Shooting Digital Photographs in Natural Light
Shooting in the early morning
Sunlight on a clear morning illuminates scenes from the side. Objects that are normally lit from above during the day and shaded on one side or another are often beautifully and unconventionally lit during the morning or evening.
Mornings are often clear and calm. The day is just starting and the light feels fresh. The hour or so after sunrise and before sunset is called the golden hour because of the great light.
Notice the still water of the river. It’s so quiet that the bridge, sky, and foliage cast amazing reflections. You get two scenes for the price of one. Not all mornings are like this, of course. Some will be blustery, wintery, stormy, hot, muggy, or rainy. However, on a good day like this, it’s a joy to take photos early in the morning.
One note of caution when shooting in the morning. Once the sun starts to come up, pay attention to the contrast levels in the scene. You may struggle to preserve details in areas of deep shadow without blowing out highlights. If you need to, choose a middle ground by using exposure compensation or manual shooting mode, and then work to bring out details in software.
Fighting with the light at noon
Mid-day lighting is harsh and often difficult to photograph well.
The sun is the most intense during this time and casts very harsh shadows. Because of this, don’t take photos of people at noon. They squint, and the photos look horrible because half their faces are in deep shadows while the other half of their faces look too bright.
You’re not a bad photographer if you can’t take perfect shots at noon. That’s just the way it is. Unless you work with a tremendous amount of portable diffusers and other gear to soften the light, it’s just not worth it.
The reason this photo is even close to passable is that it’s a bit past noon and the sun is off to the right a bit. There are enough clouds in the sky that the photographer took this shot while the sun was briefly obscured. Although the clouds acted as a giant diffuser, it’s still very bright.
Going out in the early evening
Early evening is a good time to photograph things. Early evening light is bright without being too harsh. The harsh afternoon sun has passed and been replaced by more forgiving light. It’s still bright, but not normally overpowering unless you look right at it.
While you’re waiting for the golden hour, look for interesting subjects and scenes. Many will be large and scenic, but don’t overlook the small things. The petunias here are a great example. You can see that the flowers are well lit and the colors in the scene are nice and vibrant.
Prizing the golden hour
The best time to photograph landscapes and many other outdoor subjects is during the evening golden hour. This is the hour or so before sunset. There is a corresponding golden hour in the morning too, right after sunrise. The golden hour is a stunning time to be out with your camera.
If the weather is decent, go out tonight before the sun sets and look at the sky. Take note of how the light softens and everything is lit from the side, not the top. If there are clouds, they will be beautifully colored and lit. On special days, the entire sky glows a gorgeous golden color, which deepens and may appear red or purple as the sun sets. It really is magical without the magic.
Photographing the sunset
Sunsets are a special treat. If you’ve been shooting during the golden hour, don’t pack up and leave until you’ve photographed the setting sun. Capturing the setting sun produces memorable photographs.
The challenge is finding the right location. In this case, the photographer used a Sony APS-C dSLR using an ultra wide-angle zoom lens set to 10mm to capture as much of the surrounding scenery as possible.
When shooting toward the sun, you may wish to use an ND grad or graduated filter to dim the light a bit. The photographer stopped down to f/22 for this shot, which kept the shutter speed to a leisurely 1/80 second.
The time after the sun sets and before it gets completely dark is called twilight, or sometimes dusk (technically the darkest part of twilight). You would not think this would be that interesting of a time to be out, but you can capture some amazing shots.
Look for the glow left over from the setting sun when photographing twilight scenes. The figure shows a scene looking west about a half hour after the sun set. If you’re interested in these things, the time was a minute into the phase called nautical twilight. Clearly, the light is very dim. The light from the setting sun has faded, and it’s hard to distinguish any details in the trees nearby as well as across the lake.
This photo features the last little bit of glow on the distant horizon. The lake doubles the effect of the golden light and the cloudless deep blue sky. The photographer shot this using a tripod and had the shutter speed set to 1/5 second.
Shooting at night
Shooting at night is sort of a ridiculous concept. There is no light to see with. Why would you take a photo at night? Well, for stuff that is actually lit.
The photo was taken in Detroit. Skies are dark at night but this building and the foreground are well lit. It’s the 40-story tall Cadillac tower downtown right by Campus Martius Park. This area is filled with sights and attractions like Woodward Fountain, lots of cool buildings, restaurants, and much more.
Despite the darkness, the building and street are well lit. The photographer took this handheld shot using the camera’s Night View scene mode. The camera chose an aperture of f/3.5 and ISO 1600. The mode recommends using a tripod because the shutter speed is lower than normal. In this case, it was a paltry 1/4 second shutter speed. That’s on the super-low side and hard to keep steady.