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Techniques of Natural Light Photography
Articale by Digital Cameras Help

There are three elements that a photographer must understand when taking pictures: light, composition and subject. Every image has its appropriate light. If the light is not good, the photo will be a failure.

An excellent subject with a good composition, seen in a dull, grey and boring light will obviously lead to a dull, grey and boring image. The placing of the subject in the frame is crucial for a high-quality composition. However, it is the light that makes the photo. On the other hand, a day to day subject with a decent composition and a radiant and dramatic light will lead to a successful image.

Front lighting (”in the eye”)

Front lighting is a great source of exercise for the amateur photographers. The sun lights up the face of the subject over the shoulder of the photographer, offering uniformity. Because of the flat light, there are minimum shadows. It is quite easy to work with this kind of light, but the results won’t be great. There is no depth, no textures, and the details are washed out.

In nature photography the front lighting has its own advantages and disadvantages, but for a landscape photographer it is a disaster most of the times. The scene has no dimensions, no dynamism, and it is faded, all these being important deficiencies for the drama of an image.

On the other hand, many wildlife photographers prefer the front lighting. Even if it doesn’t create the most impressive effect, however it may present the animal in its entire greatness, splendor and perfection, with all the details.

In several circumstances, front light can be an ally: every corner of the subject is lit, thus offering a maximum quantity of information. For example, the architecture photographers can render all the details of a building. It is quite simple to obtain correct exposures, as there are few shadows or strongly lit areas that trick the measurement system of the camera.

Back lighting (contre-jour, “in the lens”)


Back lighting can give very spectacular results. The shape may be rendered as shadow or surrounded by a light corolla. This type of light can give extraordinary results. So why not using the back lighting all the time? Mostly for the reason that this technique is hard to handle. You’ll have to deal with problems like flare, difficult exposure, high contrast etc.

It is easiest for you to get close to the subject, and remove from the image as much background as you can. If you can move the subject, place it in an area where the background diverts the minimum attention possible. For example, darker backgrounds or the ones that can be taken out of focus are quite suitable.

For a more “professional” result, you can use a spotlight. All that spotlights do (reflecting surfaces generally colored in white - for softer light, silver - for a stronger light, or gold - for a warm light) is to redirect the sunlight (or the main light) towards the subject. This way, with more light on the subject, it will be easier for you to balance the image, keeping at the same time the dynamism of the back light.

The fill-in flash can also give a professional hue to the image. Nowadays, when even the “point-and-shoot” cameras have a fill-in option, this technique is easy to use and it has great results.

Another problem is that of flare, namely the bright little circles or hexagons that appear on the image when you take photos with front lighting (the flare geometry is given by the shape of the aperture), plus the loss of the image contrast. Sometimes this may be interesting, but not too often. Consequently, it is a great idea for you to block the direct light in the lens with a parasol, with your hand or anything else.

Side lighting

Side lighting can be used for separating the subject from a background. This trick can turn a common photo into a winner. The three-dimensionality of the subject: shape, texture, shadows, it all becomes more obvious. If you use the sun as the main source of side lighting, you should take photos at dusk or at dawn. On the other hand, if you are in a studio, it is you who decides how to place the lights and the subject.
Soft light

Flowers and people are two subjects favored by soft light. Outdoors, this light characterizes a bright but overcast day, or the areas with homogenous shadows. Indoors, the same effect can be obtained with the help of a light box, of an umbrella, or by reflecting the light on a ceiling or white wall/panel.

This type of light is non-directional and it produces an effect of subject wrapping. There are no strong lights or shadows, therefore no details are lost. The unpleasant shadows under the nose and eyes are almost invisible. As far as flowers are concerned, all the details can be rendered in the soft light of overcast days, with excellent results. Under the sunlight, the contrast is usually too strong to be rendered by the film properly, and a flash would provide too much brutal light.