7 beautiful natural light techniques for beginner photographers & how to use them

Natural light is many a photographers best friend, and at times an arch enemy. The biggest challenge lies in learning how to use it creatively while you are in an uncontrolled setting. This could mean learning how to use midday sunlight, sunset lighting, nighttime or even indoor lighting. Light is a GIANT subject, and it is part of what makes most GOOD photography stand out among the rest. Because it is such a vast subject this is only meant to provide you with a basic understanding of light, and a couple of basic tricks.


Brace yourself for some of the worst graphics ever created. Sorry, folks I’m a starving photographer and I didn't feel like re-upping my Photoshop subscription this month! I promise I will make better ones later, but for the sake of learning it doesn't matter, and these will just have to do for now!

basic natural light terminology & concepts

Before learning about different types of light, familiarize yourself with some of the terms and concepts used by most photographers today. 

(pictures below)


Lighting used to fill in dark spots when confronting harsh lighting, usually a flash or reflective device used in midday sun.


Sunset, although this may also sometimes refer to sunrise.


Lighting which creates both overexposure and under exposure on a subject, and in some cases causes unattractive shadows and unintentionally accentuate some of your subject’s features (especially in midday: under people’s eyes, eyebrows, nose, lips and chin.)


Spots on subjects caused by putting it under a tree or lightshade that does not have a solid overhead.


Harshly lit areas by bright lights in darkened areas.


Shade found under structures and trees in brightly lit areas, usually outside.


Subjects which appear as 2-dimensional shadows against a brightly lit background.

using "golden hour light"

Using golden hour light is popular among photographers, and for good reason. It creates both a backdrop as well as natural backlighting. There are mistakes that are frequently made, however and while it can create a lot of creative opportunity there are some challenges you will face.

problems with the golden hour & how to fix them

In this lighting setting, it is common to see a white sky as a background behind your subject. This happens for two reasons:

     1. The sky is a lot brighter than your subject, and if your subject isn’t the same level of brightness it will end up underexposed while the sky is overexposed.

     2. Your aperture is too wide, and your camera is unable to see that far into the distance.


This is simply done by filling in the subject with a flash or another light, or even a reflective device, which is also referred to as fill light. This trick can also help photographers using midday sunlight when the subject ends up with dark shadows under their eyes, nose, lips and chin.


This might go without saying: use a more narrow aperture to capture a stunning sunset. 


Don't just use the sky as a background unless you have to. Look for some trees or shrubbery to add into your photos.

the end result

Engagement Photography Session | Fort Collins, CO Photographer

using light pockets

Pockets of light are everywhere, and are especially pronounced during the golden hour and at night time. In the most basic terms they create a spotlight effect for your subject. A light pocket might be found when the sun is beaming through the trees outside or a window in your house. At nighttime they are often discovered under streetlights, or even just lamps inside of your home.

Light from a window can be used in two different ways. In some cases it is better used as light shade while inside of a building (see page 33.) In other situations the shadows around the lit area might be used as a frame within a frame where the shaded or underexposed area is the frame. Other natural light pockets can be found in door frames, parking garages, tunnels and some types of rock formations.

If lighting is extremely harsh, as in sunlight for example, then you may be better off keeping your subject’s back to the light. If their face is hitting the sun directly, your subject may be squinting at your camera. If the lighting is somewhat mild, as in from a window or a streetlight then you most certainly can place the front of your subject’s body or face towards the light.

the end result

INTJ Photography | Fort Collins, CO Fine Arts Photographer
Meyer-Straw | Fort Collins, CO Family Portraits Photographer

using lightshade

If you have ever wondered why everyone loves taking car selfies, then you are about to learn and be given better ways to take advantage of this lighting scenario. Lightshade can reduce a great deal of headaches when you are out shooting in midday sunlight if a flash or reflector is not available to you. Lightshade may come in the form of window light, the shade of a structure outside or even clouds/overcast weather. A lot of lightshade is presented alongside lightpockets, except rather than using light to illuminate your subject, you are using shaded areas outdoors.

Lightshade smooths out the contrast of darks and lights and instead makes shadows relatively even. On an overcast day the lighting can get boring, despite it being every photographer’s dream. Adding a couple of layers to an image that uses lightshade can make an image more interesting however. For example, putting your subject in a darkened doorway or stepping into a parking garage when it is overcast outside.

You may also find lightshade beneath trees in the middle of the day, however you will want to beware of the leopard spot effect unless you have a specific reason for including them. This can be corrected with a flash, but the goal for now should be to take images using natural light only. To use lightshade, make sure that your subject is facing towards the light, and that there is a background darker than the sunlight behind her, similarly to shooting during the golden hour.

the end result

Tiffany Baker | pics by darah - fort collins photographer

This is the final segment to the lessons which I teach for beginning photographers. If you would like a compilation of tips, tricks & techniques be sure to check out my ebook! It's free and mobile friendly for photographers on the go. :-)

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