Natural Light Portraits: Made In The Shade - Digital Photography School

Natural Light Portraits: Made In The Shade

One of the easiest ways to start shooting portraits is to use natural light.  There’s no added expense of buying speedlites or strobes, or even continuous lighting. You don’t have to decide where to put the lights, because let’s face it, nature has decided for you.  There are still challenges however, and those challenges must be overcome to successfully pull off a natural light portrait.  One of the biggest challenges is what to do when the natural light just is not pleasing.  Maybe it’s midday sun and the light is too harsh, or maybe it’s later in the day and direct sun is shining right in your subject’s eyes. In my post “Sun Too Harsh? Modify it!”, I discussed ways to use reflectors and scrims to modify natural light to get a more pleasing look.

This image was taken on a bright sunny winter day, with snow on the ground. I didn't have a reflector- the snow helped with that thankfully.  But the sun was too harsh to put her directly in it.  The solution was to go behind one of the nearby buildings and use that softer light to illuminate her face. EOS 5D Mark II, Ef 85mm f/1.2L II. 1/2000 at f/2.2, ISO 160.

This image was taken on a bright sunny winter day, with snow on the ground. I didn’t have a reflector- the snow helped with that thankfully. But the sun was too harsh to put her directly in it. The solution was to go behind one of the nearby buildings and use that softer light to illuminate her face. EOS 5D Mark II, Ef 85mm f/1.2L II. 1/2000 at f/2.2, ISO 160.

But what happens if you don’t have a reflector or a scrim? Well then you have it made in the shade! Find some shade, and you’ll find some soft, indirect lighting that can help you create beautiful portraits.   Look for a large tree with overhanging branches. Or a doorway. Or an overpass of some kind.  Anything that gets you out of direct sun, and into indirect light. It does you no good if there’s no light getting to your subject, but once you find a place with indirect lighting, you’re all set.

Here, the subject was positioned under the overhang of a train station.  Because it was an open overhang, the background is lit brightly, creating more depth. EOS-1D X, EF 85mm f/1.2L II. 1/1000, f/2.8 at ISO 640.

Here, the subject was positioned under the overhang of a train station. Because it was an open overhang, the background is lit brightly, creating more depth. EOS-1D X, EF 85mm f/1.2L II. 1/1000, f/2.8 at ISO 640.

The light will be soft and even- and very pleasing.  The background will likely go a little darker depending on where you found your shade, be it under a tree, where it might be brighter, or in a doorway or behind a building. Look around, see what you can make happen. And just because your subject is facing out towards the light, doesn’t mean you need to be.  Walk around your subject- get that soft light hitting from the side, as well as the front. Just keep your subject positioned so the light is hitting the mask of the face, including the eyes. Just because the light is not pleasing doesn’t mean all is lost. Sometimes, all you need to do is find some shade.

This shot was taken in Central Park in New York City, near Strawberry Fields.  There is a walking path that goes under a large footbridge, creating a tunnel. The day was a typical summer day, bright and hot. The sun was far too harsh. We moved to the opening of the tunnel and I let the light wash in on her face.  I turned her slightly so the light came from the side a bit, creating some shadow on the left side of her face. EOS 5D Mark II, EF 70-200 f/2.8L IS II. ISO 800, 1/250, f/2.8.

This shot was taken in Central Park in New York City, near Strawberry Fields. There is a walking path that goes under a large footbridge, creating a tunnel. The day was a typical summer day, bright and hot. The sun was far too harsh. We moved to the opening of the tunnel and I let the light wash in on her face. I turned her slightly so the light came from the side a bit, creating some shadow on the left side of her face. EOS 5D Mark II, EF 70-200 f/2.8L IS II. ISO 800, 1/250, f/2.8.

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Rick Berk is a photographer based in New York, shooting a variety of subjects including landscapes, sports, weddings, and portraits. Rick's work can be seen at RickBerk.com and you can follow him on his Facebook page.

  • http://www.studiovisualis.com Fabrizio Balestrieri

    Very easy to follow article, which contains effective advice! Portraiture in natural light is flattering, but beware of the direct sun! :)

    Thank you
    Fabrizio Balestrieri
    Studio Visualis

  • http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/ Mridula

    Many thanks for this tip. I like photography but I am not a pro. So natural light is my friend, I can’t keep buying more gear. This tip is something I can work with.

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/

  • http://www.illmakeitshine.com Yohann

    Why do you smooth the skin of the girl in the last picture that much ?

    Embrace the texture, you already work with soft light!

  • http://www.cramerimaging.com Pocatello Photography, Cramer Imaging

    I’ve been using this idea for a while. The only problem with the shade of a tree is that you have to watch for that dappled light. It is most unflattering on a human face. Thanks for sharing.

Some older comments

  • Pocatello Photography, Cramer Imaging

    August 31, 2013 05:11 am

    I've been using this idea for a while. The only problem with the shade of a tree is that you have to watch for that dappled light. It is most unflattering on a human face. Thanks for sharing.

  • Yohann

    August 30, 2013 11:09 pm

    Why do you smooth the skin of the girl in the last picture that much ?

    Embrace the texture, you already work with soft light!

  • Mridula

    August 30, 2013 04:13 pm

    Many thanks for this tip. I like photography but I am not a pro. So natural light is my friend, I can't keep buying more gear. This tip is something I can work with.

    http://blogs.gonomad.com/traveltalesfromindia/

  • Fabrizio Balestrieri

    August 30, 2013 08:48 am

    Very easy to follow article, which contains effective advice! Portraiture in natural light is flattering, but beware of the direct sun! :)

    Thank you
    Fabrizio Balestrieri
    Studio Visualis

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