Practical Tips to Help You Improve Your Natural Light Portraits

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I love making natural light portraits. It’s a genre of photography that used to scare me, but that I have come to enjoy more than most others.

Natural light portraits are photographs of people, or animals, making use of only the available, or ambient, light. There’s no flashlight, studio strobe, or any form of continuous light added to the subject.

When I first worked in the editorial photography department at a newspaper, I had to learn quickly to be able to make natural light portraits. I was afraid of photographing people and of using a flash. Overcoming my fear of taking portraits was necessary if I wanted to keep my job. Most photos in the newspaper had at least one person in them. Making the most of natural light was also imperative. I always had to return from an assignment with a publishable photo.

learn portrait photography in natural light

In this article about natural light portrait photography, I want to share with you a selection of the most practical tips I’ve learned. I hope these will inspire you to see the light and know how to make the best use of it to create the most wonderful portraits.

Portrait of a woman with a baby elephant in natural light.
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Portrait Photography That’s All About the Light

This article is all about the light and how best to make use of it, whether it’s hard, with harsh, dark shadows, or whether it’s soft and gentle coming through a window or in the open shade outdoors. Here are some tips that will help you best use the light to create mood and atmosphere in your portrait photography.

Tip #1: Decide the Mood, then Choose Your Light

The style of light illuminating your subject has a huge influence on the mood of a portrait. 

Hard light produces harsh shadows. This type of light can evoke dark feelings or exuberant ones. But it will rarely produce a gentle, loving feeling. Soft light tends to produce a more chill atmosphere. This is better for bridal portraits, and at any time you want to capture peaceful style portraits.

Look at the light before shooting portraits and decide what mood it could evoke. Will this best fit with what you and your subject want?

black and white portrait of a ballerina.
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Tip #2: Use Hard Light for Happy or Melancholic Portraits

Hard light produces harsh shadows and is generally more dramatic. Usually, shadows appear around the eyes and nose of a portrait subject. How you position a model’s face in relation to the direction of the light determines where these shadows fall, how you manage your exposure settings influences their density.

Exposing for the highlights often means you will see no detail in the shadows. This can create feelings of melancholy and evoke a sense of mystery. Setting your exposure for darker areas means the highlights are brighter. This often creates a lighter, more joyful atmosphere in portrait photography.

The natural light that is hard typically comes from the sun on a cloudless day. Many photographers avoid this style of natural light photography. This is because capturing a good exposure in this type of lighting is more challenging.

High contrast natural light portrait of a girl.
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Tip #3: Create More Relaxed and Flattering Portraits with Soft Light

Soft light is much more flattering for a model than harsh light. This type of lighting will not show up skin blemishes so much. The shadows will not have such a hard edge or are so dense. When the light is very soft, and from a large light source, there may be little or no shadow on a model’s face.

This type of light produces a more gentle mood when you’re shooting natural light portraits. From romantic couple images to corporate portraits, using soft light often produces a pleasing result.

The tone range is narrower when using natural light in portrait photography that is soft. So it’s easier for photographers to capture a good exposure.

natural light portrait of a smiling woman.
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Tip #4: Natural Light Portraits with Front Light

Many photographers find that front light is the easiest to work with. Front light produces the fewest shadows, if any. This depends somewhat on whether it’s hard light or soft light. 

The front light is the least dramatic, most neutral style of portrait lighting. Make a natural light portrait in the open shade with your model facing the direction of the brightest light source. This will result in a flattering, even light on their face. 

Photo of a woman's face.

Tip #5: Natural Light Portraits with Side Light

Regardless of whether you are taking natural light portraits in hard light or soft light. Having the light source to the side of your subject creates more depth and emotion than a front light.

Side lighting a portrait means there will be more shadow on your model’s face. You have to take care when positioning your model, so the shadows fall where they look best. Using natural light from one side of your model can be done using window light, open shade, or even in bright sunshine. 

Portrait of a man with a black background.
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Tip #6: Natural Light Portraits with Back-lighting

Back-lighting is one of my favorite types of lighting when I am taking a natural light portrait. Especially during the golden hour. At this time of day, when the sun is low in the sky, the light is rich and warm. It’s just prior to sunset and a little after sunrise.

Shooting portraits with back-lighting can be challenging. Especially when the light is very bright and coming directly into your camera lens. This can throw your exposure settings out and mean that your model’s face is underexposed if you are not careful.

When you use a reflector for making natural light portraits with back-lighting, it helps create a balance. When you have a background that’s in the shade, this can make your subjects really stand out.

Backlit portrait of a woman.

Tip #7: Sunrise, Sunset, and Golden Hour Portraits

Natural light portrait photography at sunrise, sunset, and during the golden hour can produce the most pleasing images. Natural light has a special quality at these times, especially on a sunny day.

When the sun is low in the sky, it travels through more of the earth’s atmosphere before it comes to illuminate your model. It can take on a softer, warmer quality than when the sun is higher in the sky during the middle of the day. At these times, shadows are longer and more dramatic.

