How to Master Natural Light Portraiture

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I love working with natural light, I always have. Even more so now that our digital cameras have sensors so incredibly capable of making images in extremely low light. Making portraits using natural light only is a good skill to learn so you can make photographs anywhere. Here are some tips to help you mast nature light portraiture.

How to Master Natural Light Portraiture

Be aware of the quality of light

When you want to make a series of portraits using only natural light, you first need to be aware of what the light is like at your chosen location and the style of portrait you want to make. Is the quality of light hard or soft?

If it’s a bright sunny day and the light is harsh (hard), you will get portraits with a much different look and feel, than if the sky is cloudy and overcast. Morning and evening light will give your portraits a different quality (soft light) as will photographing your subject indoors and using light from a window.

How to Master Natural Light Portraiture

Soft side light from a window.

Hard sunlight can be quite challenging to work with, but can produce some good results if you style you portrait well. If you’re working in open sun it can be helpful to have a reflector on hand and a friend to assist you so dark shadows can be reduced.

What kind of photo do you want?

Having a concept in mind for the type of photo you want will give you a better chance of success. If you’re heading out to make some portraits on a sunny day and have an idea of making some soft dreamy romantic photos, this will be difficult. But if you want to make some photos to illustrate the idea of a journey in a hot country the light will be your friend and support your idea.

How to Master Natural Light Portraiture

Bight, harsh sun in the middle of the day.

Cloudy days provide a soft light that’s generally easier to get a more even exposure. The flat light tends to render a softer feeling to portraits.

So if you’re making portraits with natural light on a cloudy day, you will have more success if your concept is for a gentler look. Photos taken under a cloudy sky and later converted to black and white work well as the tone range will be more limited than on a sunny day.

How to Master Natural Light Portraiture

Portraits on a cloudy day.

Use light to your advantage

If the sky is heavily overcast you will find it challenging as the light will be very dull. On days when there’s not such thick cloud you will notice the light is still soft, but brighter and more vibrant (less flat,) so nicer for making portraits. Be careful of your exposure settings if the clouds are moving and the light value is frequently changing.

Finding a shaded space and making use of naturally reflected light will help you achieve a different look on a bright sunny day. This is not the same as the light you have on a cloudy day. Light reflecting off a wall close by or light-toned pavement, (cement rather than asphalt or dark paving,) will fill in shadows on your subject’s face and produce a more even, lively result.

How to Master Natural Light Portraiture

Light reflecting off a nearby white wall provided fill light for this portrait.

Placing your subject so they are slightly inside a shaded area, but close to the bright sun, can allow the reflection of the sunshine to have a very helpful effect in lighting your subject. So long as your subject is not too far away from the bright light you can make use of the reflection to add a more interesting dynamic to your portraits.

The Golden Hours

Of course, making portraits with the rich morning or evening sunshine (often called Golden Hours), or even subdued light can produce very pleasing portraits. Be careful though not to have your subject look directly ahead into the sun as they will typically make an unpleasant face. Backlighting or side lighting your subject at these times can be more effective and more comfortable for your subject. Diffused morning and evening light is lovely to work with as it is soft yet can still be quite rich and warm toned.

How to Master Natural Light Portraiture

Diffused early evening light.

Try new things

I’ve loved making natural light portraits for many years, but I also enjoy developing my technique by trying new ways of working. If you enjoy a particular aspect of photography, stick with it, develop what you do. But don’t just do the same thing every time.

If you like making portraits in natural light on a cloudy day because you find it easier, sometimes try shooting on a sunny day. Stretch yourself to learn some new technique. You may discover something new, a new way ot working that you really enjoy.

How to Master Natural Light Portraiture

Portable natural light studio

I have a portable natural light studio I love to take into the mountain villages here in northern Thailand. We’ve even started including it in some of the workshops we run and our customers love the professional looking results they can achieve. My outdoor studio only requires that we have space to set it up, (just a few square meters is enough,) and a sunny day for the best light, but I do use it on cloudy days too.

The best thing about it is having control over how the sun lights my subjects. I set it up so the sun is behind the backdrop. Above the backdrop is a fine gray nylon screen to filter the sunlight. The light reflects off the ground which is a light colored earth and works well with Asian skin tones, or a large plastic sheet. I have more recently introduced a large reflector too and am achieving some very pleasing results.

How to Master Natural Light Portraiture

The light coming from behind the backdrop is providing great light on these subjects’ hair as a rim light, and on their faces via reflected light.

The portable studio behind the scenes.

Your turn to try it

Next time you head out to make some portraits try something different with the light. If you prefer sunshine, make some in the shade as well. If you prefer a cloudy day challenge yourself to go out in the middle of the day when the sun is shining and find a location where you have some good light. Remember, the only time you cannot make a photo is when there is no light at all.



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