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5 Reasons for Doing Natural Light Portraits

Natural light portrait

With all the attention given to the art and craft of shooting portraits using flash, you could be forgiven for thinking that this is the only way to take a portrait. The truth is that while fashionable Speedlites get all the attention, there are photographers working almost entirely in natural light and creating beautiful portraits without a softbox or light stand in sight.

One of the most prolific is Eduardo Izq, a photographer based in the United States who has built an impressive portfolio of natural light portraits taken using local models and dancers. Eduardo takes natural light portraiture to an extreme, often photographing his models without make-up. He may not be creating beauty portraits in the conventional sense, but by concentrating on character he is capturing portraits that are beautiful in a deeper, more fundamental way.

Please take some time to look at Eduardo’s website, you will learn a lot from it. For another insight into his work you can also read my interview with Eduardo about his ballerina portraits.

Intrigued? Here are five more reasons why you should take some natural light portraits:

1. It teaches you about light

To get the best out of natural light you need to become an observer of light. How does the quality, and quantity, of light change where you live from hour to hour, and season to season? How is the light affected by weather and the location? To take good natural light portraits you need to work in the most flattering light, and that usually means finding the shade or going out and taking portraits at the end of the day during the golden hour and twilight (my article The Magic of Natural Light: Twilight will help). Doing so will help you appreciate the quality of light in your area. This knowledge will also help you in other areas of photography.

2. Light is linked to location

As you become more aware of light you will come to see that the quality of light is linked to location and season. When you take a portrait of somebody outside, the light provides a link between the subject and the place they are in, tying the two together. Light, location and subject are entwined: it was only possible to take a photo of that person in that place with that type of light at one particular time. It’s almost impossible to reproduce the effect afterwards – the uniqueness of the light becomes part of the image. That is something different (not necessarily better, just different) from the effect of using flash, which is easily reproduced.

Natural light portrait

The soft light of the setting sun links the portrait of the woman with her horse to the location. Both are lit by the same light, a type of light that occurs naturally in this location in certain conditions at the right time of year.

3. Natural light is simple

Natural light portrait

Natural light is also ideal for black and white portraits. Here the light is shaped by the archways on the right.

Flash is not complicated for everybody, but it takes time to master and that can get in the way when you are starting out. One of my friends told me a story about a portrait shoot that went wrong. She modelled for a photographer who was working outdoors, and he spent so long setting his lights up and measuring the light that the shoot never really got going. She wasn’t happy with the results and I guess neither was the photographer.

Natural light is different because it is simple. In fact, I often go on a portrait shoot with just one camera and a single lens. This simple approach to equipment lets you concentrate on composition, lighting, and building rapport with your subject. Another benefit is that it is quick and easy to move from one place to another if you don’t have much gear. It is much more difficult if you have flash because you also need to move the extra equipment.

4. Your relationship with the model is critical

The number one thing that determines the success of your portraits is your relation with your subjects. Building rapport is essential, especially if you’ve never worked with your model before. Simplifying your approach means that you have more time to concentrate on building the relationship. This is essential. Your model’s pose and expression are the prime factors that determine the success of the portrait.

A portrait shoot is a collaboration, two people working together to create a beautiful image. If you ignore your model at the expense of setting up lights, the results will suffer. It takes real skill to be able to set up your lights quickly and effectively, while building a relationship with your subject. That can come later. If you start off with natural light, it gives you time to learn how to build rapport, and you can introduce flash at a later stage. Master one skill at a time.

5. Natural light is beautiful

Natural light portrait

The subject of this portrait is lit by the extremely soft red light that appears briefly after the sun has set.

It’s hard to beat the beauty of natural light at its best. The photo to the right is a good example. We were taking portraits at the beach at the end of the day and the light became more and more magical as the sun disappeared over the horizon. For a few short minutes we experienced the beautiful red afterglow of the sunset, and I used it to take the last few portraits of the session. Moments like this don’t come often, but the results are worth it. Shooting in light that is beautiful, yet fleeting and difficult to find, elevates your portraits to another level.

Your turn

What is your experience of shooting portraits in natural light? Do you prefer to take the simple approach to equipment and lighting? Can you recommend any portrait photographers who work in natural light? Let us know in the comments.

The Natural Portrait ebookThe Natural Portrait

My ebook The Natural Portrait teaches you how to take beautiful portraits in natural light. This 240 page ebook, published by Craft & Vision, takes you through the entire process of natural light portrait photography through from finding a model, deciding where to shoot, working with natural light and post-processing your images. Click here to learn more or buy.

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Andrew S. Gibson
Andrew S. Gibson

is a writer, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He’s an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom. Join his free Introducing Lightroom course or download his free Composition PhotoTips Cards!

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