How to use Natural Light to Alter the Mood and Quality of an Image

Photo:  Jakob Owens

Professional photographers, as well as anyone who has ever had their portrait taken, know how natural light can completely transform the image that is captured. While natural light is continuously changing throughout the day, a photographer who knows how to adjust for its nuances can significantly alter the quality and mood of his or her photography or cinematography. The time and location of a shoot, as well as simple adjustments to camera settings, subject positioning, shooting angles and window locations can all have a major impact on the photo that is captured.

There are several factors that go into manipulating a natural light source in order to perfectly illuminate, highlight or silhouette your subject. By knowing these variables and how to make simple tweaks, a photographer or videographer can capitalize on shooting in a space that offers free, natural light. Learning how these factors work together and their symbiotic relationship with one another, a photographer can create a dynamic shoot, taking a variety of photos with different moods and feels, all within the same space in a single day. When preparing to shoot in a bright space, consider these four factors to take advantage of the natural light.

Time of day:

Have you ever watched a time-lapse video? If so, you likely noticed the way shadows shift significantly throughout the span of a day. You also likely noticed the change in color temperature throughout the video. In the early morning and late evening natural light tends to give objects a bluer hue, while sun during the middle of the day makes objects appear a bit redder and warmer. In this time-lapse video a photographer is able to demonstrate the way an object’s coloring changes depending on the time of day.

Many photographers like shooting during Golden Hour, which happens twice a day: just after sunrise and just after sunset. These periods of the day are particularly popular for wedding and engagement shoots. During this time, the subject is illuminated with indirect light, which casts a softer, more golden hue and gives images a romantic tone. Shadows are also longer and more distinct at this time, giving the photo more depth. Simply by knowing the exact time of sunrise and sunset in a particular area, a photographer or cinematographer can make the most of the time they have with their client(s) when shooting in ambient light.

Positioning your subject in comparison to your windows or other natural light source:

For even light across the face of a subject or an object, have your subject face the window. As the photographer, stand between the light source and your subject.

To make your subject appear backlit by the window, have your subject sit with their back to the window. By metering for the person, you can expose the image according to the person. On the other hand, if you expose the image for your light source, you can silhouette your subject.

Also, try positioning your subject slightly angled from the window.  When shooting in a raw, industrial space with partitioned windows, this technique can create dynamic light and shadow textures across your subject’s face.

Photo:  Bethany Legg

The most helpful tools for shooting in natural light:

While reflectors and diffusors will have various effects on images captured in natural light, one of the most important tools is a silk. In a room flooded with natural light, a silk will help soften the light and spread it evenly across the subject matter.

Position your silk between your subject and the light source to create the soft, even light that softens blemishes, wrinkles and any other imperfections. You can buy a professional silk, but photographers on a budget can also fashion silks out of common household objects including sheets and shower curtains.  

Camera settings and adjustments:

A photographer can create stunning photographs in natural light with minimal adjustments to their camera settings. If you’re a new photographer, remember to begin by adjusting your exposure triangle, and practice finagling with the relationship between ISO, aperture and shutter speed. In an open room with lots of natural light, you will be able to use a faster shutter speed. This will keep your image sharp.

If you need to let in more light, open the aperture. A wide aperture will reduce your depth of field, bringing your subject in to focus and blurring out your background.

To keep skin tones looking natural, set your camera to Daylight. This will keep your image from appearing too blue or too yellow. You can turn your camera setting to Cloudy, if you want to warm the image. But when shooting in a room with lots of natural light, this shouldn't be necessary. 

Lastly, when shooting in natural light shoot in RAW files, as opposed to JPEG files. RAW files allow for more extensive editing in postproduction.