A Simple Exercise on Working with Natural Light in Portraits

A Simple Exercise on Working with Natural Light in Portraits


Today I thought it might be fun to share a little exercise that we feature in our Natural Light eBook (by Mitchell Kanashkevich) – both because it gives you a taste for the content but also because I think it’s a useful exercise to do to help you understand light and photograph portraits using it.

This exercise is particularly useful because one of the differences in shooting with natural light as opposed to artificial light is that with artificial light you’re able to ‘direct’ the light (by moving lights around your subject and changing how much those lights output).

When it comes to working with natural light we need to learn to direct ourselves and/or the subject in relation to the light source.

Rather than moving lights around… it is us (and the subject) that may need to be moved.

The exercise is simple:

Find a room with a window allowing fairly bright diffused (indirect) light.

Get your subject to move to different spots in relation to the window. Move around with the subject, take photos, and pay attention to what effect the movement of both of you has on the way that light makes the subject look.

For the eBook Mitchell did this exercise with his nephew. Below are the images and corresponding diagrams of where the subject was in relation to the window and below are descriptions of the shots, EXIF information and what Mitchell did and what impact that had on the shot.

3 directions window light

1. The subject is turned at approximately 45° towards the window.

Result: A very smooth progression of light to dark tones.

EXIF: 16-35@35mm, f/2.8, 1/125s, ISO 2000

2. Subject is at 90° or parallel to the window.

Result: Very harsh contrast between the side of the face close to the window and the side further away from the window.

EXIF: 16-35@35mm, f/2.8, 1/200s, ISO 500

3. The subject is at 90°, parallel to the window, with his head turned towards it.

Result: Light still works the same way, but instead of one side of the face being dark, the face is well lit and it is the back of my nephew’s head which is dark.

EXIF: 16-35@35mm, f/2.8, 1/125s, ISO 500

Mitchell also notes: Having a light source such as a window also gives you control over the intensity of light. The further away you are from the light source, the less intense it is. Less
intensity also means less contrast between light and dark.

I did this exercise recently with a family member and was fascinated with the results and was also reminded what an incredible variety of styles of shots that you can achieve – all in the one setting but by simply changing up where you position yourself and your subject.

Give the exercise a go and let us know how you go!

Get more exercises and teaching like this from Mitchell in his Natural Light eBook.

Read more from our category

Darren Rowse is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals. He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

Some Older Comments

  • Michelle July 26, 2013 02:03 pm

    great exercise! outdoor natural lightings for portraits is something which I've been exploring too.


  • Sherry May 9, 2013 08:35 am

    Hello, constantly i used to check website posts here in the early
    hours in the break of day, because i love to find out more and

  • Nico April 28, 2013 04:25 pm

    Thanks for sharing this exercise with us. What type of metering did you use?

  • Emerald April 16, 2013 01:55 pm

    Natural light is the best but the trickiest to avoid photos where one side of the face is way too dark and
    sometimes ruins the photo depending on the mood depicted.

    This one was taken side on to a window in afternoon light with the curtains pulled right back.

  • Anneke April 15, 2013 10:26 am

    A quick series of snaps at the window in the late afternoon.




  • Carol April 13, 2013 11:23 pm

    Was the first example really taken at ISO 2000?

  • Dennis April 13, 2013 05:23 pm

    A simple but effective reminder for me to use different lighting when shooting portraits to create different moods for the client. I seem to have fallen into the "trap" of shooting with clients in defused lighting, resulting in my portraits sometimes lacking drama. Thanks

  • Pam Martin April 13, 2013 07:14 am

    Thank you....will be trying this.

  • Howard Metz April 12, 2013 02:05 pm

    Contemplation by Howard Metz

  • gnslngr45 April 10, 2013 02:24 am

    Used a window at my daughter's birthday party:



  • Silvia April 8, 2013 01:59 pm

    Wonderful assignment! i really love natural light..

  • Justin gammon April 6, 2013 11:48 pm

  • Scottc April 4, 2013 10:23 am

    Sometimes I read about an "exercise" and think I've "got it", but this is one I know I can learn from. TFS.

    I am a crappy portrait shooter.