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How To Get Incredible Lighting For Outdoor Photography

10 min read

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photographer taking outdoor photos in natural light.

Natural outdoor lighting is arguably the best kind of illumination for any type of photography. While it may seem like a simple concept, achieving the best lighting can be a finicky beast to tackle.

You’ll have to contend with the location, time of day, and weather conditions to find the perfect balance in lighting for outdoor photography.

Luckily, with some practice and a few tips, getting that optimal outdoor photography lighting is easier than ever. This guide will give you all of the information you need to become proficient in manipulating outdoor lighting to get incredible shots.

The Best Lighting Conditions for Outdoor Photography

Lighting is the primary ingredient in all types of photography. Whatever lighting source you’re using will consequently affect the overall mood of your photo.

Some of the primary photography niches that fall into outdoor photography include:

  • Portrait
  • Wedding / Engagement
  • Family
  • Landscape
  • Macro
  • Sports

To understand how natural light affects your photography, you need to be able to see it, evaluate what kind of light it is, and adjust your camera settings accordingly.

Any light sources in outdoor photography most aspects of your photo. It will change the color temperature, exposure values, and even the amount of noise that can appear in your images.

Overcast Days

A couple standing outdoors in front of a small waterfall on an overcast day in fall.

Choosing to shoot on an overcast day will lend you some key advantages for taking great shots. Generally speaking, a cloudy, grey, overcast day will give you the best diffused lighting for outdoor photography.

This is mainly due to the cloud cover acting as a filter for the harsh sunlight. The result is a soft light that helps keep the brightest areas from being blown out or the shadows from becoming too dark.

There are, however, caveats to shooting on an overcast day. For one, the color temperature will be a little on the cool side, creating some incredible moody effects. However, if you’re looking to bring out skin tones, it might not be the best choice. Of course, the color temperature can easily be fixed in post-processing.

Golden Hour

The golden light found in the hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset is considered the pinnacle of natural lighting for outdoor photography. There is just something profound about the golden hue spilling over a landscape that adds an ethereal effect.

Outdoor portrait photography is perfect for golden hour as it brings out natural skin tones. You’ll often see outdoor weddings and engagement shoots being done during this time. The tricky part in taking advantage of this magical hour is that there is a limited time frame to make use of this light source.

After sunrise, the light will become high in the sky, causing the direct sunlight to become harsh. In the golden hour before sunset, the light will get weaker, causing you to increase your ISO.

A bit of planning is required to take full advantage of the golden hour. Ensure that you check the local weather forecast to make sure that you’ll have clear skies. Some clouds in your golden hour shots are desirable since they can provide additional depth and interest to your shots.

Blue Hour

ourdoor long exposure shot of a rocky shoreline with a lighthouse. The light is on inside the lighthouse.

Blue hour is the hour before sunrise and the hour after sunset. It is caused by the sun being just below the horizon and is identifiable by the blue gradient in the sky. The color temperature will also be very cold, casting a blue hue on everything.

Landscape photographers prefer blue hour for silhouettes of mountains and forests. While it might not be the best condition for shooting portraits outdoors, it can provide some cool effects on skin tones. You can easily take advantage of both the golden hour and blue hour on the same day since they precede each other depending on when you go.

If you’re interested in long exposure photography, then the blue hour adds a beautiful blue hue that complements any kind of slow water movement shots.

Take a tripod with you since the low light will inevitably force you to slow your shutter speed down. You may have to raise your ISO for proper exposure but don’t go too high, or you’ll introduce noise into your shot.

Using Camera Gear To Help Harness Outdoor Lighting

Knowing the theory behind manipulating natural light is only part of the equation. Having the right gear can make the task much easier. One of the biggest obstacles is achieving good exposure while maintaining crisp details in your subject. For that, there are some gear considerations you should make.

Lenses

Telephoto lenses are excellent at compressing a scene and bringing all of the elements together in a flattened state. Anything between an 85mm to 135mm focal length will give you the desired effect. Landscape photographers will use a telephoto lens to compress the foreground, mid, and background to give them a condensed look.

Wide-angle lenses capture more of the scene in front of you, creating a lot of depth in your landscape shots. You can use them for outdoor portraits, but in many cases, the subject’s face will be slightly distorted due to the wide-angle glass.

