Tips for Making Natural Light Portraits

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Natural light portraits are honestly one of my favourites, they have this extra feel that studio portraits don’t. Compared to studio portraits, they are much easier – you don’t need to learn all the lighting techniques. They are also much cheaper, you don’t need to buy any strobes, flashes, or light modifiers such as soft boxes beauty dishes. Studio portraits are really fun but they are much more difficult than doing natural light portraits.

Starting off, making portraits with natural light is a first great step. It will enable you to work on your composition, your communication with your model, and help you build your confidence. Then you can decide whether or not you want to invest in studio equipment.

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Camera gear and settings

There are some simple tips and tricks to get the most out of your portraits with natural light. But let’s start with camera settings and camera gear first.

Shoot in manual mode

The ideal situation is to have total control over your settings, so I would highly recommend using manual mode. I recently wrote an article about using manual mode, so you can go check it out here; How to Use Manual Mode to Make Artistic Choices for Your Photography.

Shutter speed

You need a minimum shutter speed of around 1/100th of a second (or faster). This is very important as it helps you avoid blurry images as your model will be in constant movement most of the time.

Aperture and blurring the background

To get a soft background blur, you want to use the largest aperture possible – around f/4 works but the ideal would be f/1.8. If you want a larger aperture than f/1.8 the lenses can become quite pricey.

If you don’t have that kind of lens, you can still get nice results but separation (space) between the model and the background is needed. This really helps to drag the viewer’s attention to the model and avoid any unnecessary distractions. If you want to show the background behind your model then use a smaller aperture. I have an article on how to achieve background blur, I speak about bokeh in more detail there.

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What lens to use?

If you are using a long (telephoto) lens then a large aperture isn’t as critical because you will automatically have some background blur separation. Long lenses are the best for portraits because they compress the subject to background very nicely. Avoid wide angles lenses because they distort the subject’s face and amplify features like the nose or the forehead. Try to use lenses with a minimum focal length of 50mm with a full frame sensor and 35 mm with an APS cropped sensor.

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ISO

For the ISO, choose the lowest possible option taking in consideration that your shutter speed must be 1/100th of a second or higher. Using the light meter in your camera, you can get a fast shutter speed by adjusting your ISO if the lighting conditions are low. But, knowing that you will be using a larger aperture as well, that shouldn’t be a big problem.

Shortcut – Aperture Priority Mode

One tip I can give is to use Aperture Priority mode if you are a lazy photographer (or smart?) like me. During an outdoor shoot, the light will change frequently and you will need to adjust your settings whether it’s the shutter speed or the ISO (I usually never adjust my aperture).

When you are making portraits, you will get into the shoot very quickly and with manual mode you need to constantly change your settings. The probability of missing a lot of good photos because you forgot to adjust your settings is very high. It’s very frustrating when you get the perfect pose only to realize the image is way too dark or way too bright because your settings were wrong.

I gave up on manual mode because I always forgot, so I now only use Aperture Priority and raise my ISO to 400 to force my camera to use a fast shutter speed. Don’t make the mistake of using ISO 100 in Aperture Priority with low light and ending up getting blurry images.

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Use RAW files and underexpose

I recommend shooting RAW and underexpose your images slighting using exposure compensation.

This is very important because sometimes you will accidentally expose for the shadows and that will automatically overexpose your images. The problem with that is that you will lose all the information in the model’s skin tone and if those areas area burned you may not be able to recover detail there.

A RAW file also lowers the probability of losing any information in your image because you have a bigger margin of recovery. Since you are underexposing your images slightly, you will be able to correct the exposure later in post-production. It’s a bit technical but this is the best way to have all the necessary information in your image, burned-out pixels are the worst enemy a portrait portrait photographer can have.

Another solution is to turn on the highlight alert for your camera (most entry level cameras have this setting) and every time you take an image, the burned-out pixels (clipped highlight areas) will show up in red (or blink). This is very useful because every time you see this it means that there is no information in that area, it’s just a pure white point which is not recoverable.

