6 Tips for Taking Better Natural Light Classic Portraits

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DPS STUDY 1

RETHINKING NATURAL LIGHT

Many photographers choose to use natural light as their chosen style, almost as a badge of honour. Natural light is a wonderful source, providing ease of use and flattering light to your subjects, but you should be using it the same way as you would studio lights. You need to create light and shade that will add emotion or mood, not flat lighting that gives no shape, texture or mood. Hopefully these tips will help you on a path to refining your natural light classic portraits.

#1 – FINDING QUALITY LIGHT AND SHADOWS

First, find good quality light – preferably open shade, as this offers soft flattering light and is lower in contrast. Avoid the sun as your main light as it will cause harsh shadows and squinting, which is undesirable for quality portraits.

Open shade can be found under awnings, the edge of trees or buildings, and inside doorways or windows, for example. In these images the girls are positioned approximately 1.5 metres (5 feet) inside the doorway of an old timber shed.

Look for the shadows; they are equally important. Shadows subtract the light and create shape and mood.

#2 – CHOOSE THE RIGHT BACKGROUND

After you have established your location, check the background. Even if you have found the perfect, open shaded location, make sure the background isn’t too contrasty with sunlit areas. These can be visually distracting, so try and select uncluttered backgrounds that are lower in contrast and darker than the subject’s face. This will allow the face to project forward by being the lightest tone against the background (all the images in this article demonstrate this).

DPS STUDY 2

#3 – FIND THE DIRECTION OF LIGHT

Once you have found good quality of light, check its direction. You want the light to come across your subject’s face at approximately 45 degrees to the nose, and from a higher angle. That height should also be at around 45 degrees, as a basic starting point.

You can check the catchlight positioning by looking at the eyes; there should be one in both eyes at around 10-11 or 1-2 o’clock. (This depends on the side of the face that is being lit and the structure of the eye sockets). Deep-set eyes will need a slightly lower light source. You should also notice the nose shadow to be at around 45 degrees.

To lower the catchlights you need to change the angle of your subject’s head by tilting more or less. Even moving the subject further away from the edge of an overhang will lower the angle of the light. It’s the opposite of being in a studio where you can move the lights. Natural light is fixed and requires you to move the subject and/or camera to achieve good lighting.

DPS STUDY 3

#4 – EYES ARE WINDOWS TO THE SOUL

Catchlights are very important in portraiture. They not only guide you where the light is coming from, but also create a sense of depth. TIP: no catchlights = NO photo. When there are no catchlights, there will be minimal, if any, texture and colour in the eyes. Always study the eyes for guidance.

#5 – SIMPLE POSING

The portraits here are the basic classic style, looking into the camera. It’s usually more flattering to angle the shoulders away from the camera, again 45 degrees is a handy starting point. Leaning the bodies and heads toward each other gives an emotional connection. Upright or leaning away would show detachment from each other.

It’s also a good practice to have the noses turned slightly away from the camera, particularly with adults. Noses that point directly at the camera will look broader in many cases, particularly when combined with flat lighting. With kids, it’s not as critical and good lighting will create better shape.

Arms and hands need to be posed simply so as not to draw attention. In images #1 and #2 above (top of article), the lower arms are bent downwards and the hands clasped softly. Things you should avoid are open fingers, particularly draped over a shoulder, as this can make a portrait busy and untidy. Elbows bent at 90 degrees should also be avoided. Here’s a simple mantra to remember when it comes to posing people’s heads, arms, legs, hands, hips, shoulders, etc:

IF IT BENDS – BEND IT. IF IT CURVES – CURVE IT. IF IT TWISTS – TWIST IT.

Applying this will help you avoid static poses.

DPS STUDY 4

DPS STUDY 5

#6 – EXPRESSION

Above all else, expression is the most important element in a portrait. In most cases, a poorly lit and posed portrait with a beautiful expression will trump a technically perfect portrait with an average expression in most cases, but this is no reason to pursue a path of mediocrity.

Expression is a personal thing. A moody, soulful style is my preference, but your sessions should always include various expressions such as laughing, smiling, pensive, etc. To achieve this soulful style you can’t be jumping around in a hyperactive mood expecting soulful looks. The best approach is a more Zen-like style, quietly giving direction. These classic style portraits produce beautiful open eyes, relaxed facial muscles, and true shape to the lips. Truly timeless, heart and soul portraits, but it all takes PRACTICE.

DPS STUDY 6

SUMMARY

  • Treat natural light photography the same as studio lighting.
  • Find quality soft light.
  • Look for shadows to create shape and mood.
  • Place your subject at 45 degrees to the light as a starting point.
  • The light source is fixed, so move your subject and camera to reduce the height of the light in the eyes.
  • Check for catchlights in the eyes.
  • Simplify your posing.
  • Soft expressions work best for classic low-key portraits.

SPECIAL NOTES

With each of these images, other angles of the face (2/3 face and profile) can be achieved by simply moving the camera position. Although the pose and light would remain the same, you may have to adjust the head tilts slightly and check your backgrounds.

Clothing colours also play a big part with quality portraits. Darker clothing works best for low-key portraits. Your eyes should be drawn to the brightest tone in the portrait, therefore, light-coloured clothing would be visually distracting.

