So here's the thing - there's great light, so-so light and bad light. I'm 99% sure most everyone has experienced the different types even without realizing it! No matter what you take pictures of - people, nature, pets, things, etc., the quality of light makes a huge difference in the pictures you take. Learning to shoot with natural light is key to great photos! So let's get started shall we?
The first thing to learn is the 6 different kinds of natural light...
- full sun (mid-day sun)
- even shade
- dappled shade
- overcast (cloudy days)
- sunrise / sunset
This harsh natural light is the most powerful during mid-day. That's the time when the sun is at the highest point in the sky. Even when it's not mid-day and the sun has come down some (or hasn't risen all the way up) this light is still really harsh. Full sun casts shadows on people and creates a very unflattering look for skin. It can be difficult to capture details of subjects. It's not an ideal light to shoot in... and people really hate squinting in it.
When the sun is too harsh and you can't look at it, the best light to look for is even shade. Even shade is light cast from buildings, walls, carports etc. During mid-day sun, the only even shade can be found under things like porches, carports, umbrellas, etc. That's because there isn't anything else that casts a decent sized shadow at that time. If you've spent the day at the beach and realized that your little umbrella shade was suddenly gone, that would be mid-day sun at it's best.
Shade cast from items like trees and trellis is what we call dappled shade. It's where leaves let bits of light shine through. This is not the best shade to work with so always look for even shade if at all possible. Sometimes a tree is so thick it will cast even shade (that would be your best bet if you have no other choice.) Ideally if you want to take portraits at a park with trees and have nice even light - you'll have to shoot when the sun is very low to the horizon closer to sunrise or sunset. The lower the sun gets to the horizon, the less shadows will be cast and the more soft and even the light will be.
Soft, naturally diffused light is what you get on cloudy, overcast days. The clouds act as a giant diffuser and you have this great light that is softer and more flattering. If you have a cloudy day, you can shoot portraits anytime, even in the middle of the day. The light is typically not as strong so you may find the need to face the sun to get the right light. Photographers get excited about cloudy days because we can shoot with reckless abandon! More or less anyway - unless of course you want to capture blue skies and sun flare.
Also called the magic hour or the golden hour this light is created when the sun is closest to the horizon, about 1 hour after sunrise and the last 1 hour before sunset. The best light would be about 45-30 minutes before the sun actually sets and the short 10 minutes you have after it passes the horizon. Just before you start to run out of light you will be able to face the direction of the sun. This light is a nice golden light and you won't squint looking at it. The magic hour is the best time to shoot portraits in a natural setting (like a park) to avoid shadows.
When the sun is still too harsh another option is to use backlight. Backlight can only be done when the sun is low enough in the sky to be behind the subject. If you turned around to face the sun it would still be too harsh and you'd squint. So instead place the sun behind your subject. Get in close, expose for the subject, then recompose and take the shot! Practice playing with backlight to see the dreamy quality light you can get from it.
So now that you're more familiar with the different kinds of light, let's take a look at some examples so you can see them in action. In this picture above, even though the sun is starting to set, the light at the red brick wall is still too harsh. But look around and you see there is even shade cast from the buildings.
In this example my friend is standing in harsh bright light... notice the strong shadows cast by the light. This is fun for some pictures (if you want a shadow picture) but forget asking your subject to look at you and smile. Just to the left however, is this great, fantastic light! Look for that nice, even shade cast from the building opposite this one. That's great light.
The next time you're out and about shooting, try to be aware of the different kinds of light. Practice shooting in the different kinds of light, look for even shade, catch the magic hour and have fun!