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Light is the most important factor in photography. So you need to understand how natural light works before you can consistently create amazing natural light photos.

Getting a great shot every now and then is nice, but who likes those odds? Nobody. When you understand the characteristics of light, the odds improve. You can consistently nail those great shots. So, let’s look at how you can do that.

This is the second part in our series on the characteristics of natural light and understanding how light works. Here we’re looking at:

  1. Color temperature of natural light
  2. Direction of natural light

If you’ve not read it, also check out the first part in the series that covers the natural light characteristics of quantity and quality.

1. Color temperature of natural light – how to adjust it

All light has a color temperature, but our eyes are so well adapted to it that we don’t notice until there is a major change, like at sunset. Our cameras need our help to adjust for different color temperatures and we do this by changing the white balance.

Find out more about setting your color temperature: What is white balance and does it matter?

The color temperature of natural light is affected by:

  • Time of day
  • Shade vs full sun
  • The color of the object it hits

How time of day affects color temperature

At the start and end of the day the color temperature of natural light is orange. We refer to this as warm light. As the morning progresses the color temperature changes from warm to cool and the light becomes blue. At midday the light is white.

Then, between midday and sunset, the reverse happens from white to blue to orange.

Color temperature of shade vs full sun

The color temperature of natural light in the shade is bluer at any time of day than in the full sun. So if you’re moving between the two, you need to keep an eye on your white balance. You can of course adjust this on your computer afterwards, but it’s just easier to get it right in camera.

Reflected light and color temperature

When light is bouncing around beyond our control, we need to be aware that the color of the objects that it bounces off will impact the color temperature of the light. 

So, if your subject is lying down in green grass, the grass will cast a green color over your subject. If they are leaning against a blue wall, the light bouncing back at them from the wall will have a blue color cast.

The same of course goes for handheld reflectors. This is why it is so important to be aware of what color reflector you’re using.

Light reflected off a silver reflector has a higher color temperature than light bouncing off a white reflector. A gold reflector will make the color temperature very warm. More on reflecting light in a moment.

Which leads to my next point…

Cold color temperature makes the photo feel cold

The color temperature of the above photo is quite blue, so makes the photo feel cold, which adds to the unsettled, isolated mood of the photo. The photo below was taken minutes later and has a warmer color temperature and happier feel.

Having fun with color temperature

If you set the white balance on your camera for sunny and then shoot in the shade, the photo will be a cool blue color. This is because the camera expects a warm color temperature, so adjusts for it by making the image more blue. 

This of course can lead to some creative fun. Sometimes color accuracy is important – that whites should be white. Other times, it adds to the feel fo the photo to warm it up a bit (e.g for a summer vibe) or cool the color temperature down for a cold vibe.

The trick is to play with color temperature to suit the image. What won’t work is a blue color temperature when you’re photographing a typical summer scene.

Warm color temperature of light affects warm mood of photo

2. Direction of light – how to use it

I’ve left direction of light until last, because it has such a huge impact on the mood of a photo. If you remember nothing else, you need to remember this… 

Before you take a photo, look at where the light is coming from. The direction of light in relation to your subject is a make or break thing.

The thing about light is that it moves in a straight line, or to put it in fancy terms, it is rectilinear. It doesn’t skip up and down, or bend around corners. It starts at point A and keeps going in a straight line until it:

  • runs out (like when you shine a flashlight into the distance at night, or when you walk into a cave and the further you go the darker it gets)
  • is interrupted (like when you create shadow puppets with your hands in front of a light source, or when you photograph silhouettes at the beach at sunset)
  • reaches point B (such as a wall you’ve shone your flashlight at, or when it lands on your subject)

All you have to decide is where you’re going to position yourself and your subject (if movable) in relation to that beam of natural light. Will it:

  • Wash over your subject from the back?
  • Skim over your subject from the side?
  • Illuminate your subject from the front?

Your decision will impact the feel and look of the photo.

How direction of light affects photos

Because the light is coming from behind the model, the backlight adds to the light, happy summer feel.

Because the direction of light is such a big, important subject that completely changes the look of an image, I’ve written a series on the angles of light. In each article I go into detail on the three directions of light and how to use:

While light doesn’t go round corners, it can be directed back in a straight line. This is really important!

How to change the direction of light

Just like a rubber ball, light can be bounced around. It bounces off almost everything it hits. AND exactly like a rubber ball, the angle that it hits an object at impacts where it bounces to. In other words, if you throw a ball at a wall directly in front of you, it will bounce straight back at you. If you throw the ball at the wall a few meters to your left, it won’t come back at you, it will bounce off further to the left.

This is why when you hold a reflector beneath a person’s chin in daylight, the light bounces back up into their face. By the way, this can look weird. The light comes down from the sun above, hits the reflector and bounces back up. The reason it can look weird is that it’s not natural for light to come from below.

Here’s a tip for using a reflector with natural light. If it’s golden hour and the sun is camera right, position the reflector camera left to bounce light back into the shadow side of your subject facing the camera. 

Find out more about reflectors here: How to use a reflector properly and why you really need one

Using a reflector with natural light is like playing tennis with the sun.Click To Tweet

If you have any questions about the characteristics of light let us know in the comments.

Also, we love good news, so if our natural light tips have helped you to understand how to use natural light, share that too.

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