Simple Tips for Positioning Your Portrait Subject to Leverage Natural Light

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When I’m on a photo shoot, I always carry two flash guns with me. However, when it’s a family outing or holiday, the flash guns are left behind in favor of kiddie stuff I need to lug around and I shoot using purely natural light, without even a reflector to help. It does help that I carry a prime lens that opens up to f/1.4 should I need or want to shoot indoors.

Here are my tips for making portraits using purely natural light.

On a sunny day, there is so much light that it makes it quite hard to take portraits, contrary to what many would think. I generally don’t like taking portraits with the sun directly hitting the face of my subject, so that makes the job even harder on such a bright day.

Simple Tips for Positioning Your Portrait Subject to Leverage Natural Light

The first thing to be mindful of is the direction of light – is it coming from overhead, at an angle of 45 degrees or higher or lower? As you cannot physically move the sun, you are going to have to move your subject instead. Think of positioning your subject as leveraging natural light to make a pleasing portrait.

Outdoors

Here are some outdoor scenarios where you can position your subject and avoid direct bright sunlight.

In the shade

My go-to (and easiest) spot is a shaded or sheltered area. Ideally, find a large enough shaded area so that your entire subject is covered in shade. You don’t want dappled light or parts of the body overexposed by being in the sun while the rest of the person is in the shade.

Areas of shade could be under a tree or in the shadow of a tall structure such as the wall of a building as in the photo on the left below. This gives you even lighting over a large area and even exposure too with no hard shadows.

Compare the left photo to the right one where the subject is wearing a hat. I metered on her face and because she was furthered shadowed by the hat, the exposure increased a tad and the rest of the image then got brighter. This can be evened out quite easily in post-production by adding a soft vignette.

Simple Tips for Positioning Your Portrait Subject to Leverage Natural Light

With a very bright backlight

Sometimes you find yourself at a location that doesn’t offer enough shade or there is a lack of large structures to provide shelter. You would end up shooting in a bright wide-open space and your only option is to shoot backlit or at least provide shade to your subject’s face.

The difficulty with shooting backlit is that you would need to have ample fill light to compensate for the very strong backlight. You can either use your camera’s built-in flash or use some kind of reflector. That could be a light-colored piece of cardboard or a natural reflector in the vicinity, such as a bright path or wall that reflects strong sunlight back onto your subject’s face.

Shooting in an open or semi-open space, like the black and white photo above, where the backlight is a lot stronger than the light illuminating the subject it gets complicated. Unless you are using a flash to counteract the backlight, the background will be blown out. Even if you shoot with a small aperture, the difference in the amount of light between the subject and the background will be too great to get an even exposure without using a fill flash.

Natural reflectors

In the photo below, this was not taken in a fully open space but the shade there was weaker. The hat provided more shade to her face and you can see the left side is a little darker than the right. That makes for a nice gradation of light and shadow as opposed to a flatly-lit portrait.

I leveraged a natural reflector here which was just to camera right – a light colored parasol which reflected the sun onto the girl’s face. You can also see that the background was a lot brighter and more washed out compared to the first photo above left. But it is showing some foliage compared to the photo above right, hence there is more detail rather than just a white blown out sky.

When I find myself in situations like these, I make sure my main focus is the subject’s face and I don’t mind the background being blown or washed out. After all, I am after a portrait of the subject.

Simple Tips for Positioning Your Portrait Subject to Leverage Natural Light

Light from above

Compare the two photos below. The left photo is shot with fairly flat lighting on the face. I made sure the subject was in full shade and the light coming from both the right and left sides was even.

The photo on the right is different in that I asked her to look up a little, thus using the light coming from above and creating a slight gradation of shadow on the right side of her face. Simple positioning of the face in relation to the light source makes a big difference in how your photos look.

Simple Tips for Positioning Your Portrait Subject to Leverage Natural Light

Indoor lighting

In comparison to outdoors, there is usually only a fraction of the amount of light indoors, even with a window present. However, this works to your advantage. The light source is usually one-directional unless you have many windows, and therefore you can use this it to sculpt your subject’s face as it were, choosing where the shadows will fall and creating a moody portrait.

The light in the photo below left was coming from a big window, high up at about 30 – 45 degrees to the subject. You can see the shadow falling on the opposite side of her nose and cheeks creating a darker, moodier feel to the image compared to the photo on the right shot outdoors. Even with just a single light source indoors, you have enough light to play with and create the ambiance you want to portray.

Simple Tips for Positioning Your Portrait Subject to Leverage Natural Light

Over to you

Whether indoors or outdoors, it is always important to be mindful of where the light is coming from, how much light there is, and if there is any contrast of light and shade in the space. Knowing how to leverage the natural light allows you to create the type of mood you are after in your portrait.

Understanding this and practicing how to use available light will make you a better photographer.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Lily Sawyer is a wedding and portrait photographer based in London. Her absolute favourite past time is going on "mummy" dates with her kids and husband. Other than that, as a homebody, she is content curled up on the sofa, hot chocolate in hand, watching films with her family whenever she has a free weekend. Check out her work on www.lilysawyer.com Follow her on her fave social media platform Instagram.

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