LIGHTING TECHNIQUES

8 tips for making the most of available light

Light is the most essential element of every photo we take. Find out how to seek out the best light – whether that's natural or artificial – and the setup you need to capture it.
A Canon EOS R6 camera shoots an image of a child holding balloons in his hand with the sun setting in the background.

When lighting conditions work in harmony with the scene or subject in front of you, the results can be sensational. Learning how to recognise the best available light source, whether that be natural light or artificial, can bring huge benefits. Best of all, you don't need an expensive lighting kit to make the most of it. All you need is an eye for good light. Once you start looking, you'll find it's all around.

Here are eight tips for mastering shooting in available light.

1. Use the time of day to your advantage

A boat cruises along at midday on the Douro River in Porto, Portugal. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM lens.

At noon on a clear day, the sunlight is top-down, cool in colour and creates harsh shadows over the Porto riverfront. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM lens at 44mm, 1/125 sec, f/10 and ISO100.

The sun sets over the Douro River in Porto, Portugal. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM lens.

Close to dusk, the low angle of sunlight is warmer, softer and more atmospheric. The light carves out details, emphasising the surroundings with an appealing play of highlights and shade. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM lens at 24mm, 1/100 sec, f/10 and ISO640.

The earth is always spinning, so the angle and quality of natural light changes all the time. At midday, under a bright sun in a clear sky, the light will be top-down and hard, producing images with strong contrast. Photographers tend to dislike this kind of light, but it can work if the aim is to make the sunlight part of the scene.

When the sun dips lower in the sky, the light has to travel through more of the Earth's atmosphere. Lower wavelengths on the colour spectrum, such as blue and violet, are scattered by particles in the atmosphere, so colours become softer and warmer. This is why evening light and sunsets are vibrant reds and yellows, and why the time just after the sun rises and just before it sets is known as the golden hour.

2. Make the most of the weather conditions

Bare trees shrouded in blue mist. Taken on a Canon EOS RP with a Canon RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM lens.

Clouds and mist will soften and diffuse the natural light for moody results. Taken on a Canon EOS RP with a Canon RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM lens at 1/160 sec, f/7.1 and ISO250.

A man stands in a forest on a wintry day, with his Canon camera set up on a tripod.

The hazy light on a wintry morning is ideal for capturing atmospheric shots of countryside scenes.

Weather conditions have a big impact on the quality of natural light. On an overcast day, clouds will diffuse the sunlight and shadows will become less severe. Similarly, mist and rain can further soften and cool the light.

The time of year also plays a part. It depends on where you are in the world, but generally in winter, the tilt of the earth means the sun is farther away, making the angle of light more acute. So even though the days are shorter, we effectively have more directional light to work with. On the other hand, during the summer, the sun reaches a higher apogee in the sky, so it's more top-down and less photo-friendly during the hours around noon.

"Your choice of settings can be more complicated to manage in winter, when shooting snow or cloudy skies," explains Canon Ambassador Sebastien Devaud. "It's better to increase your exposure a little, compared to the auto exposure setting, so the snow or the sky appear more white than grey. Shooting in black and white is a good way to enhance the dramatic side of this season, while fog, mist, low cloud or water can also add a particular mood to winter shots."

3. Make use of available light for portraits

A portrait, lit from the side and taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens, of a person with curly blonde hair looking directly at the camera.

Positioning your subject next to a large window or skylight is an ideal way to harness available light. A bay window to the left of the camera here creates an appealing bank of soft, natural light. You could try experimenting with drapes or netting to diffuse the light for the desired effect. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens at 1/200 sec, f/2.8 and ISO500.

A ballet dancer balances on one leg with her arms outstretched as sunlight streams through the shutters in front of her. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens.

The bright sunshine streaming through the shutters here has been used to more dramatic effect, forming a crucial element of the image. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM lens at 1/1500 sec, f/2 and ISO200. © Javier Cortes - Canon Ambassador

In most indoor environments, there are likely to be pockets of lovely natural light for you to capture. A window offers a bank of soft lighting akin to a studio softbox. So if you're shooting people inside, ask them to move closer to a window and turn off any artificial lighting.

You could also use a reflector to bounce the light from outdoors back towards your subject. A reflector can be something as simple as a large piece of white card, or tin foil. The reflector will create soft and natural light, which you can angle and direct just as if you were aiming a flash.

A child in a field resting his arm on a wooden post. The direct sunlight is casting harsh shadows on his face. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens.

A simple reflector can be useful for portraits on sunny days. Here, direct sunlight creates harsh shadows. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens at 1/250 sec, f/5.6 and ISO100.

A child in a field resting his arm on a wooden post. A reflector has been used to soften the light. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens.

In this image, the reflector is used to bounce light into the shadows and reduce contrast. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens at 1/250 sec, f/5.6 and ISO100.

Quality of light makes a big difference to your outdoor portraits. Bright sunlight can be rather unkind to faces as it creates harsh shadows and causes subjects to squint. Overcast conditions are perfect, as the soft light reduces shadows.

If the sun is shining and you can't wait for cloud cover, you could try shooting portraits in the shade of a tree or a building, as the light is softer and kinder to faces. Or you could try controlling the light with a reflector, either by shading the subject, bouncing light into the shadows, or using a diffusion panel. An efficient and affordable 5-in-1 reflector is ideal. Consider the model's skin tone when choosing a reflector colour.

A child in a field resting his arm on a wooden post. A reflector has been used to shade his face. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens.

