Navigating the unpredictable world of natural light photography

Navigating the unpredictable world of natural light photography

Photography is an art form that constantly evolves. One of the most fundamental aspects is the use of light. While artificial lighting offers control and precision, natural light remains a beloved yet often unpredictable element for photographers. 

Let’s look at some of the challenges when capturing moments in natural light and ways you can combat the elements to snap the perfect shot.

Inconsistent lighting conditions

Natural light is dynamic, changing throughout the day due to the Earth’s rotation and the weather. This inconsistency poses a challenge for photographers who must adapt to shifting light intensities, colors and angles. The golden hour may provide warm, flattering light, but its brevity means that timing is crucial. Conversely, harsh midday sunlight can cast unflattering shadows and highlights, making it difficult to achieve a balanced exposure.

Your best tool for shooting with natural light is going to be a 5-1 kit with diffusers and reflectors to help balance out the conditions faced either early morning, midday or late afternoon. In the below image, we changed our shooting angle slightly and had someone holding a 5-1 to block the unwanted light. It’s still bright in the background but metering for our model the light is more even.

Weather conditions add an extra layer of complexity. Cloudy days can diffuse light, reducing harsh shadows, but may also result in flat, dull images. On the other hand, capturing photos during a sunny day brings vibrant colors but requires managing strong contrasts and potential overexposure. Unpredictable rain or wind can also jeopardize equipment and the overall shooting experience.

Personally, I love some clouds, as they act as a giant diffuser. I find a little bit of white reflection can balance the light and shade and add some contrast to an otherwise dull light. 

Conversely, if you are shooting in bright sun, or during the middle of the day having a light blocker (the dark part of the 5-1 reflector) or even the diffuser to block and soften the direct light can make a huge difference.

Limited control over direction and quality

Unlike controlled studio environments, photographers working with natural light have limited control over its direction and quality. The sun’s position in the sky can create challenging shadows on subjects’ faces or produce unwanted lens flares. Creativity in composition becomes essential to adapt to these constraints, but it also demands quick thinking and flexibility.

Try working in the shade for best results, but there is no reason you can’t position your subject with backlighting. Just make sure you meter the light for your subject, not the background lighting. Bracketing your images can be a huge help here too. If the sun is low enough you can grab a sunburst in your image. Generally for the best sunbursts, you need an aperture of f/16. But you can obtain it with a smaller aperture too. An aperture of f/1.4 or similar will often give a halo effect, depending on the lens.

In the images above (unedited) the light is too harsh and the highlights are almost blown out. By moving the photographer and the model slightly, we achieve much better results, but placing the model in a much more shaded area.

Fast-changing scenarios

Moments in natural light are fleeting, requiring photographers to work swiftly. Wildlife photographers, for instance, must contend with the sun setting or rising rapidly, affecting their ability to capture the perfect shot. Portraits taken in changing light conditions demand rapid adjustments to maintain consistency and coherence in the series.

Be flexible, what may work at one time may not be suitable 30 minutes later. I often find that ‘walking’ my intended area allows me to find various options. Try to see the location at different times of the day. Or at least the same time you are planning your shoot, if at all possible. There are times when it just isn’t possible and you need to work with what you’ve got.  

Challenges in post-processing

While natural light can yield stunning images, it can also introduce complexities during post-processing. Varied lighting conditions may result in inconsistent color temperatures, requiring careful adjustment to ensure a cohesive look across a series of photos. Balancing highlights and shadows becomes a delicate task, especially when dealing with extreme contrasts.

Things that can help you overcome these challenges could be using varied white balance or even selecting creative presets in your camera settings. You can also use a white card to set your white balance in-camera or in-post when moving from one condition to the next. It is entirely possible, depending on what you are shooting that you don’t mind capturing changes in your light. But if you’d like to keep it consistent, these are worth keeping in mind. 

The longer your shoot is the more the light will change, especially if it starts in the morning and ends in the late afternoon. Even from say, 4 p.m. til 8 p.m., the light will change dramatically and quite quickly too. Then there is also setting your white balance in post-processing too.

Technical limitations

Cameras and lenses, though technologically advanced, may face limitations when capturing scenes in natural light. High ISO settings to compensate for low light can introduce unwanted noise, while fast shutter speeds may be necessary to freeze action but can impact the amount of light reaching the sensor. Striking a balance between technical settings and artistic intent is an ongoing challenge.

Often, working with ISO lower than 640 on most modern cameras will not add that much noise, and unless you are working in very low light 640 during the day should give you fairly high shutter speeds to freeze any action. 

Of course, freezing animals in action or people playing sports will require a faster shutter speed. Remember the Exposure Triangle for optimum results. Even if shooting a moving subject at sunset, I increased my ISO 640 and kept my shutter speed at 1/2000s, catching the movement of both horse and owner sharp.

Increase your ISO and your shutter speed to Freeze the action, even at sunset.
Increase your ISO and your shutter speed to Freeze the action, even at sunset.

In summary

In the wild world of natural light photography, challenges are just part of the game. Sure, it’s a bit like navigating a maze, but many photographers love the thrill of unpredictability. Overcoming these hurdles means diving deep into the art of lighting, practicing like there’s no tomorrow, and being ready to roll with the changes. While studio lights offer control, there’s something undeniably special about capturing a moment as nature intended, with all its quirks and surprises. So, as photographers dance through the maze of challenges, they’re not just overcoming obstacles — they’re finding new perspectives, pushing boundaries, and letting the beauty of the moment shine through.