34 min read

13 Tips to Improve Your Natural Light Portrait Photography

34 min read

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natural light portrait.
Quick summary

This guide provides practical tips for improving natural light portraits, covering various lighting scenarios, from hard to soft light, front to backlighting, and even the blue and golden hours. It highlights the significance of shadows, choosing suitable locations, and utilizing reflectors. It also discusses the impact of color casts and the importance of post-processing to match the desired mood. Ultimately, the guide encourages photographers to work harmoniously with natural light to make captivating and character-rich portraits.

I love making natural light portraits. It’s a genre of photography that used to scare me but that I have come to enjoy more than most others.

Natural light portraits are photographs of people or animals, making use of only the available or ambient light. There’s no flash, studio strobe, or any form of continuous light added to the subject.

When I first worked in the editorial photography department at a newspaper, I had to learn quickly to be able to make natural light portraits. I was afraid of photographing people and of using a flash. Overcoming my fear of taking portraits was necessary if I wanted to keep my job. Most photos in the newspaper had at least one person in them. Making the most of natural light was also imperative. I always had to return from an assignment with a publishable photo.

Learning to use a flash was not so vital. I discovered when I observed the light I could make a portrait photo in most locations. The key was managing how I positioned my subject if I had that option. If not, then I had to make do. Taking an accurate light meter reading and adjusting my exposure well returned pleasing results.

In this article about making portraits in natural light, I want to share with you a selection of the most practical tips I’ve learned. I hope these will inspire you to see the light and know how to make the best use of it to create the most wonderful portraits.

Portrait of a woman with a baby elephant in natural light.

Portrait Photography That’s All About the Light

This guide is all about the light and how best to make use of it, whether it’s hard, with harsh, dark shadows, or whether it’s soft and gentle coming through a window or in the open shade outdoors.

Here are some tips that will help you best use the light to create mood and atmosphere in your portrait photography.

YouTube video

1. Decide the Mood, then Choose Your Light

The style of light illuminating your subject has a huge influence on the mood of a portrait. 

Hard light produces harsh shadows. This type of light can evoke dark feelings or exuberant ones. But it will rarely produce a gentle, loving feeling. Soft light tends to produce a more chill atmosphere. This is better for bridal portraits and at any time you want to capture peaceful style portraits.

Look at the light before taking portraits and decide what mood it could evoke. Will this best fit with what you and your subject want? If not, then decide what you can do to achieve the most effective lighting.

Changing where your model is often affects how they are illuminated. If you’re shooting indoors, look for window light. Either direct sun or filtered, depending on the mood you want to create. When taking portraits outdoors, think about posing your model in full sunshine or in the shade. Watch how the light on their face changes the deeper they move into the shade.

To achieve an even light on a person’s face, I’ll ask them to stand close to where the shaded area meets a sunlit area. This is where the light is bright, but the shadows are soft. When the sun is bouncing off the pavement or a nearby wall, it also provides a fill light. This can reduce any shadows even more.

My Examples

I used this technique when taking the photo above of the young woman with the elephant. It was a very bright, sunny day. There was a lot of general clutter in the background and areas of bright light. So I used my 105mm lens and came in close so the background I could see was all in the shade. I knew it would be underexposed when I took a spot meter reading from her face. 

The pavement in front of her was white and in full sun. It was bouncing a lot of light into her face providing a bright, shadowless effect.

For the photo of the young ballerina below, I got her to stand near the window. The sun was on the other side of the building, so the light was very soft. It added to the contemplative look I wanted.

Both these photos use indirect, filtered sunlight. Both have very different moods.

black and white portrait of a ballerina.

2. Use Hard Light for Happy or Melancholic Portraits

Hard light produces harsh shadows and is generally more dramatic. Usually, shadows appear around the eyes and nose of a portrait subject. How you position a model’s face in relation to the direction of the light determines where these shadows fall. How you manage your exposure settings influences their density.

Exposing for the highlights often means you will see no detail in the shadows. This can create feelings of melancholy and evoke a sense of mystery. Using shadows in this manner means a viewer must guess what’s in the areas they cannot see. Most will not consciously think about it as our brains fill in what we cannot see with what we expect to see. However, there’s always that touch of subconscious uncertainty.

Setting your exposure for darker areas means the highlights are brighter. This often creates a lighter, more joyful atmosphere in portrait photography. Think of taking portraits during a beach holiday, at a parade, or anywhere with a lively atmosphere. You’ll want your photos to reflect this. Managing your exposure well you can capture this style of photo in bright sunshine.

