How to shoot portraits with natural light

Perhaps the most important thing to consider when shooting portraits in natural light is the location of the shoot. Factors such as indoor or outdoor locations, time of year and indeed time of day, quality of light and background will all affect the shoot.

It’s important to carefully consider each of these before even picking up the camera so you can be ready for any eventuality, because unlike working in a photographic studio environment, you have no direct control over the positioning or the intensity of the light.

(c) Ion Paciu

(c) Ion Paciu

Once you have selected a location for the shoot, the next step is placing your model. The two immediate considerations in deciding where to place the model are the background of the shoot and the direct light on the model.

(c) Ion Paciu

(c) Ion Paciu

The purpose (e.g. head shot, family photo) or intended style of the shoot (e.g. mood, theme) will determine the appropriate background.

As per lighting basics, assess how the direct light affects the model. Light that is too bright or strong will create dramatic shadows on the subject. In addition, if the model is looking into the bright light, they will most definitely squint their eyes!

(c) Arnold Newman

(c) Arnold Newman

Softer light will create less contrast and flatten the composition, and will eliminate harsh or dark shadows from the subject resulting a more even skin tones eliminating the blemishes, but by the same token too hard light will result in dramatic composition.

Some ways to overcome some lighting problems outdoors is to make the use of natural shades, such as foliage or structures such as porches, canopies and arbours. Shooting on a cloudy day will provide diffused but consistent light source.

(c) Ion Paciu

(c) Ion Paciu

Indoor locations are slightly trickier in that unlike outdoor locations, the light will be approaching from a very specific location, such as a window or a door. This of course can be used to a very dramatic effect by creating shadows on one side of the subject, or adding shadow to the shoot (such as window frames).

(c) Sergey Sarakhanov

(c) Sergey Sarakhanov

However, if you intend to avoid dramatic contrast, a solution to overcoming mono-directional light is to carry a reflector to the shoot. This can be positioned to gently reflect the natural light onto the other side of the model.

The key here is to experiment with different positioning of the model and exploring what works best for the composition of the shoot in the selected location. Ensuring you have great communication with the model will go a long way to making this easier.

Camera settings come into play at the end of the chain. Once all the other factors are considered, final tweaks can be made using the camera’s settings to optimise the exposure. In portraits, the camera’s focus should be centred on the eyes. Wider aperture settings will help to blur out the background to draw focus on the face, and white balance settings can be tweaked to deal with the lighting conditions depending on the season and the time of day.