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10 Tips for Making Natural Light Portraits

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Learning to use light effectively is essential for all photographers, there is no substitute for understanding how light works and appreciating how to use it to your advantage within your work. For portraits, I always prefer to use natural light, even if I am indoors. Working with natural light isn’t all easy sailing, there are plenty of aspects that need to be understood in order to avoid making mistakes.

1. Decide what the shoot is for

Before you even think about picking up your camera, the first thing you need to consider is the type of shoot you’re undertaking. Is there a certain purpose to the shoot?

It could be head shots for an actor or business, a fashion shoot, family portrait, for online promotion or just for a friend. Think carefully about the setting and style of the shoot depending upon its purpose. Will you need extra clothes, make-up and time for styling? Is it an environment portrait, depicting the person a familiar setting, possibly at work or at home?


Photo by Miss Selina

2. Location, Location, Location

Once you’ve decided the purpose of the shoot, you’ll find it far easier to select a suitable location. Think about what might suit the style of the shoot, for example, somewhere scenic with plenty of space, by a river, lake, hills or in the park?

Maybe you want to represent your subject in the midst of a busy city amongst the architecture, traffic and crowds? There’s also the option of using a room indoors. Larger rooms are usually brighter (most large rooms have more windows) and give you a sense of space to work with. Smaller and dimmer rooms will suit a shot that requires more shadows and a more somber mood. Don’t forget to utilize the structures around you, particularly indoors, doorways, windows, staircases and pillars can all make for useful structural support within your image.


Photo by svtherland

3. Determine the quality of the light

One of the most important things to consider if you are planning a shoot outdoors, is the time of day at which you shoot. I advise against working in the middle of the day, because it will be extremely difficult to work with the bright direct sunlight and you’ll find it difficult to avoid over exposing your images.

Instead, consider working slightly earlier or later in the day, so up until mid morning or after mid afternoon, this will mean you have sufficient light to work with, but it won’t be too strong. Alternatively, you could try working on an overcast or cloudy day. This might sound like a bad idea, but in actual fact, the colds act as a diffuser and means that you can work throughout the day with a consistent light source.

Remember your lighting basics. Harsh or hard light creates dramatic shadows. If that's not what you're going for, you may want to have the subject face the light directly. Soft light can make things look flatter, but allows you to worry less about losing detail in bright highlights or dark shadows.

If you’re working indoors, you’ll want as much light to be entering the room as possible. If you know your location, determine what time of day offers the best window light by figuring out which way the windows face (north, south, east or west).


Photo by Incendy

4. Getting your positioning right

One of the main advantages of using a studio light set up, is the freedom to move and adjust the height and angle of the light source to meet your requirements. This is obviously impossible when it comes to using natural light, so it’s up to you, the photographer, to utilise the available light as best as possible. When on location, find what you think might be a suitable place for your model to stand and then work out where the sun is in the sky. It’s essential that you don’t make your model look directly towards the sun, as they’ll just squint and get watery eyes! Begin by having them side on to the sun and work from there. A good tip here, is to get your model to turn 360 degrees gradually and for you to follow them as they turn. This way, you’ll be able to observe the change in the lighting to find the best positioning.


Photo by BB_eyes

5. Use the light to your advantage

There are a few other techniques that you can try to make the most of the light on offer. Whenever I’m using natural light, I always carry a reflector with me. It can be extremely useful for portraits as you can reflect some of the light streaming in from the side onto the subject's face, highlighting their key features without blinding them and needing them to look towards the sun.

On nice bright days, it’s also worth trying some backlit shots, with the sun directly behind your subject. Again, the reflector will come in handy here, as you try to achieve a warm glow around the shape of your model, and it provides some front facing light.

Remember as well that you have the option of using shade and shadows within your portraiture work. A shady spot under a tree may well be just what you need when the direct sunlight is too bright, although be sure to check that the shade is evenly spread to avoid blotches of darker areas.

Shadows are also a great way to add contrast to a subject, and can be achieved easily by having the light source directly to the side of your subject. Just be sure not to obscure any key features.


Photo by Sapheron

6. Window shots

Employing the sunlight through a window to light a portrait shot is a favorite technique of mine and can make for some really engaging and dramatic portraits. The soft light through the window acts as the perfect highlight for a strong and moody image and works particularly well if you have the light cast on just one side of the subjects face, leaving the other in shadow.

The general rule is that the closer to the window you are, the more light you’ll have to work with and the stronger the contrast will be between the light and the dark. Also, if the light coming through the window is too bright, you always have the option of using curtains or a blind to diffuse some of the light.


Photo by Helenadagmar

7. Camera settings

As with any portraiture work, there are a few camera techniques that will really help you to get the results you want. The first is to focus on the eyes. When we look at a photo of another person, the first thing we connect with is their eyes. Make sure that the eyes are the focal point and use manual focus if you don’t trust your auto focus to get it right!

It’s also a good idea to use a large aperture (low f-number) to blur out the background so it doesn’t attract any attention away from your subject.


Photo by DreamingMom

8. Communication is key

It’s absolutely vital that you interact with your model. Be sure to build up a rapport with them before your begin the shoot. Have conversations leading up to the shoot to discuss ideas and to ensure that all involved have the same understanding of what needs to be achieved on the day.

When you’re actually on the shoot, don’t expect your model to be able to read your mind. They won’t know how you want them to pose or where you want them to look unless you communicate it to them. If you’re struggling to convey the shapes you want your model to make, give them example poses yourself.

Some practical direction will really help, although be aware that some professional models will not appreciate being told how to do their job! Also, just assume that they are working harder than you. Take breaks.


Photo by Meredith Farmer

9. The type of light

Don’t expect ever situation in which you use natural light to be the same. The quality and color of the light will change according to the time of day, season and the weather. Some days you’ll have warm and yellow light, where as on others, natural light will possess a blue tint.

This is where using white balance comes into play. You can use the settings to adapt to the conditions in order to achieve the tone of light you desire. I always prefer to shoot in RAW and edit the White Balance during post processing, although the in-camera presets offer a very good guide to the options available.


Photo by Kennysarmy

10. Try it for yourself

So now it’s over to you! Hopefully these few simple tips have enlightened you (pun intended) and you’re ready to tackle some natural light portraits of your own. The most challenging thing about the whole experience will likely be finding models to work with.

Don’t be afraid to ask family or friends to help you out. It will give you a great chance to practice your techniques and it will be easy to co-operate with your subject (although that depends which family member you choose). Always remind them that all they have to do is stand there and look pretty!


Photo by Lulieboo
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