Design, Photography, & Fashion

Photography 101: What Is Natural Light? Learn About Natural Light in Photography and 4 Tips for Using Natural Light in Your Photography

Written by MasterClass

Jun 12, 2019 • 3 min read

MasterClass Video Lessons

Annie Leibovitz Teaches Photography

Many factors contribute to great photography, but none is more important than light. The light source of your photographs will affect their character and mood. While many professional photographers have made a career shooting portraits in a studio, other photographers favor the type of light you can only get from nature.


What Is Natural Light in Photography?

Natural light photography uses the sun as a light source. The available light from the sun varies with the time of day. A sunny day provides full illumination, while an overcast day may afford texture and nuance to a photographer.

Many photographers gravitate toward what’s known as “the golden hour”—a period shortly after sunrise and shortly before sunset noted for its warm light. This stands in contrast to middle-of-the-day photography, where the direct sun can provide overly harsh light on an object or a subject’s face.

What Are the Benefits of Photographing With Natural Light?

Natural light photography offers the following benefits to professional and amateur photographers alike:

  • It’s affordable. There’s no need to purchase expensive artificial light sources.
  • It offers variety. Natural light photos vary depending on the time of day that they are shot. A photo taken during the golden hour will look markedly different from one taken in the middle of a sunny day, which in turn will look different from a photo at dusk, or even at night (with a very long shutter speed).
  • It can be used for landscapes and portraits alike. Many people associate natural lighting with bucolic landscape images, but it is also used for portrait photography. By managing your white balance and experimenting with different exposures and camera settings, a natural light photographer can create outdoor portraits that are just as compelling as something shot in an indoor studio.
  • It works indoors as well as outdoors. Natural light enters buildings through windows and doors, and it can be exploited for photography. For instance, window photography combines the natural lighting of the sun with interior decor. This form of ambient lighting can be easier to work with than direct sunlight since window light comes from a fixed direction.

What Is the Difference Between Natural Light Photography and Artificial Light Photography?

The greatest distinction between natural light photography and artificial light photography is the actual source of light: the sun versus electronic lighting instruments. This leads to the following considerations:

  • Available light. In an artificially-lit studio, there will be a source of light at any hour of the day. In a natural lighting scenario, whether indoors or outdoors, lighting conditions vary with weather and time of day. Of course, outdoor nighttime photography is certainly possible with artificial lighting.
  • Variety of settings. Artificial lighting can produce great photos in the context of portraits, green screen photography and nighttime photography outside. By contrast, natural lighting illuminates entire landscapes and is used in many genres—such as street photography—that are significantly limited when only artificial lights are available.
  • Ability to control the lighting source. Some types of natural light are difficult to control. A cloudy day might spoil plans for a wide landscape shot. Too much light on a sunny day may produce an undesired color temperature. In this regard, artificial lighting is more predictable and is favored by photographers who can’t afford the chance of needing to re-shoot.

4 Tips for Using Natural Light in Your Photography

Here are four photography tips to help you take great photos with natural light.

  1. Sunlight changes color over the course of the day. The soft light of dawn and dusk is dominated by oranges and yellows. Midday sun contains more blue light. Sun shining through a layer of clouds on a hot day produces a particularly blue light and may be too harsh for many applications.
  2. Use a reflector. If you’ve ever seen a film crew working outside, you’ve probably seen someone holding a large, floppy, silver-coated screen. This is a reflector. It bounces sunlight toward the camera’s subject and makes sure they’re always more lit from the front than from the back. This is what allows photographers to produced detailed, high contrast photos of their subjects.
  3. Embrace side lighting. One way to harness sunlight is to limit its direction. By placing your subject indoors, beside a window with an open shade, you can control the flow of light and prevent undesirable backlighting or washouts.
  4. Use a mixture of natural and artificial lighting. Most professional photographers don’t have a purity rule when it comes to natural lighting. A camera flash can enhance an outdoor photo if it’s coming from an effective distance. Films may use a few stationary lighting instruments to augment the sunlight—again with the goal of having more light in front of the subject than behind it. At the end of the day, having great photographs is more important than having the purest technique.

Learn more about natural light photography in Annie Leibovitz's MasterClass.