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How to Use Environmental Lighting Sources for Natural Portraiture

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This post is part of a series called Environmental Portraiture: How to Go Beyond the Ordinary.
Creating a Portrait with Soft, Natural Light Indoors
A In-Depth Walkthrough of a Family Portrait Shoot

You don’t need a ton of high powered strobes, lighting modifiers and assistants to create stunning portraits. It’s possible to capture a great image using natural light. You can’t, however, just rock up, whip out your camera, snap a few frames and expect to get amazing results; good natural light portraits require deliberate decisions at every stage.

Ambient and Luminous

With natural light portraits, you don’t have the same level of control that you get in the studio. Your lighting setup is determined by the location, time of day and weather. The same location can offer very different lighting depending on whether it’s morning, afternoon, evening, or even night. Similarly, at the same hour, two locations a few hundred metres apart can have completely different lighting.

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A portrait shot entirely with natural light from a window. Model: Kat Clinch.

Just because you don’t have total control over the lighting, it doesn’t mean the choices you make when capturing natural light portraits won’t shape the resulting images. In fact, your choices are likely to be even more important; there are only so many ways you can set up three lights in a studio, but there are essentially unlimited possible combinations with natural light.

In this tutorial I’m going to look at how to assess the natural light in a scene and how to use it to create stunning portraits.

Find Flattering Light

While it’s true that there is no such thing as good or bad light, when it comes to portraiture some kinds of lighting are more flattering to the subject than others. For this tutorial, I’m going to focus on how to make choices that will result in flattering light.

Natural light portraits still follow the same lighting guidelines as studio portraits. For most subjects, light that appears to come from a relatively large light source placed at an angle no greater than 45 degrees will be flattering. A small or high-angle light source will create harsh, unappealing shadows on your subject. In particular, light that’s too high will create “panda eyes” where the subject’s eyes are in shadow while the rest of their face is lit.

For this reason, when you are capturing natural light portraits it is often best to avoid direct sunlight. Instead, you should be using elements in the environment to modify how the natural light falls on your subject. Many of the best natural light portraits are captured in alleys, under bridges, in the forest, or indoors using a window as the light source. This way the apparent light source can be controlled even if you are still using the sun in every instance.

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This shot was captured using natural light under a bridge in Dublin. Model: Loreli Swan.

I captured the image above, for example, under a railway bridge in Dublin. The apparent light source is the entrance under the bridge rather than the sun. This is thus a large light source placed on-axis with the model, and the result is a flattering portrait. If I’d captured this out in the street, the lighting would have been nowhere near as nice.

If you’re interested in more varied uses of daylight, you should check out Amy Touchette’s tutorial on How to See and Use Daylight Creatively for Street Photography.

How to Assess Natural Light

Let’s assume you—or your client— has selected a general location you want to use for the shoot and now you need to determine where exactly you will work with your model to get the most flattering light.

The process of assessing the natural light in a location is simple; you just need to look and really think about it. You need to ask yourself things like:

  • Where is the light coming from? The sun? A cloudy sky? A window?
  • What direction is it coming from? Right now, would your subject be backlit? Frontlit? Sidelit? How easily can that be changed within the confines of the location?
  • What angle is the light coming from? Is it low to the horizon or high in the sky?
  • Is it coming from a relatively large or small light source? For example, is the source direct sunlight or is it being scattered by clouds?
  • Can you place your subject in the shade? If the sun is high in the sky, can you block the light from above with something in the location? Perhaps a doorway, bridge or tree?
  • Is the light coming from a single source or is it being reflected by the environment? For example, the sun falling on snow creates a huge amount of reflected light and requires different considerations than similar lighting in a grassy meadow.

Once you start to break down what the light is doing, it’s much easier to identify what combination of circumstances will lead to flattering light for your subject. Natural light can change swiftly, so it’s important to always be ready to reconsider the choices you’ve made. If the sun goes behind a cloud, you may be able to use new areas of the location.

Modify Natural Light for Better Portraits

The best way to modify natural light is by using features in the environment like the bridge I used in the image above. Another popular way to create flattering light from almost any conditions is to use a window. As long as the window is not in direct sunlight, it will be a large light source that’s very easy to use. The three images below were all captured using window light. In this instance, the window is to the model’s left.

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The light for this image comes from a window to the model's left. Model: Ali Clarke.

Trees can also be a great way to modify natural light. If you place your subject in the shade of a tree, the worst directional light from the sun will be blocked. The light reflecting from the environment will create a relatively large and flattering light source. I captured the image below in a forest, and even though the sun was shining brightly through the trees behind the model, they provide enough shade and reflected light to create a nice portrait.

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The sun is behind the model but the forest provides enough shade to create a flattering portrait. Model: Kat Clinch.

Bridges, windows and trees are far from the only environmental features that can be used to modify natural light. Doorways, alleys, and anything else large enough to shelter your model from direct sunlight can work great.

If environmental features aren’t giving you the required control, one of the most useful tools in a natural light portrait photographer's bag is a reflector. Even in direct sunlight, a reflector can provide enough additional light to counter the harsh shadows the sun creates. 

Reflectors, however, have a few drawbacks. If you don’t have an assistant, they can be very unwieldy. Also, the reflected light from the sun can give the images an artificial look. You can see this in the image below, where I used a reflector to modify the relatively harsh sunlight.

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I used a reflector to light the model along with mostly direct sunlight. Model: Ali Clarke.

Other Environmental Light Sources

Although this tutorial has focussed on using the sun as a light source, there are other environmental light sources that can be used to create flattering portraits. I’ve had great success using streetlights at night. Any other feature of the environment that provides light can be used. The only limit is your imagination.

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Sunlight isn't the only environmental light available. Model: Rebecca Dionne.

Wrapping Up

In this tutorial I’ve looked at how to assess and use natural light to take portraits. As you begin to master portraiture, you’ll find that you unconsciously integrate the steps I’ve described. Assessment becomes less about pondering the light directly and more about trusting your instincts.

Until you reach this point, however, it’s important to approach natural light very deliberately. Consciously break down what the light is doing and how it will affect your subject. Once you’ve done that, you can work within the environment rather than fighting against it.

If you’ve any questions about using natural light in portraits, let me know in the comments. I’ll be happy to help.

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