I often turn my subjects so they are backlit. Or position myself where the people I am photographing have the sun behind them, as in the photo below. Taking a spot meter reading from someone’s face means I can set my exposure so their skin looks good. This may mean some parts of the image are overexposed, but skin tone is most important. Using this technique the shadows will not be too dark and the mood will remain jovial. This is how you backlight a portrait. I go into more detail about this in Tip# 6.

portrait of a happy women.

Natural light that is hard typically comes from the sun on a cloudless day. The light source is huge, but, because it’s so far away, the light is harsh and produces hard-edged shadows.

Many photographers avoid this style of natural light photography. This is because capturing good exposures in this type of lighting is more challenging. In hard light, how you set your exposure determines a lot about the feeling a photo will portray.

Spot meter readings and manual exposure, or managed auto-exposure, are best with hard light. When the tone range is extreme in a portrait, your camera may not be able to record details in both the shadow areas and the highlights. People with fair skin and dark hair in hard light are difficult for a camera to expose well. 

Exposing for the person’s skin means there will be detail lost in their hair especially if their hair is in the shade. Exposing so you retain detail in their hair will mean their light-colored skin is blown out and contains no detail.

To avoid this you need to photograph the person in a more diffused light so the tone range is not so broad. If you can’t move them you can add some light from a flash or use a reflector. This will help balance the tone range. Alternatively, take photos from a position where the light is behind your subject. I’ve done this with the photo above of the lady with the parasol.

My Examples

In the two examples below, I have photographed the same model in the same location. She is in direct sunlight that’s striking the right side of her face. In the first photo, I made an averaged light reading and set my exposure so the meter read zero. I metered and set my exposure the same way in the second photo, but I also added a  reflector to her left. This bounced light onto her left side and helped balance the tone values. The shadows in the second photo are not as dense as they are in the first image.

hard light shadows.
using a reflector to make a portrait.

3. Create More Relaxed and Flattering Portraits with Soft Light

Soft light is much more flattering for a model than harsh light. This type of lighting will not show skin blemishes so much. The shadows will be softer and not so dense. When the light is very soft and from a large light source, there may be little or no shadow on a model’s face.

A light source that’s large in relation to your model will provide a nice soft light that wraps around their face. It provides a more even illumination and fills in dark lines skin wrinkles can cause. Clouds covering the sun have the effect of transforming its light. Clouds scatter the light and effectively make the sun a much larger, diffused light source.

This type of light produces a more gentle mood when you’re taking natural light portraits. From romantic couple images to corporate portraits, using soft light often produces a pleasing result. Everything is more evenly illuminated. This eliminates any doubt as to what may be lurking in the dark shadows you get with hard light. Your mind does not have to fill in any blanks because you can see detail in the shadows.

The tone range is narrower when using natural light that is soft. So it’s easier for photographers to capture a good exposure. Even with your camera set to an auto-exposure mode and using averaged metering, you are likely to get acceptable exposures in soft light. I still tend to use spot metering and manual exposure when making portraits in soft light. This is because I am so used to working like this and I like to see what variation there is in tone values within my composition. I take light readings from significant parts of an image to help me balance the tone values as I choose exposure settings.

My Examples

The image below is of the same young woman whose photos I have used as examples above. When I made this portrait of her, we were in open shade. It was a bright, sunny afternoon and very hot, so we stayed in the shade. This light also suited the style of images I wanted to make. 

You can notice how much softer the light is on her face in this portrait compared to the photos taken in direct sunlight. There was no need to use a reflector because the light evenly illuminated her whole face. There are no dark, hard-edged shadows. The overall atmosphere of the portrait is more gentle and relaxed.

natural light portrait of a smiling woman.

Soft light, as any type of light, can vary in intensity. Often, soft light can tend to be rather dull. Think of how it is on rainy, overcast days. The sun is diffused and diminished before it illuminates your subject. This will often produce lackluster results when making portraits.

On a day when there’s only a light cloud, the sun’s intensity will appear brighter. This is often a preferable light for shooting portraits in natural light. It’s brighter yet still soft. This can help add color and life to skin tones and put more of a sparkle in your model’s eyes.

On sunny days, using open shade is my favorite type of light for making portraits. I position my model so they are just out of the sun but not too deep into the shade. The light is intense enough and not dull. The further you move a model away from a sunny area, the flatter the light gets. Sunlight bouncing off surfaces near your model helps to fill in and lighten shadows when your model is close to the edge of the shade. This is a very flattering light to work with.

