How to Use Natural Light to Make Your Photos Pop

Whether you are a novice photographer with an iPhone or a professional with a DSLR, you can harness the power and beauty of natural light to make your photographs more compelling. Here are a few tips and tricks to get you started.

Time of Day

To create a beautiful portrait using natural light, it’s useful to understand how light changes during the day. Professional photographers particularly like the hours just before sunset called “golden hour” because the light is more colorful and creamy. During “golden hour,” as the sun begins to set, the light becomes warmer and shadows aren’t as harsh. This type of lighting creates a more even-toned, magical light to create portraits in.

There’s a reason that photographers love shooting during the hour before sunset. The light gives photographs a beautiful, cinematic quality  (image source )

There’s a reason that photographers love shooting during the hour before sunset. The light gives photographs a beautiful, cinematic quality (image source)

Find Your Light Source

When heading outside to photograph your subject, you’ll want to keep in mind what type of lighting situations you might see. Natural light is not all created the same and depending on the time of day, your light sources will change rapidly. Typically, an open spot with soft and diffused light creates a more evenly lit portrait. If you’re looking to capture a harsher-looking portrait, find a setting and time of day with dramatic lighting and shadows. Don’t know which you like more? Challenge yourself and try both!

Shooting while the sun is higher in the sky can help you create more dramatic shadows in your shots ( image source )

Shooting while the sun is higher in the sky can help you create more dramatic shadows in your shots (image source)

Use a Reflector

Reflectors are helpful tools when photographing a portrait, particularly if you are in harsh lighting conditions. They’ll backfill light on your subject and redirect lighting to create a more evenly lit portrait. Reflectors are easy to use and relatively cheap in cost. Don’t have a reflector? No worries! You can easily create your own using white cardboard, aluminum foil, or a white blanket.

Change Directions

As the light around you is changing, be prepared to take advantage of all angles around your subject. Take a step in either direction while you’re shooting to see if a subtle change in lens direction achieves different, or sometimes better, results. Keep in mind that there are many ways to take great portraits, so try positioning your subject differently to the light to see what works best for your photograph.  

As the light moves, so should you; try new angles to capture new shadows as they emerge ( image source )

As the light moves, so should you; try new angles to capture new shadows as they emerge (image source)

Shoot in Any Weather

Is it foggy outside? Completely overcast? Don’t worry! Inclement weather can help you create great portraits. Mid-day light can lead to harsh shadows and unwanted contrast, but when overcast skies or foggy weather presents itself, it can become more evenly lit. On the other hand, overcast skies can act like a giant softbox and can lead to unwanted flat tones if you aren’t careful. When shooting in overcast natural light, you’ll want to be aware of your camera settings and use your surroundings to add a pop to your portrait.

Inclement weather can add instant drama to your photographs ( image source )

Inclement weather can add instant drama to your photographs (image source)

Indoor Lighting

Way too rainy to take your camera outside? You can still create great photographs using natural light! First, study your lighting indoors. Where are your light sources coming from? What time of day do you notice the best lighting inside? To maximize your lighting, move your subject close to a window, door, or wherever else it might be emanating from. Portraits taken indoors with diffused lighting, will create softer shadows and richer colors. As you more your subject further away from the light source, you’ll see an increase in shadows and contrast.

By positioning subjects by a window, you can create beautiful, naturally-lit portraits indoors ( image source )

By positioning subjects by a window, you can create beautiful, naturally-lit portraits indoors (image source)

Photographing in natural light is fun to explore all the possibilities. To truly master natural light continue to experiment and try new lighting situations. The best way to understand natural light? Photograph in it every chance you get. Get out there, start shooting, and before long you’ll be creating natural light photographs like a pro!


Want to learn more about shooting better photographs? Skillshare’s got dozens of classes on the tools, tips and techniques you need to develop your craft.