High-quality lenses will have wide maximum apertures, giving you the ability to shoot in low-light conditions. If you plan on shooting portraits at low light times, then a lens with an aperture of f/1.4 to f/1.8 will be the best choice to get proper exposure.

A wide aperture gives you the ability to create a blurred background. For outdoor portraits, this can handle any distractions in the background while keeping your subject in pin-sharp focus.

Tripod

A photographer using a tripod outdoors to get a landscape photo of a lake in sun light.

Another essential item for natural light photography is a tripod. Often you may find yourself reducing your shutter speed to the point where camera shake can become an issue. You could just increase the ISO, but generally speaking, you want the highest amount of detail in your shots. This can only be achieved with an ISO as low as possible, which is where a tripod comes in handy.

The extra stability will let you take your shots at lower shutter speeds without sacrificing image quality. While you can use a monopod as well, camera shake can still become a problem if it’s windy out or your camera is heavy and prone to moving. This makes them a primary tool for macro photography using natural light.

Look for a tripod with multiple locking mechanisms to ensure your camera stays in place. A rotating ball head is handy too, since it enables you to position the camera in unique positions.

Off-Camera Flash

An outdoor portrait photo of a pet with a flash being used to illuminate the face in the fall.

Sometimes, you may be forced to shoot at a time of day when the natural light is a bit harsh. What ends up happening is that the highlights or shadows can be blown out so much that you’ll lose detail in your subject.

For example, taking a portrait in harsh sunlight can create a bright background but darken your subject to the point where the exposure is incorrect.

Another example is during the blue hour when the ambient light source may be too low. Fill light from a flash might be able to shed some light on small details in your subject.

An off-camera or external flash can provide some fill light that illuminates your subject’s face without seeming unnatural. Of course, you’ll have to fiddle with the settings to get the right amount of light.

Pay Attention To Your Camera Settings

The camera settings you choose for your shots are crucial in the process. Knowing how to read the light and having the proper gear is all well and good, but knowing the optimal settings is key.

Remembering how to use the exposure triangle is vital since it will give you a visual representation of how aperture, shutter speed, and ISO affects lighting in outdoor photography. If you change one of the three major settings, you will have to adjust the other to keep the exposure correct.

Here is a breakdown of some of the settings to be mindful of based on what type of photography you’re shooting.

Outdoor Portraits

natural light outdoor portrait photo of a male hiker on a trail.

Portraits in natural light are an effective way to tell a story with people involved. It’s the reason that weddings, engagements, and family photos are such a huge industry. Portrait photography is all about showcasing your subject, usually a person, with the background a complement to the composition.

You’ll want your ISO as low as possible to maximize the detail in your shot. Anything between the 100-1250 ISO range should be good without introducing noise into the photo. Some cameras can go much higher with ISO and still be capable of high-quality imaging.

The aperture is important since it will control the depth of field in your shot. For outdoor portraits, you want to keep your subject in focus while creating a dreamy background that is softened from a shallow depth of field.

Keeping your shutter speed high enough to mitigate camera shake is important to keep your subject sharp. Using a tripod in lower light will certainly help with any blurry effects from movement.

Landscape Photography

Landscape photography shows the landscape in all of its details. It’s an effective form of photography for telling a story of the environment. A tripod is usually a must to capture all of the detail in low light.

Keeping your aperture around f/11 will keep everything in focus. It’s important to capture all of the details of the landscape, and a wide aperture will blur some parts of the photo out.

ISO should generally be kept around 100-200 because you can simply decrease your shutter speed since you will have a tripod handy. Just make sure it’s not windy outside, or you’ll see some motion blur in the moving parts of your scene.

Outdoor Macro Photography

Outdoor macro image of a brown leaf with a water drop falling off of it.

Macro photography is all about letting as much light into your camera as possible while maintaining a pin-sharp focus on your subject. Bright light introduces harsh shadows, so you’ll want to stick with diffused light to keep the exposure within a workable range.

Most photographers will keep their aperture wide as their subject may be so tiny that a shallow depth of field will be effective. Artificial light sources such as a flash tend to be too bright to work well with macro shots.