4. Natural Light Portraits with Front Light

Many photographers find that the front light is the easiest to work with. Front light produces the fewest shadows, if any. This depends somewhat on whether it’s hard light or soft light. Hard light will often produce some shadows on a person’s face. How much or how little shadow depends on the height of the light source in relation to the model.

A front light placed higher than eye level typically creates shadows in the eyes and under the nose and chin. The harder the light source, the deeper the shadow. So, the amount of shadow depends on the time of day with your model facing towards the sun. Whenever the sun is higher in the sky, more shadow is cast. On sunny days, the shadows are more obvious.

When the sun is low in the sky and your model is facing it, shadows are reduced. This can introduce other problems though. Nobody is comfortable looking into the sun. When it’s low in the sky, you see less shadow, but you’ll also see less of your model’s eyes as they squint uncomfortably into the sun.

Front light is the least dramatic, most neutral style of portrait lighting. Make a natural light portrait in the open shade with your model facing the direction of the brightest light source. This will result in a flattering, even light on their face. The time of day and height of the sun do not matter so much in soft light.

Any shadows under the nose and chin will be smaller than they are with side lighting. They will also be soft because the light is diffused and more even. When the light is very large, and in front of or below your subject’s face, there will be little or no shadows cast.

My Examples

outdoor portrait of a woman.

I took this photo on a sunny day. My friend was in the shade, near the edge. Sunlight reflected off nearby walls, and the pavement was the main light source. It was in front of her and also below. Effectively, the light source illuminating her was very large and lower than her eye level, so there are only very faint shadows.

Front lighting will provide the clearest representation of how a person looks. For this reason, it is used for passports, driver’s licenses, and other photos needed for various forms of identification. This style of lighting is the easiest and provides the most predictable outcome for portraits.

5. Natural Light Portraits with Side Light

Regardless of whether you are taking natural light portraiture in hard light or soft light. Having the light source to the side of your subject creates more depth and emotion than the front light. Side light will emphasize texture more.

Lighting your subject from one side will help separate them from the background more effectively. Positioning your subject so the light source is beside them it’s likely that there will be a different amount of light on the background. This helps define a subject more clearly as the exposure value is different. Sidelight on the background also makes any texture more obvious. This heightens the effect of separating your subject from what’s behind them.

Portrait of a man with a black background.

Very soft side lighting, as I used in the portrait above, adds a nice highlight to one side of the face. I set my exposure for the shaded side of this man’s face and let the bright side overexpose a little. When the light is stronger or harder, there will be more contrast. More care with exposure settings is required to avoid losing detail in the highlights.

Side lighting a portrait means there will be more shadow on your model’s face. You have to take care when positioning your model so the shadows fall where they look best. Using natural light from one side of your model can be done using window light, open shade, or even in bright sunshine. 

Bright sunshine is going to provide more contrast. You need to be more precise with how you set your exposure and how you position your model in relation to the light. The hard shadows will be obvious on your model’s face.

My Example

side lighting.

In this portrait of the Buddha statue, the light is natural. I tweaked it only a little in post-production. The contrast in the photo is because of the light and how I set my exposure. This photo was taken at about 2 p.m. on a sunny day. 

I made a spot meter reading from the bright side of the face and then set my exposure so the meter was indicating underexposure. This had two desirable effects. The brightly illuminated parts of the composition show more detail, and the background displays none. If there had been any sunlight illuminating the background, the effect would not be so strong. 

The contrast is high, so my camera could not capture a full tonal range. I knew that by setting my exposure so the highlights were a tad underexposed, the background and shaded side of the statue would be very dark.

6. Natural Light Portraits with Backlighting

Backlighting is one of my favorite types of light when I am taking a natural light portrait, especially during the golden hour. At this time of day, when the sun is low in the sky, the light is rich and warm. It’s just prior to sunset and a little after sunrise.

Shooting portraits with backlighting can be challenging, especially when the light is very bright and coming directly into your camera lens. This can throw your exposure settings out and mean that your model’s face is underexposed if you are not careful.

It’s important to be in control of your exposure settings and understand how to adjust them well for backlit portraits. If your camera is set to any auto exposure mode, it will read the light from behind your subject. As cameras are becoming more advanced, this is not always a problem as it used to be.

With your camera on auto and your light meter set to averaged or even center-weighted metering, you might get an incorrect exposure. The meter will read the light from behind your subject and factor it into the exposure calculation it makes. Selecting to use the spot meter, you can take a reading from your subject’s face. Then you can set your exposure so their skin will be well exposed. Using the spot meter to determine this means that none of the light in the background will be introduced to the meter’s calculations.

