Ambient Light: Photographing in Natural Light

By Geoff Harris

daisy with raindrops

Photographers who work outdoors with natural light, rather than in a studio, have to make the best of the prevailing weather conditions.  This will be especially true when we’re visiting a location at some distance from where we live.

If a location is nearby, we can have the luxury of waiting until all the conditions look right before we go out to photograph it.  But if we've made a special trip to get there, we have to work with the natural light that we're given!

Outside my window as I write this, it’s very overcast.  It would be easy to think that it’s not worth going out with a camera on a day like this.  But actually, overcast ambient light can be ideal for a photograph.

Although preferably the sky would be covered with white cloud, to give a bit of a feeling of light, rather than heavy grey cloud – as it is here today!

window with ship

So what subjects can benefit from overcast natural light? Flowers certainly can, especially for close up photos.  Bright sunlight on delicate flower petals can often cause burnt out highlights, especially when the petals are white or light-coloured; and as well as this, one flower can cast its shadow onto another, or even one petal can cause a shadow on the one next to it.  The soft, ambient light of an overcast day can often yield a better result.

Wider landscapes will often look at their most dramatic in sunlight, especially when the light is low and coming from the side, which reveals the texture and shape in the land.

But you can often find great cameo images within the landscape on an overcast day.  And cameo photos within towns and villages, like windows and doorways, are often much better when the light is diffused, and no hard shadows are cast onto your subject by other buildings or by rooflines.

dried flowers 1

Although woodland looks fabulous to the eye on a sunny day, with sunlight dappling through the leaves, the contrast between light and shade can often be too much for a camera to cope with, and lead to burnt out highlights or blocked up shadows.

On an overcast day, you’ll capture much better detail within a woodland.

Portraits too can really benefit from overcast natural light, as the subject won’t be squinting against bright sunlight, or be brightly backlit – a day with soft, ambient light can be lovely for portrait photography.

And any subject that has a timeless feel to it – an old, crumbling building, peeling paint on a shutter, a bunch of dried flowers – will usually be enhanced by soft ambient light, which can add to the atmosphere of the image.

Sunny days are wonderful in lots of ways – but don’t leave the camera in the bag just because the day is overcast!

If you would like to learn more about photographing using natural light why not consider one of the following MyPhotoSchool 4 week Online courses with your own personal tutor

An Introduction to Digital Photography Course

Capturing Colour Course

Fine Art Landscape Photography Course

Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) - the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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