Make the most of the natural light at sunrise, sunset, and during the golden hour to create loving, romantic photos.

Smiling man in the sunshine.

Tip #8: Natural Lighting During the Blue Hour

The quality of natural light is different just before sunrise and shortly after sunset. This is the time of day known as the blue hour. The light is often fairly flat and can have a distinctive blue hue. 

Using this sort of lighting, you can make a dark, moody style of portrait. Because the light is generally low, capturing the surroundings and any detail in the background can be more challenging. You have to use a slower shutter speed and a higher ISO than during the daytime.

man looking at his phone at dusk.

Tip #9: Make the Best Use of Shadows

No matter what type of light or style of lighting you use to capture the right mood for your portrait, be aware of the shadows. Shadows can make or break a good photo.

You may have read lots of rules and opinions about the right and wrong way to use shadows in portraiture. I don’t think a photographer should stick to these, but rather look and see if how the shadows fall are creating the type of photo they want.

Be aware of the shadows. Make sure they fit with the style of photo you want to take.

Portrait photo of a Buddhist nun.
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Tip #10: Choose the Best Location and Background

To create the best portraits, photographers have to think of many things. What camera and lens combination is best? How comfortable is the model? Do they want a dramatic or more subdued image? Where is the best location, and what is the best background to use?

Often, the best location depends a lot on the lighting and what will be in the background. Having contrast between the model and the background can create problems. In other situations, it can make creating a fabulous portrait in natural light much easier. 

I love to set up a portrait with a background that’s in the shade. The key is having more light on your subject than on the background.

Natural light portrait of a woman with a dark background.
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Tip #11: Use a Reflector when Taking Natural Light Portraits

Using a reflector is not cheating. This accessory allows a photographer to be much more creative with their portrait process. Well used, a reflector can help fill in unwanted shadows and reduce the overall contrast in portrait photos.

You can make good use of a reflector in bright sun or in the shade. Even in very dull light, a reflector can come in handy and help you create a more dramatic and interesting light on a subject’s face. 

When a photographer is shooting with the help of a reflector, it is best to have an assistant to point the reflector in the right direction.

Two women laughing.
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Tip #12: Be Aware of Color Casts in Your Natural Light Portrait Images

During the blue hour and the golden hour, natural light has a different color cast. This can have an effect on the mood of your photos. In bright sun, a color cast can also be a problem. 

Whenever I set up my natural light outdoor studio in a grassy area, I lay down some white plastic sheeting. I do this to avoid getting a green cast from the grass in the faces of my subjects. Having a light reflecting off the grass or any other colored surface can create an unattractive hue on the skin of your subjects.

Natural light portrait of an old man.
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Tip #13: Post Process Natural Light Portraits to Match the Mood of the Lighting

If your focus has been to create a dramatic portrait with hard edge shadows, then process your photos to match this. Deepen the dark areas, so they contain little or no detail. Enhance the moodiness in your subject’s face by hiding some of it in this way.

When your creative intent is to produce flattering images of your subjects, you can reduce the overall contrast in your photos. Post-process them so there’s a lower dynamic range and no details are lost in the lightest or darkest areas of the portrait.

If you are new to post-processing portrait photos, you might like to check out these excellent Lightroom Presets.

Creating the Best Portrait Photography in Natural Light

To make the most creative use of the light, you need to be aware of its characteristics. You also must focus on your intent for the style of portrait you want to create. Trying to create a very dramatic portrait in dull light will be hard work. Making a flattering image of your subjects in hard light is equally as challenging.

You can’t control the sun. Or the clouds. So when you’re making natural light portraits, you have to work with the available light. Understanding the characteristics of the two different types of light is a starting point. Your intent for the style of portraits you want to create is also vital. Matching the light to the mood creates a stronger photo every time. 

As with any kind of portraiture, whether you’re using natural light or studio lights, how you communicate with your models is a key to capturing great images of them. Seeing how the light is falling on their face and getting them to move, so it looks best is important. If you cannot articulate what you want your subject to do, then you’ll not be creating the best photos that you can. 

Outdoor natural light portrait at sunset.
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

I often find that when I talk about what I am doing and why, as I set up to take a portrait, my subjects will understand better. Especially if they have an interest in photography. Even when they don’t, they’ll respect that what you are doing is for their benefit.

Look at the light. Anticipate what it’s doing and if it’s changing. Work with it, not against it. Create the best portraits you possibly can as you match the character of the light to the characters you photograph.

learn portrait photography in natural light

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Kevin LJ<span class="bp-verified-badge"></span>
Kevin LJ
Kevin bought his first camera in the early 1980s and started working in the photography department of a daily newspaper a few years later. His whole career is focused on photography and he's covered a multitude of subjects. He loves to photograph people the most. During the past decade, Kevin has begun to teach and write more, sharing his passion for photography with anyone who's willing to learn.

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