I find it’s possible to get more accurate exposures using manual mode. When you take a spot meter reading and move the camera a little, the location the meter is reading from can change because the area of the spot is so small. When your camera is in auto-exposure mode, this slight movement can cause the exposure settings to change. When you have your camera set to manual mode, the settings will not change unless you adjust them yourself. So, if you move your camera at all, the exposure remains set for your subject’s skin tone.

My Examples

Backlit portrait of a woman.

For this portrait of a performer in a street parade, I had to be very careful with my exposure choice. I took a meter reading from her face and adjusted my settings so her skin is well exposed. This is usually the best option for exposing portraits. Had I metered from the background, her skin would be underexposed. The amount of light reflecting off her skin is many exposure stops different than the light on the yellow fabric of her costume.

Setting my exposure manually meant that when she moved, it was not a problem. In situations like this, where my subject will move a little, setting my exposure manually makes getting a good exposure easier.

This does not tend to be a problem when the background is not brightly lit. In situations where your subject is lit from behind but the light source is not visible, the risk of poor exposure is lower. This is especially so when the background is a similar tone to your subject. It’s only in places where the light behind your subject is visible or the background is a lot brighter; you have to be most careful.

Using a reflector for making natural light portraits with backlighting helps create a balance. By popping more light into your subject, you can create a more balanced exposure. With a strong backlight, it’s easy to underexpose your subject. Using a reflector can be most effective when the light is behind your subject, as it’s easy to position the reflector in front of your subject. This will bounce light back into their face and help lessen the contrast.

When you have a background that’s in the shade, using a reflector can make your subjects stand out. When I am making portraits in my outdoor studio, this is the technique I employ. I use a large reflector in front of and to one side of my subject. The light also reflects off the ground and back into my subjects. This is because the sun is behind them. 

When I have set the studio up in a grassy area, I lay down some white plastic sheeting. This avoids the green color cast by the light produced as it reflects off the grass. When I set up where there’s bare earth, this reflects a nice warm-toned light so I prefer to use this than the white plastic. It’s more natural and less work. It also works better with Asian skin tones than for pale Caucasians. 

outdoor studio portrait in black and white.

7. Sunrise, Sunset, and Golden Hour Portraits

Natural light portrait photography at sunrise, sunset, and during the golden hour can produce the most pleasing images. Natural light has a distinctive quality at these times, especially on a sunny day.

When the sun is low in the sky, it travels through more of the earth’s atmosphere before it comes to illuminate your model. It can take on a softer, warmer quality than when the sun is higher in the sky during the middle of the day. This soft light is far more flattering than the midday sun. In hot climates, it’s also a more comfortable time of day to be making portraits.

street portrait with morning sunshine.

During ‘golden hour’ shadows are longer and more dramatic. You need to be more aware of these shadows as they can have a greater impact on your portraits. As you pose your subject pay particular attention to the shadow their nose creates. Also, look at the shadows under their chin and eye sockets. Have the person turn their heads to an appropriate angle. This can make the most of these shadows or eliminate them, depending on the style of photo you are taking.

To make the most of the natural light at sunrise, sunset, and during the golden hour, you’ll need to time it right. Preparation is key, as you cannot hold up the sun’s movement across the sky. If you are not ready, you’ll miss the best light. When you are planning your portrait session, check what time the sunrise or sunset will be. Allow yourself ample time beforehand to get everything ready. You don’t want to be waiting for your model to show up or still scouting a location when the light is at its best. You can even start a little earlier for an evening golden hour session or run a little longer in the morning if you have a diffuser.

Most foldable reflectors have a diffusion screen included. This can be used to filter the light during the time when the sun is still a little higher in the sky. By doing this, you are not so rushed and can make more of the time you have with your subject.

When you are scouting a location, it’s best to do so at the same time of day you plan to have the portrait session. There’s no point going to a location to preview the light at a different time of day. At the golden hour, it will not be the same. It may be blocked by a building or a tree that does not inhibit the light during the middle of the day.

My Examples

golden hour.

Making the most of the golden hour can also mean maximizing your use of the beautiful shadows that can happen at that time of day. This young woman was taking part in a street parade. The shadows on her face are created by lace on a decorative parasol she is holding.

I’ve found the best time of day to photograph this parade is early in the morning for two reasons. The light can be fabulous, and it’s much easier to photograph the people before the parade actually starts. I made this portrait as her group assembled and waited for the parade to move off.

