by placing it behind your subjects. Make effective use of your surroundings by looking for natural reflectors. A natural reflector could be a white wall, a bright concrete slab, windows, bright alleys, grass, snow, etc. No more messing around with fill flashes. If the sun is way too bright, look for shade in the trees from where you can still see the sun poking through. Catch the light with your camera and you’ll get some fantastic flare action.

Taylor and Erin in Big Bear Lake for a Snowy Engagement Session by Snapmotive

2. Shoot in RAW and process in post

When shooting into the sun, the biggest problem might be that there’s not enough front fill lighting on your subjects. That’s when the power of a RAW file comes in handy. It’s fairly easy to rescue the shadows in Lightroom or Photography as long as there’s enough digital information there. You’d be surprised by how much extra information lies in the shadows of a RAW file compared to a JPEG file. I can safely rescue about 1-2 stops of shadow detail without much fuss and if I need more, I’ll bust out my trusty Noiseware Professional to help smooth out the noise.

Notice the highlights on Tony and Lauren’s hair and how after post-processing in Lightroom, the front fill lighting on them is diffused and soft.
backlighting example

3. Shoot during “Golden Hour” 

My favorite moment at any wedding or engagement shoot happens during the hour before sunset known as the “golden hour” and the half hour after the sun disappears below the horizon aka “twilight.” If you go to any beach during a Californian sunset, you’ll see droves of people watching the coast as the sky transitions into brilliant shades of red and orange. Like a newborn kitten, it’s just one of those things that we as humans find inherently beautiful (I may be biased).

If you’re curious as to why it happens at the physical level, check out Rayleigh Scattering. It explains why the sky is blue and why sunsets are red. I knew college would come in handy someday!


Take advantage of the diffused lighting conditions offered by the sunset. I’ll tend to stick to rule #1 by continuing to shoot into the sun as long as I can see it above the horizon. Use the sun as a point light source and make it into an interesting part of the background. When the sun goes below the horizon, I have the option of turning around with the sunset behind me to get some really even light across the subject(s) and/or I can continue shooting westward for some amazing silhouettes!


4. Select the right lens

I like using a very fast lens to give my photos a light, airy, dream-like quality to them. I love picking up the atmospheric haze when shooting at f/1.2 or f/1.4 against the sun. My favorite lens is that 50mm f/1.2 and the 85mm f/1.2 II, both by Canon, because they have so much character. Shot wide-open, they tend to render all the harsh shadows and nasty bright overblown areas, often associated with direct outdoor lighting, into silky soft highlights. Sometimes, they produce images that are totally unpredictable in their own unique way, and I love that.

Snapmotive shooting into the sun with a fast lens example
However, even with these ultra-fast lenses, there are times when you want to stop it down to f/8-f/22 so that you can creatively use a sunburst effect to make your photos interesting. This is especially helpful when you want to tell your viewer, “Hey, I was shooting against the sun… see??” Without stopping down, the sun would come out as a huge hazy blob of light. It sometimes helps to position yourself so the sun is peaking out, instead of by itself. It helps control the intensity of the light to a degree.

Shooting into the sun with a starburst effect

5. Have fun!

Take a friend and just experiment. See it as a light study. Try and find as many different ways you can use the sun as a major element in your photos and you’ll find your confidence. The more you shoot, the better you’ll become.

Leave any questions or comments below and I’d love to help or at least point you in the right direction. :)

  • milsztof - After reading your post, I think I should try shoot in the sun with some reflector. Usually my shots were to dark.ReplyCancel

    • daniel - Yeah, I usually expose for the face but a reflector certainly helps. In fact, I just ordered one on Amazon.com yesterday. :)ReplyCancel