Understanding Natural Light Portrait Photography: A Guide to Learning to See Light

Understanding Natural Light Portrait Photography: A Guide to Learning to See Light

natural-light-portrait2.jpgA Guest Post by Heather Bettison at Digital-Photography-Advisor.com

Has buying the right studio lighting setup stopped you from taking your portrait photography seriously? It shouldn’t. You can take great portraits with natural light.

Photography is about light. Learning how to see light is essential to developing your photographic eye. When taking pictures, being able to determine the intensity, color and direction of the light will help you know how to position your subject and which camera settings to use.

Intensity of Light

Direct intense light can be quite harsh. You often find these conditions on bright sunny days. Harsh light intensifies the contrast between light and shadows and can be very unflattering. When you take pictures in harsh sunlight your subject often ends up with shadowy eye sockets that make them look tired.

When working with diffused less intense light, contrast is lower and the light is more flattering. When the sun is shining brightly overhead there are a few things you can do to diffuse the light.

Find some cover. Shade can act as a great diffuser. Try to photograph your subject under the cover of a porch, awning, or the shade of tree cover. When working in shade make sure the subject is evenly covered by the shade. Any specks of bright sunlight shining on them will detract from the look of the picture.

If you don’t have any shade in the area, you can diffuse the light with a scrim. Simply place the scrim between your subject and the light source.

Overcast days are good for natural light portrait photography because the cloud cover acts as a natural diffuser. Even on overcast days you may find yourself in need of a fill flash to help your subject’s features stand out in the picture.

If you are taking pictures inside and relying on a window as your light source, move your subject away from the window to lessen the intensity of the light. You can also cover the window with sheer curtains or use a scrim between your subject and the window to help diffuse the light.

Color of Light

natural-light-portrait1.jpgSome light is cool and has more of a bluish tint. Some light is warm and has more of a golden tint. Our eyes naturally adjust to changes in the color of light to keep colors looking the same in various lighting situations. Our cameras don’t do that. That’s why white balance is so important. When working with natural light you can use the white balance setting that is appropriate to the type of light your working with, like sunny, shade, or cloudy for example.

These white balance choices may not always give you the correct color in the picture though. The color of the objects the light reflects off of will influence the color of the light. If the color on your picture is not right it can make your subjectís skin look sickly. The best white balance results can be found when you use your custom white balance. Keep a gray card in your camera bag so you can set your custom white balance at every shoot. You can buy a gray card at any camera store.


Knowing where the light is coming from will help you know where to position your subject to get the best picture. It’s natural to assume that the best way to position your subject is with the sunlight shining directly into the face to light up their features. This isn’t usually the best choice. Looking towards the sun will make your subject squint. It will also cause shadows around the eyes that make them tired. Instead, try positioning your subject with the sun behind them. The backlight this provides will cast nice highlights around the hair. With the sun behind them, use a reflector or a fill flash to fill in the shadows and light up the face for the picture. Another good option is to place your subject with the sun to the side and slightly behind them.

If you have a hard time determining where to place your subject in relation to the light source, try this exercise to help you see where the light is falling. Position your subject in the area where you want to photograph them. Stand as far away from them as you plan to be when you take the picture. Now walk completely around your subject noticing the light from all angles. Once you’ve walked around them once, walk a circle around them again slowly. This time have your subject turn with you so they are facing you the entire time. Look at their face closely and notice the changes in light as they face different directions. Notice how the light touches their features and where the shadows land. Notice how the light catches their eyes in each position. Once you find the best direction for your subject to face, take your pictures.

Learning to see light will take time. As you recognize the qualities of light, positioning your subject in the best light will become easier and easier.

See more from Heather Bettison at Digital-Photography-Advisor.com

Read more from our category

Guest Contributor This post was written by a guest contributor to dPS.
Please see their details in the post above.

Become a Contributor: Check out Write for DPS page for details about how YOU can share your photography tips with the DPS community.

Some Older Comments

  • Lucie May 3, 2012 01:47 pm

    I can't find words to describe how this website makes me better and better photographer every day. I've never found better teaching source on the internet than yours. Seriously, your website is a real treasure for me!

  • Siby Francis September 16, 2011 03:17 pm

    Very helpful article. I tried a hand at portraiture and fell in love with it.
    I would love it if you guys could take a look at my pictures here at
    and leave your valuable comments and reviews on the same.
    Thanks again,
    Siby Francis

  • Jean-Pierre August 22, 2011 11:06 pm

    Not a portrait but used natural light for this macro shot. Loooooove natural light.


  • Dewan Demmer August 18, 2011 05:21 am

    Nice article, natural light is not always as easy as people think. On a sunny day with so much light we have to compensate and take the excess into consideration, another thing that we have I am learning is different light and skin tone.
    I have a nice set of outdoor photos, with bright morning sun and darker skin tones. I agree whole heartedly do not pose you subject straight into the sun.

  • Carlos Ramirez August 10, 2011 10:01 pm

    Very good article; stuff like this is a must to master in order to get better at photography. Nicely done

  • Shobhit August 6, 2011 05:29 am

    Nice article. understanding light where you are shooting is definitely something to consider in the first place...

  • Mika August 5, 2011 09:51 am

    That exercise is just what I needed!

    Question: I know the use of a gray card, but how do I use it with white balance in camera? i have no idea how.

  • Paul C August 5, 2011 07:12 am

    I found this very helpful as well. You mentioned using a scrim to diffuse the light... do you have any recommendations for a particular brand/scrim to use in the field (for weddings primarily)? Looking on B&H it loads hundreds upon hundreds and most seem to be studio setups that are far too big to carry around. Thank you!

