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Different Types of Natural Light for Macro Photography

Natural light — light provided by the sun — is one of your most valuable resources as a macro and close-up photographer. It’s free, provides many different qualities and intensities of light to work with, and when used correctly enables you to produce beautiful images that embody your own intended message or interpretation of a scene.

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Different types of natural daylight affect your scenes and subjects in various ways that you can harness in your macro and close-up photography. This chapter provides a look into identifying different qualities and intensities of outdoor lighting and explains how each contributes to the message in a photograph.

The sun is the direct source of natural light on Earth, but that one light source doesn’t mean just one kind of light. Getting to know different kinds of light is a vital part of taking beautiful macro and close-up images that are naturally lit.

  • Direct sunlight: When nothing is blocking the path between the sun and your subject, you’re dealing with direct sunlight. Direct sunlight is considered a “hard” light source, meaning it creates well-defined shadows with solid edges and is ideal for creating images with high contrast or for revealing texture in a scene or surface.

    Unaltered hard light can provide dramatic, rigid, or vivid moods in your macro and close-up photography and works best with subjects that are dramatic, rigid, or vivid themselves. Matching subject and light ensures that both pieces tell the same story.

    For instance, a cactus, scorpion, or stone wall may make for an appropriate subject to photograph in the direct sun. Shooting a soft, delicate subject — such as a light pink tulip — in harsh lighting may not read as well.

  • Open shade: On a bright, sunny day with few clouds, you get a second type of natural light known as open shade. Any area that’s exposed to the blue sky but not getting direct sunlight has open shade lighting.

    Something that blocks your subject from direct sun but doesn’t get in the way of the whole sky around causes open shade. You might get open shade from a tree, a fence, a building, or even from a piece of cardboard that you hold to block the sun intentionally.

  • Diffused sunlight on cloudy days: On days where the sun and most of the blue sky are covered by clouds, you get the opportunity to shoot with light that’s less harsh than direct sun and slightly more directional than open shade. Depending on the thickness of the cloud coverage, the intensity and quality of your light changes on these days.

    Diffused cloud light can be just a touch softer than direct sun (if there is a slight haze in the sky), or it can be much softer (if there is heavy cloud coverage).

  • Golden light at dusk and dawn: Nature provides you with fleeting moments of unique and beautiful lighting, both in the very beginning and the very end of each day. In the film days this was referred to as the magic hour or the golden hour.

    This type of natural light occurs in the times before the sun rises above the horizon in the morning, and just after it sets in the evening. Its intensity, color, and quality changes quickly as the sun approaches or vanishes.

    And although dusk and dawn lighting tend to produce beautiful images, perhaps its scarcity rather than its practicality is what makes photographers see it as being so magical. You have to get the shot during those fleeting moments, or else it’s gone.

Overall, dusk and dawn lighting tends to have low intensities. Bring a tripod so that you can shoot with slower shutter speeds if you need to.

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