When it comes to creating a perfect outdoor composition, developing a better understanding of light is one of the best things a photographer can do to prepare. When you understand the different elements of natural light, how they affect photos, and how to accommodate/manipulate them, you’ll be much better equipped to position yourself and adjust your settings to achieve the picture you have in mind.
Getting started, you need to understand that all light has four essential characteristics:
First of all, you have to consider where your light is coming from. When you’re outdoors, this may seem obvious- you’d think to argue it’s just coming from wherever the sun or moon is located. But it’s not always that simple. Say you’re photographing during the evening for example- your light sources will be multiplied.
There might be street lights, store signs lit up, the moon, a multitude of different light sources, all of which you need to notice and consider.
Additionally, if you’re working midday and it’s cloudy, the sun no longer acts as a sole source. The clouds diffuse that light, making its main direction less evident if not completely impossible to trace.
Intensity refers to the relative strength of the light.
This varies according to the output of the light source (Is it an especially bright, sunny day? Is it cloudy like we mentioned before?).
Intensity will also always depend on the distance between the source and the object it’s illuminating (are you taking an edgy nighttime portrait of a skateboarder in a parking lot? Will they stand directly beneath a street light? Or maybe a bit further away?).
Have you ever heard photographers describe light as being soft or hard? They’re referring to its quality when they make that distinction.
Direct light is hard, and it creates a great deal of contrast in your image. This kind of light isn’t always the most common choice for portraits, for example, in which many photographers are just trying to emphasize beauty. However, it is a common pick for a bold, outstanding landscape.
Diffused light (like light coming through clouds on cloudy days), on the other hand is soft, and it reduces or eliminates shadows.
The final element of light worth considering is its color- and not all light looks the same.
Light varies in color, depending on its source and on any substances through which it passes. Natural sunlight, for example, has a very different look than your camera’s flash, to make one comparison.