Struggling to create beautiful natural light portrait photography? You’re not alone. Capturing gorgeous portrait shots without strobes or continuous lights can be a real challenge. You have no ability to control your light source, and the weather can be unpredictable (even at the best of times).
That said, natural light can create absolutely stunning portraits; that’s why it’s a favorite of professional photographers. And while working with sunlight is often daunting, it’s not quite as hard as you might think.
I’m a huge fan of natural light portraiture, and in this article, I share my 10 best tips to create stunning shots, including:
- The best type of natural light to produce soft, evenly lit images
- How to pick the right lighting direction (it’s different than you might expect!)
- How to spice up your portraits with beautiful backgrounds
- Much more!
Ready to become a portrait lighting expert? Then let’s dive right in, starting with my first tip:
1. Make sure you’re shooting in the right light
Natural light works great for portrait photography, but if you want beautiful results, you need to understand the types of natural light to use – and the types of natural light to avoid.
Some types of light will create soft, beautifully lit portraits, while other types of light will produce harsh shadows, unpleasant highlights, and just an all-around bad effect.
I’d recommend working in open shade, which you can find under awnings, at the edges of trees or buildings, and inside doorways or windows. The idea here is to position your subject in an area that’s shaded, but not too shaded. You want the soft, flattering effect that’s produced by shade, but you don’t want to work in heavy darkness.
I positioned these girls approximately 5 feet (1.5 meters) inside the doorway of an old timber 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 gorgeous result.
Overcast light is also nice; the clouds will soften the sun’s harsh rays, and you’ll get wonderfully flattering shots.
However, avoid working on bright, clear days when the sun is high in the sky. This will cause harsh shadows, plus it will cause your subjects to squint!
Note that softer light does tend to be weaker, so it’s important that you modify your camera settings accordingly to prevent blur due to camera shake (see the tips I share below!).
2. Pay attention to the direction of the light
Good-quality light is a solid starting point, but if you want to create great portraits, you need to pay attention not just to the quality of the light, but also to the light’s direction.
So if you’re capturing outdoor portraits, look around and identify the position of the sun. Then keep it in mind at all times as you shoot. If you’re capturing indoor portraits, identify your main source of light – generally a window – and think of it as your sun.
Next, position your subject and your camera in relation to the light source. There’s no one right approach here, and it often helps to experiment with different positions. You might also consider learning about different studio lighting patterns, such as Rembrandt lighting, split lighting, and butterfly lighting.
Personally, I’m a fan of partial side lighting, when the light comes across your subject’s face at approximately 45 degrees from the nose and approximately 45 degrees above the face. This produces a beautiful catchlight in the eyes, plus it gives nice shadows that increase the three-dimensionality of the image.
Here, my subject was lit from the upper left:
Portrait photographers tend to avoid frontlight – that is, light that comes from over the photographer’s shoulder and hits the subject directly – because it causes the subject to squint, plus it flattens the image and robs it of depth.
But you can use backlight, especially when the sun is low in the sky, to create a beautiful result. Just position your subject so the sun is behind their head or over their shoulder, expose for the background, then boost the shadows in post-processing (or bring a reflector into the field).
You can also use true sidelight to create a dramatic natural light portrait. Position your subject so the sun hits them directly from the side, then watch as you get an intense, shadowy, split-lighting effect!
3. Use a reflector
In the previous tip, I mentioned that reflectors can be a handy way to brighten up heavy shadows on your subject. In fact, reflectors can make a huge difference in your images, which is why I’m dedicating an entire section to their value.
A reflector is basically any surface that reflects light, and while you can find natural reflectors (e.g., white walls, sandy beaches, and even shiny cars), pop-up reflectors designed specifically for photographers are extremely cheap and highly portable. (If you don’t already own a reflector, I’d encourage you to buy one immediately!)
You don’t always need to use a reflector when you’re capturing portraits, but if you’re shooting with backlight or shade – so your subject’s face looks somewhat dark – or you’re dealing with harsher light from a midday sun, it’s a good idea to position that reflector in front of your subject and slightly below their chin. It’ll add an extra pop of illumination and help dispel any unflattering shadows.
Note that by holding the reflector closer and farther from your subject, you’ll achieve different effects. So make sure that you experiment with different distances until you achieve the look you’re after!
4. Choose the right settings
The best settings for portrait photography vary depending on the scenario, and it’s really important that you understand each and every setting offered by your camera – that way, no matter what happens, you’ll always be prepared.
But there are a few settings that are especially fundamental to good portrait shooting, and I highly recommend you keep them in mind at all times.
First, you’ll want to switch off Auto mode and make sure you’re using Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, or Manual. Aperture Priority is generally a good choice as it’ll let you choose the aperture and ISO while your camera chooses the shutter speed.
Then choose a reasonably wide aperture, which will give you a narrower depth of field effect. This is the key to producing refined background bokeh.
Next, lower your ISO to around 100, then check your shutter speed. The goal here is to keep the shutter speed fast enough to prevent blur due to camera shake or subject movement; in most cases, 1/160s or so should be enough. Therefore, if your shutter speed is at 1/160s or faster, you’re good to go. If your shutter speed is slower than 1/160s, you’ll need to raise your ISO or widen your aperture farther to achieve a faster shutter speed.
Finally, make sure that you choose a good autofocus setting. If your camera offers eye-tracking AF, I recommend trying it out. Otherwise, working with some form of single-point AF can get the job done (just make sure you always focus on your subject’s eyes).
