How to simulate natural light for photography

Photo By Lightbridge CRLS using CRLS

Natural light may be beautiful (and free), but, sadly, it doesn’t care about our schedules. No matter how much you plead for the sun to stay, that golden hour is golden going, going - gone! But that doesn’t mean you have to pack up your kit and bide your time.

There are myriad creative methods of simulating various forms of sunlight for natural light photography - sans sun. With the right gear and technique, you don’t have to wait around for perfect natural moments to fall into your lap… you can create them whenever you want.

In this article, we explore 10 of the best ways to synthesise sunlight for photography, producing natural aesthetics with tools that are anything but.

1.    Understand the “quality” of natural light

Although not necessarily true when used creatively, artificial light is typically categorised as hard or harsh light. There are a few reasons for this:

  • The sources of artificial light are much smaller and produce concentrated beams. 
  • These powerful beams create stark contrast and dense shadows with sharp outlines.
  • Artificial light is positioned close to your subject, limiting diffusion.

Natural light, on the other hand, with its large, distant source, is often celebrated for its soft qualities and producing a more nuanced play of shadows. The exception to this rule is direct sunlight when the sun reaches full intensity at noon.

2.    Coordinate colour temperature with direction

As the sun wheels through the daytime sky, light waves interact with varying densities of atmospheric particles, producing different hues, otherwise known as colour temperature.

When the sun is quite high in the sky, its electromagnetic waves travel through the Earth’s atmosphere head-on. At this point, the interaction between particulate matter and light waves is minimal, and thus, the light is a cooler shade when it reaches us.

By contrast, when the sun is lower in the sky, lightwaves must pass through the Earth’s atmosphere at an angle - a much longer journey. During this diagonal slog through our atmosphere, significantly more interactions with particulate matter take place, heavily modifying the light. When it reaches us, it has a warmer shade, going through yellow, orange, and sometimes even red phases the closer to the horizon it gets.

With this in mind, truly believable natural light photography using only electric lights requires the coordination of colour temperature and the direction of your lighting.

3.    Light your subject at an angle

Using a flash head isn't the best choice when you want to mimic natural light. If you illuminate your subjects directly with a flash, it erases shadows entirely, which can flatten the scene. Without shadows, there's no contrast or depth, which removes the natural sense of dimension in the photograph.

Natural light hits objects at interesting angles, creating an intriguing theatre of shadows that brings the subject to life. Shadows are the sun’s signature, so if you’re hoping to forge it passably, how and where shadows fall should be a key consideration.

Try lighting your subjects from an angle, observing the difference it makes to the shadows. For portraits, some photographers set up two lights (often strobe lights) at roughly 45-degree angles and position them on either side of the camera.

It may seem counterintuitive to add another light when trying to soften things up, but they keep one another in check, removing singular directionality and ensuring a balanced and mildly diffuse aesthetic.

Nanlux Lighting Setup
4.    Using the right photography lighting

High-quality artificial photography lighting sources such as HMI (Hydrargyrum Medium-Arc Iodide) and LED (Light-Emitting Diode) lights are commonly used to replicate the qualities of natural daylight.

HMI lights are favoured for their ability to produce a colour temperature close to daylight, typically around 5600 Kelvin. They emit a powerful, flicker-free light that closely resembles the quality of sunlight, making them ideal for simulating natural daylight conditions in both indoor and outdoor settings. Additionally, HMIs offer excellent colour rendering properties, ensuring that the colours in the photograph appear natural and true to life.

LED lights have also become popular choices for daylight simulation in photography due to their energy efficiency, versatility, and controllability. LED panels can be adjusted to various colour temperatures, allowing photographers to match the colour temperature of daylight precisely. Additionally, LED lights offer the advantage of being dimmable and portable, making them well-suited for on-location shoots or situations where space and power may be limited.

5.    Diffusing the light

Sunlight undergoes a continual diffusion process, with clouds and other atmospheric particles spreading the electromagnetic waves out as they journey to Earth. This results in the soft, low-contrast effect so typical of natural light.

You can mimic this process by placing a light diffuser in front of your artificial light source.

Different textiles have different diffusive properties, so it pays to experiment with a few and see which you prefer for each shoot:

  • Paper: Some like to use sheets of kitchen roll, as it’s affordable and can be layered to increase the rate of diffusion. However, it's best not to rely on such delicate material, particularly if you’ll be travelling with your kit between home, studios, and shoot locations.
  • Cotton bedsheet: Bedsheets are another cost-effective solution for basic diffusion, and they’re much sturdier than paper. Due to the size options available, they're great for diffusing larger light sources - or multiple smaller light sources simultaneously.
  • Muslin: Muslin is another hard-wearing and portable choice for diffusion. We like muslin for the evenness of the glow it produces. It’s also affordable, easily layered up, and can serve multiple purposes in a studio setting.
  • Silk: Silk diffusers are another popular option. The sheen of the material adds a natural warmth to artificial light and can liven up skin tones with a subtle glow - similar to the effect of early morning sun through a window.

White silk has stronger diffusive properties than black, so it pays to be discerning when choosing.