  • Heather August 3, 2011 08:37 pm

    Thanks for all your comments. I'm glad you enjoyed the article.

  • Senthil August 3, 2011 10:41 am

    Excellent tip...great

  • jenny August 3, 2011 09:55 am

    I LOVE your trick to test light on your subject's face by walking all the way around them. I can't wait to try this on my next shoot -

    So stoked to have found this site, it is my savior!! haha
    thanks for sharing all of your knowledge!
    : ) Jenny

  • Madison Raine August 3, 2011 02:06 am

    I love using natural lighting for my photos, I rarely use my flash, or get some lights set up (to much work). Portraits are great with just natural lighting, some times though you might need a little extra lighting though.

  • Rich Copley August 3, 2011 02:05 am

    Nice article. I often read people who seem to think natural light photography is easier that flash, and au contraire. Recently I found myself leaning too much on flash and flash modifiers and decided to make a point of shooting more natural light. It can be challenging when you can't dial the sun down to 1/8 or 1/16th.

    Nice post, Heather, and for the record, the top photo on the DPS Facebook page is what prompted me to read this.

  • Carolyn Chentnik August 3, 2011 01:43 am

    Thanks for the article. Light is really one of the things I'm focusing more on.

    Took this the other day, early morning sunflower.

    Morning Sunflower

  • Bekah August 3, 2011 12:50 am

    Great article! I normally try and make a complete circle around a subject (person or not) to find the best light.

    I do have trouble sometimes getting the color of light I desire...and will probably be purchasing a gray card soon :)

  • PhotoshopWarrior August 2, 2011 08:41 pm

    Direction is one of the most important parts for taking photos, love this post Man

  • Heather August 2, 2011 08:00 pm

    @Mandy and @mei teng - Thanks I'm glad you found the post valuable

    @joann, sidewalk chic and @scottc - I find the exercise at the end to be useful too. I'm glad you liked it.

    @to be fair - I'm sorry you found my pictures to be uninspiring and substandard. I guess I'll call this a learning experience. Thanks for sharing your opinion.

    @jake townsen - Thanks for the tip about using your hand find good light. I'll have to try that.

    @adam ansel - Thanks for the tips. I agree that taking picture in natural light is difficult. You can indeed get good pictures in harsh daylight with the right tools.

    @Erik Kerstenbeck - Thanks for sharing your picture with us.

  • Erik Kerstenbeck August 2, 2011 04:10 pm


    This was shot in harsh light but wide open using a fine 70-200mm f2.8 Nikkor lens...the background has wonderful Bokeh...and great expression on this brave Jockey in advance of the Horse Race in Del Mar California!

    PS Great Article!


  • Adam Ansel August 2, 2011 03:05 pm

    The "color" as you put it is relative to the temperature of the light and the white balance settings in the camera. You may or may not want to clarify that for people to understand. Simple physics could make a vast impact on the quality of the images.

    Sure you can give advice on how you see light, but people have different perceptions and understandings of how they see things. What you fail to mention is that shooting in natural light commands more understanding then studio lights, strokes, flashes, other forms of artificial light. Masters of photography have explained that the fundamental understanding and technical ability to make sound images using natural light is the hardest form of making portraits. Half of what you mention is in fact correct, but you're lacking so many details.

    "When the sun is shining brightly overhead there are a few things you can do to diffuse the light." diffuse using a multitude of tools to block light, fill with a strobe, flash, or bounce with a reflector. if you want to get creative, position the light behind the subject and fill from the front with a reflector. even if you don't have a reflector, you can bounce using objects in your immediate surroundings.

    To properly educate people, it would help if you have all the proper resources and conceptual ideas necessary to place people in the right direction.

    Shooting in harsh day light roughly 11am-3pm is always tough. but with the right tools, creativity, and a technical know how you can yield some amazing results. and if you over expose, reducing the shadows on a persons face, don't throw the image away, convert it to black and white and pump up the contrast. you'll make a great black and white portrait....

  • New Tripod August 2, 2011 02:34 pm

    I like the direction part very much. This is a new thing to try out.

  • Jake Townsen August 2, 2011 12:15 pm

    A good field tip is to use your hand as a light/shadow reader. Think of how Queen Elizabeth waves her hand, thats the position you want your hand to be in. Then move your hand around and pay attention to how the light falls on the palm side. This is pretty much how the light will fall on your subjects face. When the light looks nice and even on your hand, place your subject in the same position as your hand.

    Gotta admit it looks funny, similar to someone tripping out on "trails", but it works great. Clients get a kick out of it when you explain to them what you are doing.

  • Mei Teng August 2, 2011 10:29 am

    I like the direction tip very much. Thanks for sharing.

  • scottc August 2, 2011 09:45 am

    Interesting exercise described at the end, I'll give that a try (when I have a patient subject).


  • To Be Fair August 2, 2011 08:16 am

    It is awesome you have so many guest photographers these days writing articles but seriously you need good photos in the story to keep it compelling. It is a decent article but I thought twice about actually even reading it because they are substandard photos (in my opinion) and do not inspire me to believe I can take photos as good as the examples (they are supposed to be shots that are so good I have to work to get them).

  • joann, sidewalk chic August 2, 2011 07:51 am

    Great post -- and I love the exercise at the end of moving your subject around in the light. I do a lot of self-portrait and landscape photography, and it's so important to get a feel for what to expect in outdoor, natural light.

  • Mandy August 2, 2011 07:30 am

    I like the direction excerise at the end, very useful!

    Great advice for any type of natural light photography, I do a lot of food photography using natural light and it's a case of give it a go, the more I shoot the more I'm learning about light.

    Great post thanks