Tyler’s Tips Episode 21: Natural Light


Welcome to Tyler’s tips. Today I’m gonna talk about overcoming some of the challenges of shooting natural light.

First of all, what is natural light? So I define natural light simply as the sun. So outside we’re using the sun as the light source, or if we’re inside we’re using the light coming in a window. That’s natural light.

Some of the most beautiful light ever, and some of the most challenging light ever because we can’t control it. So how do we overcome some of these challenges? The way I see it, there are three big challenges. Number one is direction. Number two is color, and number three is character which is pretty much all the variables we have with any kind of light. But we don’t have control over ’em very much with the sun. So how do we work with that?

So starting first with the direction of the light. If we’re shooting something small and we’re lucky enough to be able to physically pick it up and move it, or if you’re shooting with a person you can politely ask them, “Hey, can you move over here?” And then you can take bad light and make it gorgeous. That can help a lot, but sometimes we’re shooting a composition that we really want. We really love this angle. I don’t want to change my position because this is gorgeous. Graphically it’s so pretty, but the light is totally wrong right now.

Or shooting a building. I shoot a lot of architecture, and so we need to shoot the pretty angle on that architecture is right here. And now we need good light. How do we get that? And the answer is a combination of patience and an app, there are a bunch of different ones on your phone, that will tell you exactly where the sun is gonna be at a given time of day on a given date in a given year. So we can predict all of this stuff much more powerfully than we ever used to be able to.

So the combination of a little bit of forethought, downloading an app or two, and a little bit of planning and we can create much better lighting scenarios with fixed composition. So that’s kind of what we can do with the direction of the light. There’s not a lot of levers there.

The color of the light, similarly, we don’t have a ton of control over it, but we do have a couple things we can do. Throughout the day and throughout the year, the color of natural light changes dramatically. It can go, as you’ve seen, it can go from the crazy beautiful magentas and purples of the early morning light up through yellows and oranges, blues to this wonderful rich neutralish midday sun to a very cool blue cloudy afternoon and back into wild colors of sunset. It’s amazing. I could go on and on. I love the color that we get out of Mother Nature. It’s unbelievable. It’s gorgeous.

It can really mess with our photos because sometimes we want a photo that needs warm tones, but it’s cloudy outside so the color of the light is blue. So the biggest lever that we have with that, actually, is being digital photographers. We can change the color after we shoot the image. It seems super simple, but especially if you shoot RAW, and I’ll talk about that more in a future episode as well. Shooting JPG, you don’t have as much flexibility, but if you’re shooting RAW, you have a lot more color flexibility.

We can tweak it a bit. It doesn’t work as well when you have to make it go a huge swing if it’s a really yellow looking image of a person at sunset and you want to make it look like a cool blue sort of cloudy day, it might look a little weird. But if you’re adjusting it and tweaking it a little bit, you can have fabulous results.

So that’s our number one, well sort of, absolute tool that’s our best one. But I would argue that even better than that is our brain. If we study color and pay attention to it. If we look at the changes that are happening all the time with natural light, we start to get better at seeing it. And seeing what’s happening and seeing that, “Oh yeah, even when it’s that warm evening sunlight is hitting this side of the face and it’s sort of too orange, a different thing’s going on over here. It’s deep blue. Like that shadow is so blue at this time of day.”

And the more we see that, the more we can then use it to tell our stories later. Or understand that you know what, darn it, this is just not the right time to take this photo out here. It’s not gonna look good. Or it’s not gonna look the way I want it to look … That’s really what we’re talking about, right?

That’s a good segue into the third which is the character of light. It’s very similar to the color of light in the way that we tackle it as a challenge. We don’t have a lot of levers. If that hard sun is beating down. If it’s a small subject, sure we can put a diffusion up if we don’t want it to be hard. But if it’s a cloudy day, we can’t do much to make it hard. It just is what it is. We could take somebody out of the hard sunlight and ask them to go stand in the shade, but mostly our best weapon is to study the character of light. To watch it. To pay attention. What does that sun look like when it comes in my kitchen window when I’m doing dishes at 8:00AM every day before I head out the door to go to work? And how does that change throughout the year? Because it does change. The color changes too. But watch that character change. What’s it like on a cloudy day? What’s it like on a sunny day?

The more we pay attention, the more we’re able to then see it and understand it and then make different choices. And hopefully we make choices that help tell our stories more effectively.

So there you are. The three big challenges of working with natural light: the direction, the color, and the character. The best thing that we can do is study these things and try to understand them better. I wish I had a simpler tip for you, but that’s it.

The great thing is it’s beautiful to look at. Natural light is gorgeous. So I hope this was a helpful tip, and as always thank you for your time. If you have any ideas or questions you’d like me to discuss in a future episode, shoot me an email or drop me a line, and I will work it in. Until next time.