5. Carefully choose the perfect background
If you can include the right background in your natural light portraits, it can dramatically elevate your shots. On the other hand, if you pick the wrong background or if you don’t pay attention to the background when shooting, your photos are bound to turn out bland, boring, or just downright bad.
So once you find a location with solid light, be sure to look behind your subject before pressing the shutter button.
I like to avoid high-contrast backgrounds with a mix of sun and shade; in my experience, these can become distractions in the final image. I’d also recommend avoiding backgrounds with bright, distracting colors or lots of busy shapes.
Instead, look for areas that are uncluttered, low in contrast, and darker than the subject’s face. That way, the subject’s face will project forward, and the entire shot will appear very three-dimensional:
If you can find a background that complements the subject’s clothing colors, even better!
And as you become more experienced, you’ll be able to incorporate background bokeh into the scene. For the best results, use a wide lens aperture and a longer lens (e.g., 85mm). Also be sure to keep plenty of space between your subject and the backdrop – this will maximize background blur for pro-level results.
6. Make sure to include a catchlight
Catchlights refer to small spots of light that appear in the subject’s eye:
And in portraiture, catchlights are essential. Catchlights add life to the shot, boost detail in the eyes, and enhance image depth. In my view, an image without a catchlight is hardly an image at all.
So how do you maintain a catchlight in your portraits?
First, make sure that you always include a bright light roughly in front of the subject, be it the sun, a patch of sky, or a reflector.
Second, before you take a photo, check your subject’s eyes for that catchlight glimmer. And if you don’t see one, ask them to turn or tilt their head until it appears.
Yes, it’s basic, but it makes a huge difference. If you can get the catchlight right, then your photos will look so much better.
7. Keep poses simple but dynamic
If you’re just starting out in portrait photography, you may be tempted to offer your subjects all sorts of fancy posing ideas.
But in my view, simple is generally better. A few tips:
- Make sure your subject is looking at the camera.
- Ask your subject to angle their shoulders at around 45 degrees.
- If you’re working with multiple subjects, ask them to lean their bodies and heads toward one another to create an emotional connection.
- Ask your subject to point their noses subtly to the side (i.e., make sure the noses don’t point directly at the camera).
- Pose the arms and hands to avoid attention. Ask the subjects to bend their arms and clasp their hands together. Avoid open fingers and elbows bent at 90 degrees. If it bends, bend it – but naturally.
That way, you can create poses that look great and add plenty of flow.
8. Engage with your subject
Whether you’re photographing indoors or outdoors, it’s important that you don’t just set up your camera, direct your subject in a pose, and start snapping away. Instead, make sure you start by conversing with your subject (and keep up that conversation throughout the shoot).
Why is this so essential? For one, if you develop rapport with your subject, they’ll feel more comfortable in front of the camera, which will come through in your photos. They’ll also do a better job of following your instructions – plus, the more you talk about their interests and preferences, the more they’ll enjoy the experience.
If you don’t feel like you can confidently maintain a conversation while shooting, I’d recommend coming up with a few potential topics in advance. Note that these can be very simple; you might ask your subject what they did the previous week, whether they have any upcoming vacations planned, or what they like to do in their spare time.
I’d also encourage you to praise your subject as you go. Whenever you take a nice shot or they strike a good pose, let them know; it’ll do wonders for their confidence, and it’ll lead to a far more successful photoshoot!
9. Shoot when the expression is best
Expression is the most important element in a natural light portrait. (In fact, a poorly lit and badly posed portrait with a beautiful expression will trump a technically perfect portrait with an average expression any day of the week.)
So if you can capture portraits with beautiful lighting, a beautiful pose, and a great expression, you’ll be on top of the world.
I recommend directing your subjects, but carefully. Ask them to smile, ask them to laugh, ask them to look pensive, and so on – but don’t force them to do expressions that make them feel uncomfortable, and if they don’t like an expression, just move on. More emotional expressions tend to look better, but don’t overdo it. You want mood, but you don’t want dramatic overacting.
Also, make sure that your mood reflects the expression you’re after. If you’re jumping around with your camera, you won’t get a soulful look; it just won’t feel natural to the subject! Instead, act the expression you’re looking for. Make sense?
10. Try capturing some silhouettes
Portrait silhouettes look amazing, and they’re not too difficult to pull off, either. Here’s what you do:
First, make sure you’re photographing in the right light. You can use a window to create silhouettes if you’re shooting indoors, but if you’re outdoors, you’ll generally need to wait until the sun is low in the sky.
Position your subject so the light source is behind them (in other words, the light should be shining toward the camera lens). It can be helpful to adjust your position until the sun (or window) is blocked by your subject or some other object (e.g., a tree).
Deliberately underexpose your subject. You can try adding several stops of negative exposure compensation, or you can force your camera’s meter to select exposure values based on the bright light behind your subject.
Finally, take a photo or two, then check the result on your LCD. Make exposure adjustments as necessary, then shoot away!
Pro tip: Pay attention to the area behind your subject. The best silhouettes tend to feature unbroken edges – so be sure to change your position until you get a clean background.
Natural light portrait photography: final words
Now that you’ve finished this article, you’re ready to capture some stunning portrait shots – using only the natural light available to you!
Just remember the tips I’ve shared. Focus on the lighting, the subject, and the background. And create some beautiful images!
Now over to you:
Which of these tips is your favorite? Which do you plan to use first? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Table of contents
- 6 Tips for Taking Better Natural Light Classic Portraits
- ADVANCED GUIDES
- CREATIVE TECHNIQUES