•    Grid cloth: Grid cloth typically isn’t used as a diffuser, but it’s fantastic for controlling the spill of light around the edges of a diffuser. We’d recommend keeping plenty to hand.

Bleached vs. unbleached diffusers

You’ll come across both bleached and unbleached fabrics for photographic diffusion. There are two things to note here:

  1.  The fibres of bleached materials are more densely packed together, creating a more diffused look.
  2.  Unbleached fabrics add a warm hue to the light, while bleached fabrics do not. As such, for replicating a low morning or evening sun, unbleached fabrics are the diffuser to go for. For replicating light from the sun when it’s higher in the sky (just before or just after midday), bleached fabrics are your best bet.

Softboxes for diffusion

Softboxes consist of a fabric light diffuser stretched over a frame, often in the shape of a box or rectangle, with an internal reflective surface.

Softboxes are commonly used to simulate the soft, even lighting conditions of an overcast sky, or even light shade within a more brightly lit space.

For a more creative approach, we recommend using softboxes to achieve catchlights in the eyes of a subject that mimic the appearance of natural light sources, such as windows or skylights.

Side note: For the uninitiated, catchlights are small reflections of the light source that add depth and sparkle to the eyes, making them appear more lively and engaging in portraits.

Softboxes are often light source specific, but you’ll find the right one for your equipment and vision in our expansive lighting accessories collection.

6.    Create photic ricochet

Natural light is almost always second-hand, a hand-me-down passed on to us via a thread of preliminary interactions.

Unless you’re outside with a clear line of sight to the sun or moon, before reaching us, light is bouncing all over the place like a stray bullet in a Western showdown. It ricochets off walls, ceilings, backdrops, objects… you name it. When it finally reaches us, it’s exhausted, which is why it has a softer impact and produces more diffuse shadows.

You can recreate this by purposefully aiming your directional lights away from your subject and experimenting with rebound. Do bear in mind, however, that coloured objects stain the reflecting light, so choose your surfaces wisely.


7.    Use reflectors

You can bounce light off more than walls!

Using reflectors, you can redirect smaller shapes of strong light onto your subject. These shapes cut into more subtle lighting, creating the effect of eye-pleasing natural artefacts, such as sunlight beaming through a window pane or dappled light filtered through tree canopies.

Needless to say, mirrors can be of service in this department, especially if you want to limit diffusion when redirecting light, but there are plenty of other options to play around with.

Silk offers a good balance between reflection and diffusion, while something like the Griffolyn Black/White reflector is perfect for creating a softer lighting effect - think twilight with partial cloud cover.

For greater flexibility and unparalleled naturality, we’d recommend using a full reflector set like the Lightbridge CRLS Drive Kit. This set includes 4 reflectors with varying degrees of diffusion. Each reflector comes in a pack of four different sizes for ease of use with a variety of different artificial light sources.

8.    Observe the concept of motivated light

In photography, "motivated light" refers to the idea that light sources within a scene should appear to have a logical or believable origin. This concept is crucial for creating compelling photographs that evoke the feeling of being immersed in a natural, well-lit environment.

For example, if using artificial lighting indoors, you might position the lights strategically to mimic the effect of sunlight streaming through a window or bouncing off a wall.

By considering the direction, intensity, and quality of light within the scene, you can ensure that the artificial light blends seamlessly with any ambient light, creating cohesive and convincing illumination. 

9.    Find the right white balance

When deciding how to make artificial light look natural, setting your camera’s white balance correctly should always be a priority.

White balance refers to the adjustment of colour temperature in your camera to ensure that white objects appear white, regardless of the lighting conditions.

By adjusting the white balance settings on your camera, you can compensate for the jarring colour temperature and cast of artificial lighting, making it appear warmer or cooler to match the natural lighting conditions you're trying to simulate.

Most modern cameras feature auto-white balance, and this tends to work well when shooting outdoors in natural light. However, when working indoors with artificial light, we’d recommend dialling in your white balance manually to get it just right.

10.    Shoot RAW

Ideally, you’ll be able to manufacture the natural lighting you have in mind before you shoot - but let’s not forget about post!

With the right software and skills, you can manipulate the colour temperature of your stills to your liking. However, you’ll need to shoot in RAW mode to ensure full flexibility in post-production.

JPEG is a highly compressed file type, meaning minor data is stripped away to reduce the file size for ease of storage, a loss of fidelity that stunts your editorial parameters.

Shooting in RAW, on the other hand, captures and stores images complete with every detail observed by your camera’s sensor, and the more data you have to work with in post, the more granular your adjustments can be.

Simulate sunlight with Direct Digital

One of the most enticing things about natural light is that it’s constantly morphing with the weather, time of day, and your location, enabling the capture of images with a diverse array of moods, textures and atmospheres.

However, for professional photographers with professional schedules, natural light isn’t always good for business, and knowing how to simulate it can significantly boost productivity and the quality of your shots.

At Direct Digital, we stock all the pro-grade rental equipment you need to shoot stunning stills that anyone would swear were sunlit - from cameras to light sources, diffusers and beyond. Contact us today for more information about our equipment and how it can help you bring your sun-drenched vision to life.


Main Image Credit: Lightbridge