Natural Light, Challenges For Photography

Today, I am going to start explaining some of the effects and difficulties a photographer experiences with light out in the field. To start off, when I say “in the field” I mean anywhere I do not have a studio environment, so things that contribute to the light include lamps, sun, windows, reflective surfaces etc.

So why is using natural light a challenge? and being totally honest, the latter of the time a bad thing? Well, first we need to understand the differences in the types of light that are out there from the perspective of the camera. To keep it simple as you likely won’t be a professional, I will try and categorize them for you.

Light Bulbs

To start, all artificial lights have different colour tints!
I know, sounds crazy but its true, the reason we don’t generally notice much is our brains are very good and processing the differences.

Your typical roundish bulb has a orange/warming tint to it. This is actually fine as it operates in a fairly natural set of tones and is pretty forgiving as far as light goes when it comes to photographing people. You will even see me in such a setting go about lighting them all up to add a nice ambient light to a room I am photographing in!

Tube lighting, those you have in a kitchen or office being made up of gas give off light with tints relative to those gasses (which is another subject on its own). These colour tints are typically either of a purple or a green/lime/yellow, not that you would notice because the brain is clever processing it. BUT to a camera and a photographer these tints can and do have a detrimental effect to skin tones, even showing up imperfections worse or making people look like the have jaundice. Another effect depending on the camera settings is to see a sort of half lit scene, this is down to the cycling that the light tends to do (the buzzing you might hear).

New Lights, so energy saving, LED and various others are the worst! the other aforementioned lights are predictable when you are planning how to work around them, but all these new lights might as well be a disco setting for the camera. A glowing example of a recent commercial shoot in which LED down lighting was used in the office, which has a very violent blue to them (to my own eyes, let alone the camera!). And there is no real way to combat it as blue just never will compliment anything. And sadly its getting all too common. The only reason I know these are typically used is that they are cheap and save money, but there are others out there that are colour balanced! being flattering but also with many thinking about hitting points in the spectrum that help people with S.A.D.

Reflected Light

This is a tricky one, though easy enough to explain. Anything that light shines on, that is not super dark (like blacks) reflects light that is the same colour. So, bright light against a blue wall, you will get blue else where! Pretty obvious but it can be a problem again adding colour tints to the subject when it comes to skin tones and even skewing the colours of clothing. A big problem if its commercial work but the most common annoyance at weddings.

And now to contradict myself, it can also be an advantage! If I am in a venue with plenty of white walls (or even a neutral grey), the light bouncing off all these surfaces can create a very flattering environment for shooting. But these cases are few and far between.

Sunlight And The Great Outdoors!

Sunlight is literally the bar on which standards are set (like its a surprise). But, even outside there are frequent challenges relating to position in the sky. If the sun is in the mid summer, mid day, right above the subject it projects horrid shadows giving dark eyes, double chins, deforms shapes and perception with those. The opposite to this is a cloudy day or shade where the light is reflected from all around and becomes flattering again.

So if you see me looking frustrated on a beautiful day, you know why! the lights to harsh and too ugly.

Combating These Problems

Simple answer? USE FLASH! forget all natural light photography. Over the years I have been learning the fine details of using flash, in particular making it look as though it’s perfectly natural in an image, but at the same time adding clean light with no colour tints, being flattering to subjects and where spill off is making the area look better too.

Downside though is with this you typically get 2 different coloured areas, so say a background might be green with the tube lights while the subject is perfectly and flatteringly lit. But there is a solution, it is not uncommon to stick a colour filter on the flash that would match the ambient light, so an orange filter for the old fashioned bulbs, a green one for tube lighting, or some where in between to strike a compromise where you have both at the same time (that makes me cry).

When you cannot, or should not use flash? well you can take 2 methods of attack, one is to fill the ugly shadows with a reflector (call the assistant), using the light that is around. Or the other one is to diffuse the light that is there like the clouds do. The problem with this is again, you need an assistant! and depending on what you are shooting you can some times end up with a large logistical movement to make it work. A class example is photography of models on the beach. You will have seen these in magazines and catalogues, and the trick they use it to have what I can describe as a giant shower curtain, in a large box frame over the model doing the work the clouds would do, on that small area of the beach where the model is posed.
And whoala! flattering image of the model and the goods on a beach with a beautiful blue sky behind.

As you can tell by my use of the work “logistics” though, for the latter of work where you do not have a team this impractical and a considerable consumer of time. And time is money!


As you can gather by now, I prefer flash, its practical, I can carry it around and set it up and take it down with ease when working on location.

But what I really hope is that any one of my clients reading this will now be better informed on the realities of “natural light photography”, and hopefully you will go away and see the world around you and what challenges a photographer faces in these situations.

All I ask, is if you find this has been useful that you link back to this page and share it around.