8. Natural Lighting During the Blue Hour

The quality of natural light is different a little before sunrise and shortly after sunset. This is the time of day known as the blue hour. The light is often flat and can have a distinctive blue hue.

Using this sort of lighting, you can make a dark, moody style of portrait. Because the light is generally low, capturing the surroundings and any detail in the background can be more challenging. You have to use a slower shutter speed and a higher ISO than during the daytime.

As with ‘golden hour’, ‘blue hour’ is not often anywhere close to an hour-long, unless you are far from the equator. This means to make great portraits with this light, you need to be well prepared and work quickly. I will usually only plan for one or two main photos of a subject at this time. I also make sure when I scout a place, I can get a few interesting backgrounds without the need to change location much.

Because the light is constantly changing at these times of the day, you need to watch it carefully. It is more challenging to make accurate meter readings when the light is low and dull. Using a slow shutter speed and high ISO is often necessary, even when your aperture is wide open. Don’t hesitate to push your ISO higher than you normally would to enable a fast enough shutter speed.

Light during the blue hour can reflect very nicely off the skin. Being aware of this can help you best position your subject to make the most of the light. Silhouettes are a popular option for this time of day. The sky is often very interesting and not too bright, depending on which direction you are facing. In the evening, with your subject facing east, the light behind them will be brighter than if they are facing west. The sky to the west will always be brighter after sunset. Of course, in the morning, the opposite is true.

It’s more important to be saving your images as RAW files when taking photos during the blue hour. Reflected light at these times is very dull and the tone range can be subtle or extreme. If you are including any sky in your portraits, it may be brighter than the light reflecting off your subject. This is helpful for making silhouettes but can be challenging when you want your subject well exposed. 

Saving RAW files means you have more flexibility to tweak them during the editing process. You have greater control over things like contrast and white balance than you do if you only have a JPG file to work with.

man looking at his phone at dusk.

9. Make the Best Use of Shadows

No matter what type of light or style of lighting you use to capture the right mood for your portrait, be aware of the shadows. Shadows can make or break a good natural light portrait photo.

You may have read lots of rules and opinions about the right and wrong way to use shadows in portraiture. I don’t think a photographer should stick to these but rather look and see how the shadows fall to create the type of photo they want.

Be aware of the shadows. Make sure they fit with the style of photo you want to take. Naturally, this will depend on whether you have hard light or soft light to work with. Making use of a reflector or two will also have a significant influence on the appearance of shadow on the person you are photographing. 

Shadows help define the shape of a face and body. They create more of a sense of depth than when they are absent. They can be very flattering or rather unkind, depending on how you use them. Face shadows are created mainly under the chin, nose, and in the eye sockets. The intensity, quality, and angle of light all affect the look of shadows in a photograph.

Take your time to observe how shadows influence the look of your photos as you are taking pictures. Are they enhancing the mood and feel of the photo? Do they suit the style of image you want? If not, you need to move your model. This might be to another location where the light is more suitable. It could also be as little as asking them to turn their face a little so the shadow becomes less prominent or more obvious.

When you are taking portraits in soft light, the management of shadows is not so challenging. In soft light, shadows are less influential than in hard light. They tend to create a more gentle feeling. When the light is very soft and the tone range in your composition is very narrow, there may be hardly any shadows at all. This often produces rather flat-looking results.

Portrait photo of a Buddhist nun.

In hard light, shadows play a more important role in the atmosphere in a portrait photograph. Setting your exposure well also becomes more critical. I will typically take a spot meter reading from the lightest part of my subject’s face. Then I will make a reading from the shadow area. This way I can have an understanding of the level of contrast. This helps me determine how to set my exposure.

Setting the camera’s exposure for the highlights, the lightest area of skin, the shadow areas will appear darker. They will contain little or no detail. If what is in the shadows is irrelevant to your portrait, this is a good technique to use to hide elements you don’t want to be seen in your photo. Learn to look for this level of contrast and make use of shadows in this manner. 

I often position a subject I am making a portrait of in brighter light where the background is in the shade. I can then set my exposure so their skin tone looks attractive and let the background fall into a dark shadow.

When you look at your subject, this may not be so obvious. Our eyes can see more tone range than our cameras can capture in a single image. Also, when you edit your images, you can darken the shadow areas to create more contrast. This can be done whether the shadows are only in the background and also on your subject.

One of the best and most fun ways to learn about using shadows in your photography is to take photos with black and white film. You can use digital for black and white also, but there are a  few characteristics about using film that make it special.