Here, the reflector has been used to shade the face from the sun for softer results. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens at 1/250 sec, f/5.6 and ISO640.

A child in a field resting his arm on a wooden post. A diffusion panel has been used to soften the sunlight. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens.

In comparison, the diffusion panel from a 5-in-1 reflector softens the sunlight for a more balanced portrait. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM lens at 1/250 sec, f/5.6 and ISO100.

4. Use low light to your advantage

A lone tree on a hillside, silhouetted against a blue sky at twilight. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM lens.

The In-Body Image Stabilisation (IBIS) in EOS R System cameras such as the EOS R6 allows you to shoot handheld images in low light at shutter speeds as slow as a couple of seconds. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM lens at 27mm, 2 sec, f/11 and ISO100.

As the sun drops below the horizon, the remaining natural light takes on the cool blue colours of twilight. This can be an opportunistic time to go out with your camera. But because the light levels are so low, you need a camera with good low-light performance. Cameras with larger sensors are capable of gathering more of the dwindling natural light, especially when used in combination with a lens that has a wide maximum aperture.

At twilight, you may need to drop your shutter speed to allow more light through to your camera's sensor. Canon's EOS R System mirrorless cameras offer game-changing IBIS, so you can handhold the camera for exposures of a second or more without having to worry about camera shake ruining the shot.

5. Choose the best settings for your surroundings

A close-up of a Canon 50mm lens attached to a Canon EOS R6.

Lenses with a wider or 'faster' aperture, such as the Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM or the RF 24mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM, are ideal for low-light photography.

The touchscreen of a Canon EOS R6 showing Manual mode settings.

Try using Manual (M) mode with Auto ISO for natural light images so you have control over both the shutter speed and aperture.

If you're comfortable setting your aperture and shutter speed, then one of the best exposure modes for shooting in natural light is Manual (M) mode with Auto ISO. This way, the camera works out the best ISO for the available light. A good general exposure setting in daylight is shutter speed 1/200 sec, aperture f/8 and ISO Auto. In the evening, when the light levels are lower, open the aperture to f/2.8 or whatever is widest to keep the ISO levels down for sharper, less noisy shots. This is where a lens with a fast maximum aperture, such as the Canon RF 50mm F1.8 STM, proves invaluable.

Low light often means shooting with a high ISO, which can lead to increased image noise. Autofocus can also be more challenging. But when using a camera with good low-light performance, such as the Canon EOS R6 or EOS R7, you can still get clean results with high ISOs, like 3200 or more. Additionally, the class-leading autofocus system works in almost total darkness.

6. Match white balance to temperature conditions

The touchscreen on the back of a Canon camera displaying pink flowers and the camera mode set to Cloudy.

Match your white balance settings to the conditions so that the colours are accurate.

As well as the quality of natural light, we also need to think about the colour. This can change throughout the day. In the morning, it's quite warm. At midday, it's cooler, and in the evening, it becomes warm again. We measure this in degrees Kelvin, and the shift can change from 2000K at dawn to 7000K in full daylight.

Colours can also become cooler if you're in the shade or under cloud cover. As such, set your white balance to match the conditions using one of the preset modes. If in doubt, shoot in RAW format, as you can choose any white balance afterwards when editing your images in RAW processing and photo editing software such as Canon's free Digital Photo Professional.

7. Shoot long exposures after dark

A tall tree stands alone at twilight, with an expansive blue sky behind it. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM lens.

A long exposure blurs the slow-moving clouds here. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM lens at 29mm, 137 sec, f/22 and ISO100.

A Canon camera pointing at a lone tree alongside a smartphone displaying the Canon Camera Connect app.

You can use the Canon Camera Connect app to start and stop bulb exposures with your phone; it's that simple.

Positioning your camera on a stable surface or on a tripod enables you to capture scenes in twilight or even by moonlight, as it means you can shoot with very slow shutter speeds that run to several seconds or more. If you pair your camera with the Canon Camera Connect app, you can use your phone to trigger the shutter, start and stop Bulb exposures, and shoot remotely. This is useful if your camera is in a position where it's difficult for you to see the LCD screen, or for shots where even the slightest movement of the camera would cause blur or spoil the effect.

8. Be mindful of your subject and your surroundings

A child sitting on a fence holding a bunch of balloons silhouetted against the setting sun. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM lens.

Use negative exposure compensation to underexpose the foreground for bold silhouettes against the setting sun. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 24-105mm F4-7.1 IS STM lens at 24mm, 1/250 sec, f/16 and ISO100.

An image shot in low light of a model in a ruffled collar posing in front of blurred streetlights. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 85mm F1.2L USM DS lens.

The blurred streetlights provide an atmospheric backdrop for this low-light portrait. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 85mm F1.2L USM DS lens at 1/160 sec, f/1.2 and ISO800.

Different qualities of natural light can suit certain subjects. Subtle window light, for example, can be ideal for moody, low-key portraits. In contrast, direct sunlight is brilliant for showcasing vibrant colours and textures such as fur or feathers in wildlife photography. Long shadows can work brilliantly for architectural and street scenes, while backlighting from a sunset is ideal for capturing silhouettes against the vibrant sky.

You can also make the most of any artificial light that's available, such as streetlights, desk lamps or the glow from a bonfire or fire pit.

There's a wonderful variety of available light out there, so whenever you're out and about with your camera, ask yourself: is the light hard or soft, strong or weak, warm or cool, top-down or side-on? Get to grips with these lighting fundamentals and you can be confident your photos will turn out great, regardless of the conditions.



Written by James Paterson

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