If you’re looking to capture beautiful portraits in natural light, you’ve come to the right place.
I’m a big fan of natural light portraits, and in this article, I share my top six tips for creating stunning photos, including:
- The best type of natural light for producing soft, evenly lit images
- How to choose the right lighting direction (it’s different from what you might expect!)
- How to spice up your portraits with beautiful backgrounds
- Much more!
Ready to become a portrait lighting expert? So let’s dive into it, starting with my first tip:
1. Make sure you shoot in the right light
Natural light works great for portrait photography…
…but if you want beautiful results, you need to learn which types of natural light to use – and which types of natural light to avoid.
You see, some types of light will create soft, beautifully lit portraits, while other types of light will produce harsh shadows, unpleasant reflections, and just an overall bad effect.
So what types of light are best?
I would recommend working in the shade, which you can find under awnings, at the edge of trees or buildings, and inside doors or windows. The idea here is to position your subject in a shaded area, but not too shady. You want the soft, flattering effect of ombre, but you don’t want to work in the dark.
I positioned these girls about 5 feet (1.5 meters) inside the door of an old wooden shed:
You can also work in the evening, starting about an hour before sunset. The soft light of the setting sun will produce a beautiful golden glow, and you can often use careful side lighting or backlighting to create a stunning result.
However, avoid working on bright, clear days when the sun is high in the sky. This will cause harsh shadows and make your subjects squint!
2. Pay attention to the direction of the light
Good quality light is a solid starting point, but it is just that: a starting point. If you want to create a stunning portrait lit by natural light, you need to pay attention not only to the quality of the light, but also to the brightness of the light. direction.
Personally, I’m a fan of partial side lighting, where the light passes through my subject’s face about 45 degrees from the nose and about 45 degrees above the face. This produces a nice light in the eyes and gives nice shadows which increase the three-dimensionality of the image.
Here, my subject was lit in the upper left:
Portrait photographers tend to avoid front light – that is, light that comes over the photographer’s shoulder and hits the subject directly – because it causes the subject to wrinkle, in addition flattens the image and deprives it of depth.
But you can use backlighting, especially when the sun is low in the sky, to create a beautiful result. Simply position your subject so that the sun is behind their head or over their shoulder, expose for the background, then increase the shadows in post-processing (or bring a reflector into the shot).
You can also use true sidelight to create a dramatic portrait in natural light. Position your subject so that the sun hits them directly from the side, then watch how you achieve an intense shadow effect!
3. Carefully choose the perfect background
Natural light portrait photography is not just about the subject. It’s also about the background, and if you can include the right background, it will instantly elevate your photos.
On the other hand, if you choose the wrong background or don’t pay attention to the background when shooting, your photos might end up bland, boring, or downright bad.
So once you find a spot with solid light, be sure to look behind your subject.
I like to avoid high contrast backgrounds with a mix of sun and shadow; in my experience these can become distractions in the final image. I would also recommend avoiding backgrounds with bright, distracting colors or lots of busy shapes.
Instead, look for areas that are clean, low-contrast, and darker than the subject’s face. This way, the subject’s face will be projected forward and the whole shot will appear three-dimensional:
If you can find a background that complements the colors of the subject’s clothing, that’s even better!
And as you become more experienced, you can incorporate background bokeh into the scene. For best results, use a wide lens aperture, a longer lens (e.g. 85mm) and be sure to keep enough space between your subject and the background.
4. Be sure to include a catchlight
Catchlights refer to small patches of light that appear in the subject’s eye:
And in the portrait, the catchlights are essential. Spotlights add life to the shot, enhance detail in the eyes, and enhance image depth. In my opinion, an image without a catchlight is not an image at all.
So how do you maintain a catchlight in your portraits?
First, make sure you always include a bright light roughly in front of the subject, whether it’s the sun, part of the sky, or a reflector.
Second, before taking a photo, check that your subject’s eyes are not shining. And if you don’t see one, ask them to turn or tilt their heads until it appears.
Yes, it’s simple, but it makes a huge difference. If you can get the right catchlight, your photos will be much better.
5. Keep poses simple (but dynamic)
If you’re new to portrait photography, you might be tempted to offer your subjects all kinds of fancy posing ideas.
But in my opinion, simple is usually better. Some tips :
- Make sure your subject is looking into the camera.
- Ask your subject to tilt their shoulders about 45 degrees.
- If you’re working with multiple subjects, have them lean their bodies and heads toward each other to create an emotional connection.
- Ask your subject to subtly point their nose to the side (i.e. make sure the nose don’t point directly at the camera).
- Pose arms and hands to avoid attention. Ask the subjects to bend their arms and clasp their hands. Avoid open fingers and elbows bent at 90 degrees. If it bends, bend it – but naturally.
This way you can create poses that look great and add a lot of flow.
6. Shoot when expression is best
The expression is the most important element in a portrait in natural light. (In fact, a poorly lit, poorly posed portrait with a great expression will trump a technically perfect portrait with an average expression any day of the week.)
So if you can capture portraits with nice lighting, nice pose, and a beautiful expression, you will be on top of the world.
I recommend directing your subjects, but with care. Ask them to smile, ask them to laugh, ask them to look thoughtful, etc., but don’t force them to make expressions that make them feel uncomfortable, and if they don’t don’t like an expression, move on. More emotional expressions tend to look better, but don’t overdo it. You want ambiance, but you don’t want dramatic overkill.
Also make sure that your the mood reflects the expression you are looking for. If you’re jumping around with your camera, you won’t get a moving look; it just won’t look natural to the subject! Instead, act on the phrase you’re looking for. Make sense ?
Natural Light Portrait Photography: Final Words
Now that you’ve completed this article, you’re ready to capture great portraits.
Remember the tips I shared. Focus on the lighting, the subject and the background. And get beautiful pictures!
Now your turn :
Which of these tips is your favorite? Which do you plan to use first? Share your opinion in the comments below!