The dynamic range of film is much narrower than any modern digital camera. This means that when you expose for the highlights when the light is hard, the shadows will be very dark. Even in situations where the light is soft, you can expose black and white film so you retain no detail in the shadows. You have to think differently about how to manage the shadow areas.

This can help you learn to manage shadows and highlights more effectively when you are taking portraits in natural light. It can also help you previsualize how you will edit your portraits. As you are setting your exposure and can see a full range of tones, you will come to understand that your black and white film will not capture it all. Once you have experienced this while taking portraits with film you can then use editing techniques on your digital photos. By doing this, you can create the same look and feel to your pictures.

Another key aspect of loading a roll of black and white film into a camera is that you are best to start thinking and seeing in monochrome. With a digital camera you always have the option of choosing color or black and white after you have taken your photos. With film there is no choice. What comes out is totally dependent on the film you have in the camera. This exercise provides you with the opportunity to learn how to best manage shadows when taking natural light portraits.

10. Choose the Best Location and Background

To create the best portraits, photographers have to think of many things. What camera and lens combination is best? How comfortable is the model? Do they want a dramatic or more subdued image? Where is the best location and what is the best background to use?

One of the most common photography mistakes I see made is when the background distracts from the main subject. This is a mistake people new to taking natural light portraits often make. When you’re on location, outdoors, it’s easy to concentrate only on the person you have your lens focused on. The tree or lamppost protruding from the person’s shoulder will be seen by anyone looking at the photo, even if you didn’t see it as you were taking the photo.

It’s so important to look at everything that fills your frame as you compose your photos. Look around the edges. What can you see? Ask yourself if it’s relevant to the photo you are taking. If you can see things that are not relevant, you have to take some form of action to avoid seeing them in your photo.

As I look for a location to make a portrait, I am focused on finding the combination of the best light and a suitable background. Light comes first, then background. Being able to discern the amount of light illuminating your subject and the background is important.

Often, the best location depends a lot on the lighting and what will be in the background. Having a contrast between the model and the background can create problems. In other situations, it can make creating a fabulous portrait in natural light much easier. 

portrait of a woman with a dark background.

I love to set up a portrait with a background that’s in the shade. The key is having more natural light on your subject than on the background. Taking a spot meter reading from your subject’s face and another from the background, you can learn how many stops difference there are. When you have a background that’s two or more stops darker than your subject, you can make use of this background to help isolate your subject.

Depending on the type of light and the level of contrast, you may not need to do post-processing for this to be most effective. In lower contrast scenes, you may need to darken the shadows when you are editing your portraits.

On a sunny day, I will often position my subjects so the light is behind them and they are just inside the shade. When they stand near the edge of the shadow, sunlight will often bounce back into their face and act like a fill light. When you have a background in the shade, a location like this is ideal for helping you isolate your subject using contrast. The tone difference between your subject’s skin and the background is sufficient, so there is little or no visible detail in the background. With darker-skinned people, this technique is more challenging.

One key composition tip when setting up a portrait in these conditions is to make sure you cannot see any patches of sunlight in the background. When you want a completely dark background, you cannot have any lighter areas. One or two patches of sunshine behind your subject will be very distracting.

You can also use the opposite lighting scenario to isolate a person when you are taking natural light portraits. When you position your subject so the background is brighter than they are, you can isolate them against a white background. Managing this technique is more challenging than using a shaded background. 

bright light on a sunny day.

The light behind your subject, especially if you can see the light source, can affect your exposure. If the light is very bright, it can also spill over the edges of your subject and even cause lens flare. There’s nothing wrong with this if it’s the look you are aiming for. But when you want a clear, sharp image of your subject, you will need to find a background that’s not so bright.

With a strong backlight, a reflector is a great accessory to make use of. Bouncing a little light back into your subject will help balance the tone range. It will lower the contrast and help you set your exposure for a more pleasing result.

Another popular method of managing background is to use a shallow depth of field. This will render a background out of focus and therefore remove most distractions. The main exception is when the background is dark and there are bright lights behind your subject. No amount of blurring will reduce this type of distraction.

Managing your aperture is one aspect of taking portraits with a shallow depth of field. Often photographers want to have the eyes, nose, and ears in focus. It’s not only aperture control that will affect this. The other main influences are the focal length lens you use and distances. The closer you are to your subject, the shallower the depth of field is. The further your subject is from the background, the more out of focus it will appear.

