Natural Light Photography Tips

Sean Arbabi shares his advice on nature photography and working with natural light.

| General Photography

This article is an extract from The Complete Guide To Nature Photography - Professional Techniques For Capturing Digital Images Of Nature And Wildlife by Sean Arbabi. Visit the Crown Publishing Group's website for more information.

Natural Light Photography Tips: The Complete Guide To Nature PhotographyDirection Of Light

There are various forms of lighting—frontlight, backlight, and sidelight—available to you. All that’s required is a turn of your body to choose the direction and type of light to place your subject in. Seems fairly straightforward, but as it is with photography, there is so much more to it, and the affect direction of light has on your subject makes a huge difference between a nice shot and a powerful one. By analyzing these various forms of lighting when setting up a photograph, the biggest advantage I have is the control over the light, which helps me create striking images.

Controlling The Light

Contrast and lighting ratios in a scene are typically determined by the direction of light on your subject. This is important because you can adjust and control contrast by choosing one direction over another. The angle you choose may result in a much better image or less desirable one.
Another method of controlling light is attempting to predict what it might do—where the sun may go as far as direction and location, and how that might change your shot. I typically use these methods when I scout or plan for a moment, such as arriving at a lake in the afternoon and determining where the sun (and moon) may be at sunset or sunrise.

Avoiding Flat Scenics

A common blunder is positioning yourself between the sun and your subject, with the sun at your back, which provides the most light on the scene, but renders the light now cast on the surroundings as flat and boring. This is known as frontlighting. Frontlighting is often harsh, giving your subjects little shape or dimension, but it is somewhat easier to expose because of the diminished contrast. However, I would choose this type of light only if my scene was truly stunning and the light was spectacular and colorful.

Creating Depth And Dimension

The key to creating shape and dimension in a photograph is using highlights and shadows, often achieved with sidelighting. Sidelighting is when your subject is half lit by a light source and half in shade. Another way to think about it is when the light source is 90 degrees off-axis from your camera. This type of lighting is no different in nature than it is on a face or any three-dimensional subject. It helps give shape and texture or the perception of distance, nicely translating a three-dimensional subject into a two-dimensional medium.

Knowing how to expose in this contrasty light is not easy. Sometimes you may pick a happy medium between highlights and shadows. On occasion, you may decide to meter for the bright side and let the dark side go almost black. Conversely, you may expose for the shadow side, allowing the highlight areas to be overexposed. It all depends on your subject and what you’re trying to accomplish.

Natural Light Photography Tips: Bryce Canyon
Besides wanting to capture a wonderful mix of warm and cool tones, I used the side- and backlight in this Bryce Canyon sunrise scene to help create dimension to these sedimentary rock formations called hoodoos. Shot with a 80–200mm F2.8 lens set to 180mm and exposed at f/4 for 1/60 sec. using ISO 100.

Natural Light Photography Tips: Rock Climbers
Documenting rock climbers in Buttermilks near Bishop, California, I used the available low angle of the sun to backlight my subjects, drawing attention to their shapes as well as the shapes of the large boulders. Positioning myself so the sun barely peered out from behind the left boulder, I exposed the scene by metering the sky just above the climber and used this area for my middle gray reference. Using a 12–24mm F2.8 lens set to 16mm, this scene was shot at f/11 for 1/15 sec. using ISO 100.

Shooting Into The Sun

Photographing toward the sun is routinely thought of as too contrasty or difficult to deal with as far as exposure, yet it is my favorite type of light, a kind I regularly search for. Backlighting, when the light source is behind your subject and you’re shooting toward the light, accentuates form, adds a dramatic element to your images, helps to create beautiful moods, and emphasizes light; that is, the viewer notices the light more. It’s tough to expose because of the extreme contrast ratio from highlight to shadow, but the challenge is worth it if you get the desired result.

When I attempt to backlight a scene, I usually meter for everything but my silhouetted subject—the tone of the sky or water, for example. Frequently, I search for some type of “gobo” (derived from “go between”), a natural object used to block the light source from the camera’s lens. It can be a tree, a branch, a flower, an animal, a person, clouds, a cliff or rocky outcropping, or even a bird flying in the sky, just as long as it blocks the sun from my lens. In essence I am making the sun my friend, using it to my advantage by using the light while avoiding the glare of the extremely bright star. I lose any flare I may get by pointing my lens toward the sun, as well as control how much or little of the sun I want to appear around the object. One way to find where to place your camera is to look for your object’s shadow and place your camera’s lens in it; that way you are guaranteed to have the sun blocked.

Natural Light Photography Tips: Napa River
I knew when I found this tree branch lying in the Napa River that it would be my main subject for the sunset. The backlighting silhouetted the branch, and I was able to find the right angle to frame the sun just before it fell below the horizon. Shot with a 24mm F2.8 lens set at f/22 for 1/2 sec. using ISO 100.


The Photographer’s Ephemeris is a free software program (for Mac, PC, or Linux) designed to help photographers with sun and moon coordinates for any location in the world. Outdoor photography is not necessarily about predictability, but knowing where the sun and moon are positioned can afford opportunities and assist in capturing known events, such as an eclipse or a full moon evening.

This article is an extract from The Complete Guide To Nature Photography - Professional Techniques For Capturing Digital Images Of Nature And Wildlife by Sean Arbabi. Visit the Crown Publishing Group's website for more information.

Find out more about SmugMug's products by clicking these links:

Natural Light Photography Tips:
Natural Light Photography Tips:
MPB Start Shopping

Support this site by making a Donation, purchasing Plus Membership, or shopping with one of our affiliates: Amazon UK, Amazon US, Amazon CA, ebay UK, MPB. It doesn't cost you anything extra when you use these links, but it does support the site, helping keep ePHOTOzine free to use, thank you.


Other articles you might find interesting...

John Duder Interviews Photographer Emma Duder
10 Top Lighting Tutorials That Explore Light In All Its Forms
5 Easy Ways To Prevent Camera Shake
8 Top Photography Tutorials To Help Improve Composition
John Duder Wants You To 'Choose Carefully'
How To Make Sure Your Subject Is The Main Point Of Interest
How To Use Negative Space In Your Photos
What Is A 'Fast Lens'?

There are no comments here! Be the first!


You must be a member to leave a comment.

ePHOTOzine, the web's friendliest photography community.

Join for free

Upload photos, chat with photographers, win prizes and much more.