Easy Natural Light Portraiture Technique: Using Available Shade

Easy Natural Light Portraiture Technique: Using Available Shade

This guest post on natural light portrait photography was submitted by Ed Verosky at About-Photography.com and author of the popular eBooks, “Taking Your Portraiture to the Next Level,” and “Taking Your Portraiture to the Next Level II.”

Using natural light can produce some of the most pleasing portraits, but it’s not just the light we should pay attention to, there’s a lot that can be said for using the available shade in a given environment. After all, it’s the interplay between light and shadow that creates a sense of dimension; the contrast and shadows in our portraiture define the form and textures on our subject and in the scene.

A favorite little neighbourhood grocery store on New York City’s Upper West Side closed its doors recently. Where the outside floral section used to be, there’s now only a bare overhang and a few old relics of a once vibrant storefront. Yes, sad for the neighbourhood, but good for pictures. My subject, Jake, posed for a few editorial-style portrait shots that show how simple natural light can be used to create great portraits without the help of any bring-along reflectors or flash. This simple technique shows how using available shade can be just as important as using available light.

Camera settings: 800 ISO, f/4.0, 1/125 sec. The space provided us with an interesting background and available reflective surfaces.

These photos were taken on Broadway, an avenue which goes approximately north and south along Manhattan with our shooting location on the west side of the street. Being close to 4pm in the fall, the sun was already positioned lower to our relative south-west and not within our view at the location, so we weren’t dealing with direct sunlight.


Camera settings: 800 ISO, f/4.0, 1/160 sec. Note how we’re using the light coming in from the camera position, as well as the abandoned mirror (for a noticeable rim light).

We shot these images just off the main sidewalk and closer to the store windows. As you can see in the diagram, the configuration of the space, being an inset to the building, gave us an area of shade to work with. The mirror mounted on the wall was a bonus “available reflector” which provided us with a nice rim light effect.


Although there is a substantial amount of ambient light bouncing around the sidewalk and the street in general, most of the light is coming in from the sky. A large tree is providing more shade and blocking much of the light coming in from the subject’s left. This essentially narrows the overall light reaching the subject, giving us a nice catch light to the eyes. Because we’re using a good mix of ambient light, indirect sunlight from the sky, advantageous shade, and proper posing, we are able to get a great transition from light to shadow for a pleasingly natural contrast.

Tips For Great Portraits Using Natural Light:

  • Avoid very bright or direct sunlight in your subject’s face. Direct sunlight creates a harsh lighting pattern and strained or squinting eyes.
  • Use shade sources to mold and direct the ambient light on and around your subject.
  • Use light-colored walls, reflective surfaces, and natural bounce lighting as additional light sources for rim lighting, hair light, and fill light.
  • Position your subject in such a way as to avoid unflattering shadows, especially around the eyes and nose.
  • Set your camera to Aperture Priority Mode so that you can control the f-stop (depth of field) while your camera automatically sets the shutter speed. This is good practice where natural lighting conditions can change constantly.


Camera settings: 800 ISO, f/4.0, 1/200 sec. Even a traditional portraiture “Butterfly” lighting pattern can be achieved with a good location and proper posing.

Ed Verosky is a professional photographer and author based in New York. For more portraiture tips and techniques, check out Ed’s popular eBooks, “Taking Your Portraiture to the Next Level,” and “Taking Your Portraiture to the Next Level II.”

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Some Older Comments

  • cass January 20, 2012 01:26 am

    I'm actually with Mark on this one. I find it distracting that the subject is not in focus. It somewhat undermines the advice on how to take "great portraits". Which is a shame because the advice was really good. The other thing that I found (personal taste of course) was that the reflections were a bit distracting in the first picture. The reflection of his back is fine but the reflection of his arm on the left of the picture draws your eye away from the main subject. I wonder if it would have helped if the photographer had moved further under the overhand, i.e. more directly in front of his subject. Gugh! Sorry! The author didn't ask for a critique. He was sharing some great tips. And they are great tips! Thank you!

  • Boudoir Photography October 22, 2011 09:49 am

    I shoot portraits in the shade a lot (daily) but I always add some flash or reflect light back in to pop the eyes and compliment the face .. especially important when photographing women and children .. emphasizes youthfulness and lessens the drama. Unless the subject is requesting dramatic lighting this will increase your images sales immediately.

