The Sun is the Ultimate Light Source

The Sun and The Photographer

The sun is the ultimate lighting source for photographers, only many of us don’t realize it. We become so enamored with the gadgetry of photo equipment that we tend to forget about the simplicity of discovering something standing right next to us. Photographers simply love the beauty of technology, machined metal to thousands of an inch tolerances, and touch screen displays. Now I am not saying grabbing a set of Profoto Proheads or mastering the use of TTL flash for a project isn’t the way to go, but I think photographers in general, myself included, have a knack for making something like lighting a subject more complex than it really needs to be.

The sun is the ultimate lighting source for photographers, and don’t forget this little detail, it’s absolutely FREE to use. Every day, the sun will rise and the sun will set, at very specific times. It won’t get lost in the mail. It doesn’t need a tracking number. And a careless so and so didn’t break it. So, how do we use it to its fullest potential.

The Sun is All About Light

We all know that without light there isn’t going to be a photograph. That being said, there are many different qualities of light and different directions to light – all of which we have access to utilizing the sun as our source. Every photographer strives to create with the most dramatic and vivid light which occurs nearest to sunrise and sunset, but many of us forget about additional aspects of the sun that we can use to our advantage. Let’s think about how we can use the sun to activate a mood or spark an emotion in our photographs. We are going to begin by analyzing the different directions of light and how you can use the direction of light from the sun to highlight or hide varying elements in your photograph.

Lighting Directions from the Sun

The Sun is the Ultimate Light Source by Jay Goodrich
Frontlight Example

Frontlight is when sun is shining from directly behind you. It lights up whatever you are looking at. It typically lights up everything with few shadows being seen because those shadows are falling behind the layers of what’s in front of you. The image above highlights Mount Moran in Grand Teton National Park at sunrise. Notice that where the sun is shining there is little to no shadow information. This is also a great direction of light to use when illuminating a subject’s eyes.

The Sun is the Ultimate Light Source by Jay Goodrich
Sidelight Example

Sidelight occurs when the sun is not just illuminating your subject from the side, but could also be shining directly down on your subject from above (downlighting) or could be lighting your subject from below in the form of uplighting. Regardless, all three of these lighting directions are sidelight. Only part of your subject is being lit by the light. This type of lighting creates extremely dramatic shadow and highlight contrast. We could rotate the illustration above in any direction and the lighting form would still cast part of the subject matter in shadow. The key to side light is the drama that it creates within a scene.

The Sun is the Ultimate Light Source by Jay Goodrich
Backlight Example

Backlight happens when the sun is directly behind your subject. In the example photo above notice how the sun is in the frame. By choosing to include it, there is another really cool effect in play here – fringe light. Also look at how the fur on the guanacos is outlining, brighter, and thus better illustrating the form of the animals. Because the fringe of the animals fur is less dense than its body, that fur takes on this fringe effect. If the sun were below the horizon the fringe effect would not occur and at that point we would have a straight silhouette.

Quality of Light from the Sun

Now that we have discussed the direction of light. We need to begin to think about the quality of light. The photo below obviously highlights the optimal light available to any photographer in any situation – sunset from where I lived in Colorado. So that’s a great start, but have you thought about other types of lighting situations we can use from the sun?

Other Light Situations

How about overcast light? It can make your fall foliage imagery pop with a color saturation that can’t be seen when the sun is casting shadows across those locations. If we are shooting out in mid-day light we can always look for subject matter in the shade or grab a diffuser to create your own shade – this is a great time to explore macro compositions as well. If shade is not available to us during mid-day hours, what about taking a photo and using that strong contrast to convert the image to black & white. And finally, don’t forget to head out in bad weather when it rains as well; foggy, misty, and wet conditions add saturation and drama. Let’s look at some of these types of light in more detail.

The Sun is the Ultimate Light Source by Jay Goodrich
Optimal Light

Optimal light is just that – the best, most spectacular light in existence. You cannot get any better. While many photographers think it is a hard lighting scenario to photograph, it is actually the easiest. You do not have to search for your subject it is right there, lit up in your face. The main issue is that optimal light doesn’t always occur and it doesn’t really happen when the atmosphere is devoid of clouds or moisture either. This all means that you won’t get this opportunity as often as you like no matter how many sunrises you wakeup early for.

The Sun is the Ultimate Light Source by Jay Goodrich
Overcast Light

Many beginners believe that overcast light should be avoided. However, overcast days allow for hours of shooting with very balanced and even shadows. This in turn allows colors to pop. I love overcast days in autumn. Combine this quality of light with a polarizer to remove the shine on leaves and your images just jump right off of the page.

The Sun is the Ultimate Light Source by Jay Goodrich

What do you do on a cloudless day when your stomach is grumbling for food at high noon and you believe that there are no subjects in the vicinity. You forget about lunch. Then you need to find the shaded areas of your environment. Shade essentially gives us overcast light on a much smaller scale. You can grab your macro lens or add diopters and extension tubes to any lens, to get in close to supporting story subject matter. Even though the above image looks like it is huge, it easily would fit into a single square foot area. I just managed to discover it at my feet, when everything else was less than inspiring as I was yearning for food. Again don’t forget about creating shade using a diffuser.

The Sun is the Ultimate Light Source by Jay Goodrich
Midday Light

The next option to help forget those afternoon hunger pains is a chance encounter scenario. This scenario tends to happen most summer days in then western mountain states of the U.S. in the form of thunderstorms. When this effect occurs we get the ability to shoot high contrast shadow and highlight scenes. My personal opinion is that these images look best when rendered into black and white, but you can make up your own mind on how to process them.

The Sun is the Ultimate Light Source by Jay Goodrich

It’s time to grab some protective gear to cover your lens and camera body! How many of you are afraid of heading out with your camera in the rain? Weather can create an even greater drama than our optimal lighting conditions. Especially in the fall or winter. In autumn we have mist and fog that builds amazing layering effects in photos. In winter we have the component of wind driven snow to add to the drama of a photo. You just have to cover up your camera and head out to photograph when many do not.

Final Thoughts

When using the sun as your main lighting source you can discover some amazing photographic opportunities. Focus on what is happening to the direction and quality of light the sun is producing within your environment. From there choose an appropriate subject to yield a strong photograph. The more you practice, the more finite details you will discover when using the sun as your main lighting source.

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