Keeping your shutter speed high is important for macro photography. It allows you to capture the image quickly and without introducing any motion blur to the image. Somewhere between 1/200 and 1/1000 should suffice.

Sports Photography

Young children playing a soccer game outdoor on a sunny field.

Outdoor sports photography requires a quick shutter speed and wide aperture to get all of the action in front of you. Luckily, using a lens with a wide aperture (f/1.4) will let in plenty of light to keep the shutter speed fast.

Since most sports games are played on sunny days, you’ll have to keep your ISO as low as possible so your image doesn’t get blown out. You really shouldn’t have to go above ISO 200 on a sunny day.

Essential Outdoor Photography Lighting Tips

You should have a good understanding of how you can use your camera to take incredible shots using the available light outdoors. Here are some additional tips that you can use to take full control and start shooting anytime during the day.

1. Try to Avoid Shooting in the Middle of the Day

Shooting outdoors during times with the sun high in the sky introduces a few obstacles for any photography. First, hard lighting in outdoor photography creates hard shadows, which directly impacts a balanced exposure. The best light is when it’s soft, especially for outdoor portraiture, primarily earlier or later in the day.

Secondly, highlights can be blown out as your camera doesn’t have the dynamic range to handle such a tone difference. This can be fixed using exposure bracketing or the HDR setting on your camera. Check out our article for more in-depth information on the best time of day to take pictures outside.

2. Dappled Lighting

A photo with dappled light spots.

Dappled lighting is both a curse and a blessing for photographers. It is created when the sun shines through something that has gaps in it. This includes leaves on a tree and wooden lattice.

What will happen is that the dappled light will create hotspots on your subjects which changes the exposure. It can be difficult to remove dappled lighting from your subject if it is too bright.

On the other hand, dappled light can provide the desired bokeh effect that happens when you have a wide aperture. The lights will turn into shimmer orbs that add a dreamy effect to shots, especially portraits.

3. Use the Semi-Automatic Modes

Aperture priority mode is your friend when you photograph outdoors. This feature allows you to choose the aperture while the camera figures out all of the other settings automatically. There is also a feature called shutter priority mode which applies the same concept to your shutter speed.

These features are designed to make your life easier when trying to balance exposure. Most photographers will stick with manual mode, but in complicated conditions, it does make your settings a little easier to adjust.

4. Take Advantage of Natural Side Lighting

Sometimes the best scenes are not shot with direct lighting. For example, when you’re shooting an image that faces the south, the sun may be in the east or west. This causes an interesting effect where half your image will be illuminated while the other is shrouded in cool shadows.

Take advantage of this unique lighting to display contrast in your landscape photography scenes. It also works to display emotion in outdoor portraiture since you can work with your subject to put them in the correct position.

5. Backlighting Can Create Drama in Your Shots

cityscape showing the sun is setting behind a silhouette of an elaborate building.

Ignore every instinct that tells you not to shoot directly into the light. Of course, there are many problems with shooting directly into your light source, including lens flare, blown-out exposures, and strong contrast. However, having a strongly backlit image imparts a strong sense of bold drama in the form of a silhouette.

You may lose a lot of the detail in the foreground, but the results are undeniably powerful. A good example is to photograph a building as the sun falls behind it. Not only will you get the powerful rays of the sun beaming from behind the structure, but you’ll also have a strong, dark silhouette of the church to complement the light.

Final Thoughts

Applying the correct balance of available light, effective gear, and optimal settings will increase your chances of taking awesome photographs. It’s important to take advantage of certain times of the day when it comes to optimal lighting for an outdoor photograph. Don’t be afraid to experiment to find the sweet spot for your camera throughout the day.

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Perrin lives as a nomad in Canada and spends his time shooting landscape photography while exploring the wilderness. Throughout his career, Perrin has been a wedding, portrait, and product photographer. However, his passion always leads him back to the outdoors, where he teaches people how to photograph and interact with the natural world.
Perrin lives as a nomad in Canada and spends his time shooting landscape photography while exploring the wilderness. Throughout his career, Perrin has been a wedding, portrait, and product photographer. However, his passion always leads him back to the outdoors, where he teaches people how to photograph and interact with the natural world.
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