How to use natural light

Whether you’re taking outdoor portrait shots, trying to capture the daytime atmosphere of a city or the feeling of a beautiful summer’s evening, using natural light can help you create stunning images. Knowing how to use light to your advantage will make a massive difference to your photos. And you won’t have to invest in any new equipment to see the results.

Watch the video then read on to learn a little more about the way light changes at different times of day. Discover how to use your camera settings to make the most of it - and where to position your subject for better shots, whatever kind of camera you’re using.

Using the time of day to your advantage

Natural light changes depending on the time of day and the weather. So before you head out to shoot, get into the habit of thinking ahead. After all, there’s no point getting out of bed early to shoot a city river at sunrise if you’ll get a better shot at sunset.

On a sunny day with a clear sky, light can look relatively warm in the morning, harsher at midday and softer in the evening. So if you have time, get out and shoot the same scene at different times of day and compare the light in your photos to find the one you like best.

Avoid direct sunlight for portraits

Direct sunlight in the middle of the day can produce harsh shadows which may not be flattering to the people in your portrait shots. So try photographing people in the shade on bright days or wait until the afternoon when the sun produces a warmer light. Standing behind a building or underneath a tree for example, effectively diffuses harsh light and will produce more pleasing results. You can also use a flash during daylight hours to balance against the effects of the sun.

Make the most of the golden hours

The hour just before sunset and just after sunrise, often called the magic or golden hours, are favoured by professional photographers as having the best light of the day. Because the sun is lower in the sky, the horizontal light casts long shadows and bathes subjects in a warm glow. It’s great for city portraits, expressing the beauty of nature or capturing the reflections of water.

Controlling your camera’s white balance

Sometimes light looks toasted and golden. Sometimes it looks cold and blue. While your eyes naturally adjust so that colours look the same in different lights, cameras rely on setting called white balance. This adjusts the way your camera sees light and allows you to control the tones of the light you’re working with. You can set it to compensate for light that’s too cold or too warm.

There are seven standard white balance settings on most Canon DSLRs, mirrorless and advanced compact cameras. Auto White Balance is the default for most straightforward lighting conditions. Select Daylight mode if you are shooting in bright sunshine or choose Cloudy and Hazy or Shaded Places. Tungsten or Fluorescent may help balance colours if you're shooting indoors.

The best way is to take a few shots on different white balance settings to see which looks best. This way you can make sure that you’re not losing the colour characteristics you actually want.

Make your own reflector to bounce natural light

Reflectors are a simple way to harness natural light and cast it on to your subject. You needn't buy one from a professional photography shop. Often a large piece of white, silver or gold board or foil affixed to cardboard can create the effect you're looking for.

Be bold and experiment

Experimenting with natural light will help you understand how it works, what kind of light you like best and how it looks in an image. Learning to see light and how to capture it can take time – so make it fun. Get out and shoot unusual lighting scenarios, subjects and make the most of the weather, the seasons and different times of day.

Explore our City Surfer interactive experience here.