5 Different Types of Natural Light for Photography

Lighting is a very important aspect to photography. It needs to be selected to complement the artistic direction of a photoshoot to portray the overall mood. Over time as a photographer you will develop an eye to see beautiful light, as well as how to manipulate and recreate it. In this post I am focusing on natural light, but some of these terms can be applied to studio light as well.

I am writing this post for anyone who has had questions about utilizing natural light for photography. After receiving a request to write about this topic I was happy to provide my knowledge on the subject and explain it simply. Feel free to leave any requests for future posts in the comments.

5 Types of Natural Light for Photography

1. Shade/Overcast

It is easiest to photograph in the shade or while it is overcast outside because the sunlight is diffused. This produces a soft, even light that is very low contrast (meaning no harsh shadows). This type of light is particularly flattering on subjects with rougher skin and is very commonly used for portrait photography.

2. Backlighting

Backlighting is when the sun is behind your subject. This results in the background usually being overexposed and your subject being underexposed. Like photographing in the shade or while it is overcast there are no harsh shadows on your subject. I find this type of lighting has a soft, natural feel to it.

Backlighting can also produce a rim light. This occurs when the light wraps around your subject and outlines their shape. Backlighting also looks amazing when it shines through hair or foliage.

3. Direct Light

Direct sunlight can be difficult to work with because of the dark shadows and loss of detail. However direct light can really enhance the vibrancy of an image and the high contrast can create a dramatic look. It is best to shoot when the sun is not too high in the sky. Also if you need to photograph at a fast shutter speed (ie. to capture movement) a lot of light is useful.

4. Side Light

When the sun is to the side of your subject there are shadows cast on the side furthest away from the sun. This provides high contrast and depth to an image. Detail and texture on the subject are also enhanced with this type of light (the opposite effect compared to direct light).

5. Golden Hour

Golden hour (or magic hour) takes place during the first hour after the sun rises or the hour before the sun sets. Many photographers love this type of light, myself included. Gorgeous, warm, soft light is cast at these times of day. The light is flattering from any direction, whether the sun is shining from the side, backlit or directly on your subject. The downsides are this light doesn't last long so you have to shoot fast.

Experiment with different lighting in your own work to find out what type of lighting suits your style and subject matter.

What type of light is your favourite to photograph in?