When you first get a 50mm lens with an aperture of f/1.8 or f/1.4 it’s tempting to take every portrait using the widest aperture. We all love a nice creamy bokeh, but using the widest aperture setting is only one way to achieve this. You must consider how far away your subject is from the background and the distance between you and your subject. When you are close to them with your 50mm lens wide open, only their eyes will be sharp. The tip of their nose and their ears will not be sharp. Anything in the background will be completely blurred.

If you back up and compose a half-body portrait with your 50mm lens you will discover that, with your aperture wide open, their nose and ears are also sharp. When you are aware of this you can best manage the amount of depth of field in your photos and control how elements appear that are behind your subject. Sometimes you’ll want things totally blurred. At other times, especially when making environmental portraits, you may have elements you don’t want to completely blur.

Blurred elements in your photos that are still recognizable and can create more interesting portraits. Doing this will create some very interesting backgrounds. Your subject can be sharp, so the viewer will focus on them. But there will be other things in the background that are partially blurred yet still relatable and relevant to your subject.

Often, when using natural light, the background can be problematic. The only real problem is when you do not identify this until after you have taken your photos. Take time to look at what else you’ll include in the frame when you are composing portraits. If you don’t like what you see, do something about it!

11. Use a Reflector when Taking Natural Light Portraits

Using a reflector is not cheating. This accessory allows a photographer to be much more creative with their portrait process. Well used, a reflector can help fill in unwanted shadows and reduce the overall contrast in portrait photos.

On a sunny day when the light is hard, using a reflector helps reduce the dark shadows and makes for more balanced exposures. You can also make good use of a reflector in open shade and on overcast days. In soft light, a well-placed reflector will add a nice touch of extra light that can help bring more life to your subject. It can help you create a more dramatic and interesting light on a subject’s face. 

There are many sizes and types of reflectors you can buy. You can also make your own from just about any white or neutrally toned surface. I have even used printer paper and newspaper pages as reflectors. Polystyrene board is a popular, cheap reflector that you can cut to any size. In my studio, I had two full sheets of laminate board. I had framed them to keep them sturdy but still lightweight. They were not easily portable, but they were great to use because they were so large.

portrait with a white background.

The size and surface type of a reflector has a direct influence on the light it will bounce into your subject.

Small reflectors are great to use when taking close-up portraits of a person’s face. You can place the reflector very close to them, to one side, or under their chin. You can even ask the person to hold the reflector for you and guide them as to the best angle. A small-sized reflector is sufficient because it only has to help illuminate a relatively small area. The reflector will be best if it is at least the same size as a person’s head or a little bigger.

Medium and large-size reflectors are more suited to half and full-body portraits. Although I do find the bigger the reflector, the nicer quality the light has. With a large reflector, you are able to take it further back from your subject, and the light is usually softer and covers a larger area. This can feel less invasive for a model, especially if they are not yet feeling comfortable.

Most reflectors you can buy have a selection of different surfaces. These are usually:

  • White
  • Silver
  • Gold
  • Black
  • Translucent

There are also some with combinations such as gold and silver stripes. Choosing the best surface depends a lot on the light you are in and the style of portrait you are making. In bright sun, the silver and gold surfaces can throw too much light back into your subject. This will make them squint and feel very uncomfortable because it’s so bright. Using the white surface will still provide sufficient light and not blind your model. The black surface can be used as a flag to block light and intensify the shadow on your subject. The translucent inner core of the reflector is great when you are working in bright sun. You can hold it up to shade your model and yet still have a decent amount of light on them.

When a photographer is shooting with the help of a reflector, it is best to have an assistant to point the reflector in the right direction. If your assistant is not paying attention, the reflector can have little or no effect. Light bounces off a reflector, or any surface, at the same angle it hits it. So, if your assistant is not paying attention, they may be bouncing light into a nearby tree and not your subject. A skilled assistant will angle their reflector to provide just the right amount of light. They will also be able to fold the reflector and store it in the carry bag. This can take some practice. When I first bought my full-size reflector I needed to watch three different Youtube videos so I could figure out how to fold it back up.


My Examples

When I am taking portraits in my outdoor studio, I use my largest reflector, which is about 200cm by 120 cm. I also make use of the ground as a reflector. Either the bare earth or white plastic sheeting if I am setting up in a grassy area. Using the white sheet avoids a color cast from the green grass. In the early days of using my outdoor studio, when I was still developing it, I did not use a reflector. The portraits were nice, but the light was a little flat.