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I underexposed this image to have all the detail in the skin.

Location and lighting conditions

One thing you must avoid is taking portraits with harsh light (during the day and facing the sun). This increases the features of the face (emphasizing any blemishes and flaws) with harsh shadows and the result is not flattering. One tip I can give you to help you determine if you will have good light for a portrait is to look at the shadows (on the ground) of people passing by in the streets. If the shadow is very harsh (strong outline), you will probably not get good light but if the shadow is very soft (fuzzy or undefined) then the light is perfect for making portraits.

One main aspect of natural light portraits is soft light. There are five different possibilities to get beautiful soft light on your model’s face.

Five lighting options

#1 – Use window light, it will give you a very nice soft light on your model’s face.

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Portrait taking using natural window light.

#2 – Take portraits during sunset, you will have the softest light possible.

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Portrait taken at sunset.

#3 – Take portraits on an overcast day, the sky will become a huge softbox with very soft light.

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Portrait taken during an overcast day.

#4 – Take portraits on a street where buildings or apartments are blocking the sun (like an alleyway).

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When it’s bright outside, try to look for buildings that block direct sunlight.

#5 – Use a light diffuser in the middle of the day, this will turn harsh light into soft light.

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The location doesn’t really matter because most of the time the background will be blurred, but the light is crucial so overtime you want to take a portrait make sure to have one of these different possibilities.

Conclusion

I hope that gives you some tips for making natural light portraits. Find a friend to pose for you and try it out. Please share your photos and questions in the comments section below.

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Yacine Bessekhouad

is a young student who is currently living in France. What attracts him the most to photography is the technical and aesthetic feel. He loves talking and writing about photography and also makes weekly photography and post production tutorials on his YouTube channel. He shares most of his work on his Instagram account.

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  • Michael

    This is a good article. However, there was some controversial information. I have been
    shooting for about 12 years with DSLRs and a lot of time I had to shoot some
    portraits outdoor. Number one you said to try to underexpose images, according
    to most renowned experts, the best way to expose was to the right of your
    histogram. So it’s always better a little bit to overexpose (the best to
    get right exposure) than to underexpose so you can easily reclaim the
    overexposed pixels in Light Room or Photoshop. The reason is that the most data
    is stored in midtone and highlights not in shadows so if you
    are underexposing your images and trying to lighten up the shadow, you end
    up with noisy shadows. Number two is related to outdoor shooting with light
    background. You must to use either a reflector or fill-up flash to keep the
    subject face and body properly exposed. Have you ever try to shoot the subject
    under a tree with sunny background? You can use spot metering mode of
    cause, but your background will be washed out. I am not a professional
    photographer but a very much passionate and advanced hobbyist. Most of the
    time my friends and relatives wants me to shoot them against nice and memorable
    background so I have to make sure that background is sharp too. So I use
    smaller aperture like f/6.3 to f/11 and shutter speeds in the range of 1/100 to
    1/160 with auto ISO in Aperture Av for Canon priority mode. Thanks!

  • Pete Mueller

    Agree with Michael’s point. DPS had a great article titled “Exposing to the Right” by Elliot Hook a couple of years ago. I pulled out a few sentences here:

    “Whilst you might think that each of the seven stops in the range of the
    sensor record an even number of tones throughout the dynamic range, you
    would be mistaken. F-stops are logarithmic in nature meaning that each
    stop records half of the light of the previous one. Practically, this
    means that the brightest stop records half of the possible number of
    tones, i.e. 2048, the second stop records half again, i.e. 1024, and so
    on until the seventh stop that records only 32 tonal levels.”

    While important to control exposure to prevent blowing out the image (hard if not impossible to correct when that happens), purposefully shifting to the left loses substantial amounts of data that can prove valuable in post-processing.

    Recommend a re-reading of that article.

    Cheers…

  • JSummar

    Gorgeous photos! Great tips! Thank you.

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