Share and/or save this post on classic natural light portraits on Pinterest with this image.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Wayne Radford

is a Brisbane based professional photographer specializing in portraiture. His studio, Radford Photography, was established in 1986 after 10 years as an enthusiast photographer. Since the early 90s Wayne has been a popular guest speaker throughout Australia and New Zealand and has built an enviable reputation amongst his peers and clientele for his craftsmanship. You can see more of Wayne’s work on his website and learn more on craftsmanship at Portrait Tips and Techniques.

  • Tafadzwa

    now that’s what I call ,INSIGHTFUL

  • RadPhoto

    Thank you, I hope it helps with your photography.

  • Tim Lowe

    What wonderful examples.

  • It always great to learn useful tips from another photographer or even to just have familiar information reinforced. But it even better when the instructing photographer demonstrates his skills for the audience by sharing work which is beautiful and artistic. Mr. Radford, hats off to you!! Great shots and poses…all capturing a unique quality that simply can’t be placed into words.

  • Cuttie2b

    First off your photography is amazing. I can only hope to achieve this level of shooting one day and thank you for the great tips! I forget that photography should not be rushed as in any form of art we do, nothing great is done haphazardly and often times I find myself in a rush to achieve the perfect shot, forgetting I should really be more Zen like in my approach. Thank you for these great tips! I will try to remember them before I shoot again!

  • RadPhoto

    Thank you for your kind words, practice and time is the key not speed. If you are passionate about your photography you will always find ways to improve. Good luck.

  • RadPhoto

    Thanks Art. It doesn’t matter what level we are at, we all need reinforcement or reminding of our skills from time to time. I’m doing my best to pass on the old timeless skills of portraiture, which I believe is the pathway to many other genres of people photography. Sounds like you appreciate the craftsmanship of photography.

  • RadPhoto

    Thanks Tim.
    Glad you enjoyed them, you can see more examples on my website if you wish.

  • Stu

    Good article.

  • RadPhoto

    Thanks Stu, glad you enjoyed it.

  • Vladimir V. Bott

    Where is #3?

  • RadPhoto

    Well done Vladimir, sorry no prize though. It appears to be a layout problem where the first photo of the two girls is # 1 and then to follow on, but the heading #3 is missing, not the content. I’ll ask the editor and see if it can be fixed. Thanks

  • Awesome information. Thanks for sharing!

    Love your exposure on the subjects

    I’m kind of struggling on the exposure side of things and I’m practicing on manual settings but unable to achieve the quality similar to yours.

    They say zero level is 18% gray or balanced gray when you look at your exposure meter in the view finder and to make that white more whiter is to plus afew stops (canon 60d) so the high lights are more white and the other way to make dark more true dark colours.

    Sorry for the rant. So what is the method and settings to get that exposure spot on please…

  • RadPhoto

    There’s no quick answer, it’s a book on it’s own. I suggest trying to source ebooks or books on the subject of exposure.
    Personally I meter manually through my camera onto a PhotoVision Digital Calibration Target (I use a 24″). You can view this product on YouTube and will show you how to use it. The target has black/grey/white strips which not only gives you a accurate exposure target, but also assists with white balance. This method gives me consistency and will allow me to batch/sync multiple images in Camera Raw or Lightroom. (In my pre-digital days I used a hand held meter.)
    The minimum you should invest in is a simple Kodak Grey Card or similar. You can also research how to use grey card readings on YouTube. Unless you are familiar with the Zone System, which appears not, you will learn more about exposure with this tried and tested method.
    Camera meters are so good today, but it’s the photographer who has to point it at the right tones for it to return accuracy. If you expose for a dark subject then a light subject, you’ll get two different readings, so then you will have to add or subtract some compensation. Too messy for someone learning, start with the grey card system the advance to the Zone or other camera system methods as you gain experience.
    I have simplified this and realise there are other alternatives, but some “old school” ways are still the best. Cheers.

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  • peggysuz

    I particularly like the expression from the eyes of the young chess player. Is it just a coincidence that the child resembles Noah Wiseman from the film, The Babadook?

  • RadPhoto

    Total coincidence Peggysuz as this young fellow was a private commission. I don’t shoot models or look for look a likes. I actually had to look up Noah Wiseman to see who he is and I can see the resemblance. As a point of interest, this young boy is a genuine chess player, so I created a lifestyle portrait to suit him, hence the intensity in the eyes. Thanks.

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  • Redge Basuel

    portrait of my dog / Redge Basue / 2015

  • Kerry

    Great article and advice. Struggling with getting catch lights in my daughter’s rather deep set eyes. I think I need to find better light scenarios. Last time I tried the sun was behind me but I think too low and a lot of trees behind me. Will keep trying! Any tips are appreciated.

  • richie_pour

    This was a delightful, helpful and simple tutorial. And, Mr. Radford, your work is beautiful and inspiring.

  • John T

    finally, one of these lessons where I look at the photos and go, yes, I’d like to have shot that! Useful tips too, from someone who obviously knows what they’re talking about – thanks.

  • Ritesh

    Tips Sony 6500 camera sir

  • nick brienza

    thank you for sharing your beautiful photos, excellent tips and kind responses to all who have commented on your article

  • Lynette Colgin

    I love all your articles, but would love to be able to print out the wording (not images to save ink) so I can carry them with me to refer to when I go out to shoot. Is there a way to do that and if not, is this something you could consider?

  • Juancho

    I realize this said not to use the sun as direct source of light, but does anyone have a good article I could find about portraits outside with sunlight? I’ve had good and bad luck with photos outside because as they’ve mentioned the sun will create very harsh shadows on people’s faces. Any tips will help! 😀

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