I always set up the studio with the light behind it. My subjects are backlit with filtered light. Using the large reflector adds a lovely soft light to my subjects. The light is bright and soft. I have the large reflector in front of and off to one side. This provides a little brighter light than is reflecting off the ground and adds more depth. 

outdoor studio setting.

12. Be Aware of Color Casts in Your Natural Light Portrait Images

During the blue hour and the golden hour natural light has a different color cast. This can have an effect on the mood of your photos. In bright sun, a color cast can also be a problem. In these situations, managing your white balance well will eliminate any color-cast problems. When you save your photos as RAW files, it’s easy enough to correct this type of color cast when editing.

Light reflecting off nearby surfaces can also produce a color cast when that surface is a strong color. This type of color cast is more difficult to correct as your photo will mainly be illuminated with natural light. If you want to avoid the color cast, you’ll need to move your subject to a different location where they are not affected by it. Alternatively, you could embrace it and make use of it as part of your portrait.

Whenever I set up my natural light outdoor studio in a grassy area, I lay down some white plastic sheeting. I do this to avoid getting a green cast from the grass in the faces of my subjects. Having a light reflecting off the grass or any other colored surface can create an unattractive hue on the skin of your subjects.

Natural light portrait of an old man.

13. Post Process Natural Light Portraits to Match the Mood of the Lighting

Post-processing is an integral part of digital photography. You will rarely, if ever, capture a photo exactly how you want it to look without adding some tweaks. These can be in-camera alterations if you are saving your photos as JPG files. When you save your photos as RAW files, you need to edit them using an app or editing program to make the most of them. Natural light is wonderful to work with, but it will not always appear the way you want it to in your photos without a little help.

A skilled editor will enhance a natural light portrait to bring out the best qualities of the subject and the lighting. Matching the processing style to the photographer’s intention for the look they want will produce the best results.

If your focus has been to create a dramatic portrait with hard edge shadows, then process your photos to match this. Deepen the dark areas so they contain little or no detail. Enhance the moodiness in your subject’s face by hiding some of it in this way.

When your creative intent is to produce flattering images of your subjects, you can reduce the overall contrast in your photos. Post-process them so there’s a lower dynamic range, and no details are lost in the lightest or darkest areas of the portrait.

Editing can be very much like setting your exposure. You can do this manually or automatically. There are many great presets available to help you achieve fast results without needing to know much about the app or software you are using. Software like Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop can be quite intimidating for newcomers. Using presets can help you achieve great results as you begin to learn how to best use this complex software.

Manual editing of natural light portraits takes a bit longer to learn, but it’s worth the time and effort. You can learn to make adjustments to your photos to bring out the best in them. You can style your images and get them looking however you want. This takes more time, but is very satisfying when you complete the process and have your portraits looking just how you want them to.

b&w portrait.

Creating Stunning Portraits in Natural Light

To make the most creative use of the light, you need to be aware of its characteristics. You also must focus on your intent for the style of portrait you want to create. Trying to create a very dramatic portrait in dull light will be hard work. Making a flattering image of your subjects in hard light is equally as challenging.

You can’t control the sun. Or the clouds. So, when you’re making natural light portraits, you have to work with the available light. Understanding the characteristics of the two different types of light is a starting point. Your intent for the style of portraits you want to create is also vital. Matching the light to the mood creates a stronger photo every time. 

As with any kind of portraiture, how you communicate with your models is a key to capturing great images of them. Seeing how the light is falling on their face and getting them to move so it looks best is important. If you cannot articulate what you want your subject to do, then you’ll not be creating the best photos that you can. 

Outdoor natural light portrait at sunset.

I often find that when I talk about what I am doing and why, as I set up to take a portrait, my subjects will understand better, especially if they have an interest in photography. Even when they don’t, they’ll respect that what you are doing is for their benefit.

Look at the light. Anticipate what it’s doing and if it’s changing. Work with it, not against it. Create the best portraits you possibly can as you match the character of the light to the characters you photograph.

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Kevin bought his first camera in the early 1980s and started working in the photography department of a daily newspaper a few years later. His whole career is focused on photography and he’s covered a multitude of subjects. He loves to photograph people the most. During the past decade, Kevin has begun to teach and write more, sharing his passion for photography with anyone who’s willing to learn.
Kevin bought his first camera in the early 1980s and started working in the photography department of a daily newspaper a few years later. His whole career is focused on photography and he’s covered a multitude of subjects. He loves to photograph people the most. During the past decade, Kevin has begun to teach and write more, sharing his passion for photography with anyone who’s willing to learn.

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