This post goes through the basics of taking photos outdoors, using sunlight only. If you missed it, I recommend starting with our post that gives the rundown on shooting in manual mode because this post assumes you are familiar with the basics of manual.
First I’ll explain the importance of using natural reflectors, then I’m going to cover photographing outdoors at different times of day.
Understanding Natural Reflectors
I’ve written about it before, but it can’t be said enough. The position of your light source in relation to your subject is what determines the look of your image. When you’re shooting outside during the day, your primary light source is the sun, of course. But light-colored surfaces near your subject can serve as secondary light sources AKA natural reflectors. You can use surfaces like white concrete, snow, gravel, or water to send light back up into your subject’s face and combat the effect of harsh overhead sun. Finding and using natural reflectors is a huge part of taking photos using only available light.
The 1-2 hours after sunrise and before sunset are most natural light photographers’ favorite time of day for outdoor photography. We love shooting during the golden hour because the light is warm and gives everything a little bit of a natural glow. Shooting during golden hour requires intentionally choosing whether you want the sun to be in front of or behind your subject.
I talked a bit about backlighting in my post about lighting indoor photos, but here’s a rundown of the basics:
- Shooting with light behind your subject can cause your camera’s autofocus to struggle. So be prepared to take an extra minute getting the focus right for backlit images.
- Backlighting with natural light typically requires you to choose whether you want to expose your image so that your subject is properly exposed, leaving your background a bit blown out (most common), or whether your backdrop is properly exposed, leaving your subject underexposed (at the extreme, this creates a silhouette effect)
If you face your subject directly into the sun, your frontlighting will be pretty harsh. You won’t wind up with quite the harsh shadows noon-sun gives your subjects, but that can still be pretty tough lighting. Luckily, the shadows are longer during the hours around sunrise and sunset, so there are more opportunities to use shade to get even lighting on your subject. So to get good frontlighting in the morning or evening, I suggest taking advantage of the shade and shadows that are readily available.
I took this image of Rachel just after she took the above picture of Jay and I. She was facing straight into the sun. Evening sun isn’t as harsh as midday, but it was still some pretty bright light. I often like the look of direct-sun images in black & white.
Other times of day
If you’ve got a cloudy day going, you’re in luck. Cloudy outdoor lighting is one of the easiest lighting situations for beginners because lighting is soft and even. Sunny days generally provide more opportunity for dramatic lighting, but cloudy days are a gift for naturally-lit portraits because when you have good cloud cover you can choose any backdrop you like without regard to what the sun is doing!
Shooting on a cloudy day means even lighting coming at your subject from all angles. It’s the kind of lighting that doesn’t require a lot of thought to make an image that is appropriately exposed.
If you’re new to photography and you’re photographing outside in the sun in the middle of the day, it’s easiest to put your subject in a big spot of open shade. We usually find the best shade under a big tree or next to a building.
If you put shade behind your subject, both your subject and the background will be relatively evenly lit. If you put your subject in the shade, but with a sunny spot behind their back, you’ll end up with an overexposed (also called “blown out”) backdrop. As a general rule, I prefer to have my subject stand with shade behind them to avoid a blown out backdrop.
When you’re looking for a shady spot, watch out for dappled sunlight (especially under a tree). You can use dappling intentionally for fun or dramatic lighting, but if you aren’t conscious of it you can end up with uneven lighting on your subject.
Shooting in full sun can be necessary when you just don’t have the luxury of a shady spot. It can also be awesome. With human subjects, full sun can be tough both because your subjects have bright sun in their eyes (uncomfortable for them) and because the light and shadows on your subjects’ faces is harsh.
That’s it for today’s run down on using natural light outdoors. If you’re interested in working on your photography skills, you can take a look at our past posts on shooting manual, finding good lighting indoors, and must-have equipment for beginning photographers.
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