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6 Tips for Better Images In Natural Light

How to use camera controls to set the right tone and refine the message you’re trying to communicate

Telling stories is at the heart of photography, and as photographers we love to tell stories! There are many different languages spoken around the globe, but there is one universal language we all speak: ambient light. Photographer or not, we each experience light in its many forms, quantities and colors in our everyday lives. 

In our photographs we use light to emphasize our star—the subject of our photograph. From there we set the stage for the rest of the story with the other elements in our photograph, with or without light. We connect all the dots, move the eye through the frame and tell our story with one key ingredient: light.

Here are six tips on how to use natural light for maximum impact in our photographs.  

#1 Underexpose to Brilliance

Let’s start with something easy that brings giant rewards. Underexposing by just 1/3 stop instantly saturates colors that can lead to big impact. At the same time it pushes the blacks on the edge to a deep black. Since the mind’s eye looks for black as a cornerstone to our color perception, this underexposure can make photographs appear even more colorful. This deep black effect also tricks the eye to see things even sharper than they already are. Although this simple trick will not work every time, there are several factors that determine if it’s right or not—depending on the story you want to tell, where the subject is in the frame in relation to the other elements you’ve included and the emotion you want to communicate. There is a reason that in the days of Kodachrome many rated their ASA (now known as ISO) to 80 rather than 64. Underexposure can be a great friend of visual storytellers and light, naturally! 

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#2 Light and Bright is Where it Starts

Our mind’s eye is predisposed to react to certain visual stimulation in predictable ways. The number one thing we are all subconsciously attracted to is light and bright elements (especially when they are at the top of the frame). You could say that our mind’s eye is like the proverbial, “moth drawn to a flame” when it comes to light and brightness, which is something we can use to improve our visual storytelling. Knowing this aspect of our mind’s eye, using light to move the eye right to the subject and then around the frame makes it simple for the viewer to see the story we’re telling. Similarly, if we see light and bright and it takes the eye away from the subject, we can do what it takes to eliminate that brightness. This does not mean that light and bright is required to make a great photograph, it’s just one of many ways we can use light naturally in the visual storytelling process.

#3 We Do Love Our Color

Humans love color and we are drawn to it—be it full spectrum or limited to the gray scale, black and white, etcetera. Color is a major aspect of light. As visual storytellers, the psychology of color is a key component of our message, moving the eye and heart, and white balance helps us to communicate clearly. Tackling white balance at the point of capture often leaves photographers feeling like they have fallen down a rabbit hole, but it is essential in moving your photography forward and completing your storytelling!

If you get the white balance correct—or as close to correct as you can—at the point of capture, you will have more range of light to work with in post. For a place to begin exploring how to get white balance correct in camera (because we don’t master this in a day), I recommend that when you see red in the sky you should go to the Cloudy white balance setting. Cloudy equals 6000k and it is a killer place to start with the red end of the light spectrum. White Balance is a simple yet powerful tool that brings impact to the light in your photographs.

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#4 Understanding the Range of Light

Our mind’s eye is an incredibly powerful visual receptor, as we can move from light source to light source and see all the changes without doing a single thing. In one glance our vision can take in up to 14 stops of light, which is more than most cameras. That range of light is important to understand as it can be used to a photographer’s advantage. Teaching yourself to see this range of light is key, and it’s easier than you might think. For example, you can place your hand in the light and if you can easily see the cracks in your skin in the shadow areas you have less than a five-stop range of light. If your shadow on the ground is longer than you are tall, you probably have less than five stops of light. If you look at a shadow and its edge has a soft and fuzzy (soft light) outline, you probably have a five-stop or less range of light. 

Since last December, my go-to camera has been the Nikon Z9 and I tend to pair it with a NIKKOR Z 14-24mm f/2.8 S or 24-120mm f/4 S for everyday shooting. This mighty fine camera has features that can also help you see the range of light. If you see what I affectionately call “blinkies” or “zebras” when you turn your Highlight Warning on, you know at that exact place in your photograph you have most likely lost information. That’s because that “blinkie” display light is beyond the five-stop range your digital camera can capture. Just because you have “blinkies” doesn’t mean you have problems, though. For example, if it brings your eye to the subject it could be good. But if it takes the eye away from the subject it could be bad. The range of light is part of every photograph we take, so understanding it is very important.

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#5 Mystery is a Good Thing 

When we give the viewer of our photograph a mystery to solve, we’ve grabbed their attention. It’s then on us as the photographer to help them uncover it, and one way of accomplishing this is with light. We can start by embracing shadows—understanding the range of light permits us to use shadows that we can see into with our eyes even if the camera cannot. We can take details we don’t want the viewer to see and hide them in shadows by bringing texture to an element with the black of shadows. We can tell the time of day with that long shadow and even imply the heat of day with that black shadow. 

In this process we use light and bright to bring the viewer’s eye right to the subject, and we can then use color through white balance to wrap the subject however we want. Then we use the range of light to finish the storytelling and move the eye around the frame using black to eliminate some elements and highlight others. 

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#6 Exposure = Emotion

Using light to ignite emotion in the heartstrings of your viewer is a very powerful tool. A simple example is when you are photographing a landscape with puffy clouds floating by. If you want to say it’s a beautiful, sunny day, you might expose normally at zero exposure compensation. If a storm is brewing, you might underexpose by 1/3 of a stop. We can take the same scene and say the storm is ripping by simply underexposing one or more stops. This is one of my favorite tricks, using exposure to express emotion. 

Photography is all about recording memories. Some are happy and some are not, but how we communicate those visual memories to others is accomplished through exposure. When you combine this knowledge of “exposure equals emotion” with “light and bright,” our love of color, “range of light” and mystery, photographers can take their visual storytelling to a whole new level, reaching out and grabbing the hearts of viewers. 

About Moose Peterson

Moose’s true passion has always been, and remains, photographing the life history of our endangered wildlife and wild places. Since 1981 he and his wife, Sharon, have dedicated their lives to this pursuit. Educating the public about our wild heritage is their hallmark.

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In recent years Moose has added aviation photography to his pursuits with the same goal of preserving our flying history, pictorially and orally for future generations. Along the way Moose has been honored for his photographic passion: As a Nikon Legend Behind the Lens, recipient of the John Muir Conservation Award, and Research Associate with the Endangered Species Recovery Program, just to name a few. He was also part of Epson’s Finish Strong ad campaign.

Moose shares his knowledge through his writing, being published in over 133 magazines worldwide and the author of 28 books including his latest, Takeoff, and the best seller, Captured.

To learn more about Moose Peterson, visit his website at moosepeterson.com. Stay up-to-date on his latest aviation photography initiative, N3N-3 Restoration Project, at warbirdimages.com. Follow Moose on Instagram @moosepeterson.

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All photographs © Moose Peterson

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