  • Dewan Demmer October 21, 2011 10:33 pm

    Very Nice article and some simple truths, direct sunlight your subject is going to be squinting. if you can get a friend to hold a reflector or even use your on camera flash while the sun is behind the subject. Using walls and items around your subject to reflect light can be a nice way to enhance lighting and reduce the shadows.
    Shade is not always an option though, and so often we end up with full sun photos, the guide lines suggested still apply but with variance.
    I did a shoot with full winter sun a little while ago, it was a learnt a lot and since then I have adapted and changed, that said it is still one of my favourites.

  • Phoenix Photographer October 21, 2011 12:56 pm

    Was any post-production, tweaking of levels, etc. used?

  • Ed Verosky October 21, 2011 10:15 am

    Mark, thanks. These shots are even more out of focus than you think. Post sharpening probably confused the issue for you. While tack-sharp images aren't generally as important to me as capturing the energy and spirit during a fast street shoot, I appreciate how it might be off-putting to the more technically inclined.

    To answer your great questions: As you can see from the notes, there were no "very fast shutter speeds" with 800 ISO in this environment. The chosen ISO was necessary to provide me with a good lower range of shutter speeds with my 17-40mm lens (widest avail. f-stop of f/4.0). Doing the math, you can probably see that dropping my ISO down to 100 at f/4.0 (my limit) would leave me with with a shutter speed of about 1/15 sec. in the first shot, not much faster in the other shots. You'd probably agree this would not be good.

    Although I don't shoot street portraiture with a tripod, you're probably aware that I'd have to ask my subject not to move around too much, even if I did. Again, not the type of shoot I'm very interested in.

    Thanks for your observations. It can often be helpful to know the whole story when trying to analyze a set of images.

  • Mathilda October 21, 2011 09:13 am

    I agree with Mark about the ISO settings and the focus. But beyond that, the poses are really awful and the photos are just.....bad. Sorry.

  • Carmen Cardoza October 21, 2011 07:58 am

    Thanks for the tip and the diagram. I have a Canon PowerShot SX130 IS, but I will still give some of these settings a try just to experiment.

  • Mark October 21, 2011 06:53 am

    Great tips in the article, however I have to question the camera settings and the photos used as examples ... the face is out of focus in the first and third photos (focused somewhere on the mirror in the first and on the ears in the 3rd, as opposed to the eyes) ... and you are using an 800 ISO in order to get a very fast shutter speed, presumably in order to get sharper pictures ... but what is the point of using a 1/200 shutter speed if you are focusing at the ear? Now your face is blurry AND you have a noisier photo. Set your ISO down to 100 or 200, open up your aperture and slow down your shutter. Use a tripod if your hands are too shaky to get a sharp image at 1/50 or 1/60. Use a prime lens with a fast aperture so you can open up more. You'll get a better bokeh for the closeups and less noise.

  • Heather October 21, 2011 03:43 am

    Thanks for the tips. I do a lot of natural light photography.

  • Hari Mali October 20, 2011 05:53 pm

    Nice technique

    Hari Mali

  • Adriana Morett October 20, 2011 05:43 pm

    Very good article, loved the diagram! ;)

  • ccting October 20, 2011 12:25 pm

    Very practical and useful advice. I take the note down and put into my wallet.

  • ccting October 20, 2011 12:16 pm

    wow, handsome boy..

  • Ed Verosky October 20, 2011 09:12 am

    Deirdre, it was called, Golden Boy Natural and located right next to Lenny's on 98th/Broadway.

  • Gnslngr45 October 20, 2011 04:59 am

    Huge benefit to living in a downtown metropolis. Here, there are only houses, houses, highways, and stand alone chain restaurants. Would love to be around buildings that have character.


  • Deirdre October 20, 2011 04:45 am

    Beautiful photos. The texture of the location adds so much.

    Having grown up on the Upper West Side, I'm very curious to know what the store that closed was.

  • chicago wedding photography October 20, 2011 03:43 am

    thanks for the advice,i'm newbie in wedding photography

  • Erik Kerstenbeck October 20, 2011 01:35 am

    Great article and tips!

    Sometimes there is not choice of the time of day and you are caught in a session during hard light! Finding shade is a great solution. Having some off camera flash can help as well for fill light. With the exception of the first image which was shot with a diffuser, the next two were in the shade of an old plane, whith a speedlight off camera.