I know that a lot of people–myself included–can fall into the trap of thinking that expensive lighting equipment is necessary to capture a good portrait.
But that’s not really true.
You don’t need lots of high-priced and complicated lighting gear to take good people pictures. Natural and existing lighting can create wonderful portraits, ones that are simple and are, in many ways, warmer and more genuine and personal than those taken with artificial lights.
The big difficulty when working with natural lighting is that you don’t have the type of control over it that you would with artificial lighting. But you do have some control, at least in terms of recognizing and searching out good shooting conditions and settings.
The key to taking great natural light portraits is to avoid harsh lighting. Harsh lighting can throw strong and unflattering shadows across your subject’s features. And, strong, direct lighting can cause your subject to squint and that’s not a good look on anyone.
For these reasons, it’s best to avoid shooting in direct sunlight when the sun is it’s brightest–during the parts of the day with the sun is high in the sky.
Instead, seek out times and settings that provides softer lighting.
Here are some ideas!
Shoot on Bright, Overcast Days
Clouds can turn the sky into one great, big soft box. The clouds act to diffuse the sunlight, creating soft, even and very flattering light.
This makes overcast days ideal for portrait photography.
But there are a few things to keep in mind when shooting on cloud-covered days.
First, while the even lighting can be very flattering, it can also be a bit boring because the lack of shadowing can leave your subject’s face looking flat and featureless.
Also, the soft lighting can eliminate catchlights in the eyes.
You can work around both of these issues by using a reflector to throw a bit of directional light across your subject. This will add some soft shadowing and catchlights.
Another thing to recognize is that the color of the day will impact your images.
A light overcast day with a thin veil of white clouds is ideal.
But if the day is overcast and gray, your photos may look a bit gray too or they may take on a bluish tint if you don’t manage the white balance.
In this case, try throwing in a bit of color to offset the grayness. Ask your subject to wear something colorful–a red hat or yellow scarf–to add in a pop of interest to the frame. Or include a brightly colored item–a pumpkin, a row of flowers, a painted fence–in the composition.
Take Advantage of Open Shade
Okay, so cloudy days are good options. But what if it’s not cloudy? We’ve talked about avoiding direct sunlight in the middle of the day when shooting portraits. But how do you do that in the middle of bright and sunny day?
In that case, a good option is to hunt around for an area of open shade.
What’s open shade? Open shade is a patch of shade near an area that’s being hit by the sun. Open shade is a shady spot near the line where sunny turns into shady.
The advantage of working in open shade is that your subject is shielded from direct sunlight but still illuminated by light reflected from the sunny areas.
When working in open shade, you want to pose your subject close to the sunny/shady border. That may mean that you as the photographer are standing and taking the photo while standing in the sunny area.
Position your subject so that they are facing the reflected light, using that illumination to create striking catch lights in their eyes. Beautiful!
Open shade can be found wherever a sharp, even shadow is cast. Some examples: Along the side of a building, under a porch roof or awning, inside an open garage, just inside a front doorway, or even inside an open hatchback door.
The one thing to be aware of when shooting in open shade is white balance. Reflected light can give your images a bluish tint. So be sure and set your white balance to the ‘Shady’ setting or, if you are shooting raw, correct any off color in post processing.
Pose Your Subject Near Lit Windows or Doorways
Lit windows and doorways are great sources of natural light.
With window and door lighting, you can control the intensity of the light by shading the opening or by simply moving your subject closer to or away from the light source.
You can control the lighting direction by changing the position of your subject. And you can use a reflector as ‘fill flash’, lighting up any shadowy areas.
To see how this all comes together, check out the video below. In it, the folks from The Slanted Lens demonstrate the use of window lighting when shooting natural light portraits.
Shoot Late in the Day or Early in the Morning….
The quality of sunlight changes throughout the day. The light is harshest and most direct in midday, in the hours closest to noon.
But as the day goes on and the sun sinks closer to the horizon, sunlight has to travel through more of the atmosphere and, therefore, becomes softer, warmer and more diffuse.
So if you can, try to schedule your shooting for later in the day or earlier in the morning to take advantage of the beautiful light.
…And Especially in the Golden Hours
The most beautiful light of the day is during the golden hours, the hour or so just after sunrise and just before sunset. The sunlight is at its warmest and softest when it is just above the horizon.
Take advantage of this and shoot during these few hours. The beautiful lighting of the golden hours makes taking a great portrait easier. The soft, warm light lets you work in direct sunlight without having to worry about harsh shadows and strong contrast.
By the way, the conventional wisdom is that the photographer should always shoot with the sun at his/her back.
In the video below, photographer Karl Taylor demonstrates shooting a natural light portrait as the sun is setting. And he shows that shooting into the sun can produce wonderful results.
Use Diffusers and Reflectors
Two of the best ways to control and enhance natural lighting is with diffusers and reflectors.
Diffusers and reflectors are very uncomplicated pieces of equipment. They are simply fabric stretched over a flexible frame.
In diffusers, the fabric used is translucent; Diffusers can be used to diffuse and soften light.
Reflectors, on the other hand, are made of reflective fabric. Not surprisingly, the color of the fabric determines the color of the reflected light.
A reflector can be used to bounce light onto your subject if there isn’t enough nature light there or to fill in or add shadows. You can also use a reflector a create catch lights in your subject’s eyes.
The bottom line is that reflectors and diffusers are some of the most useful (and inexpensive) photography tools available.
The video below, Tony & Chelsea Northrup demonstrate how to use diffusers and reflectors when shooting in natural light.
Putting it All Together
If you are still feeling intimidated with the idea of shooting natural light portraits, the video below may help. In it, Mark Wallace walks us though a day of shooting portraits using natural light. It’s enlightening!