Portrait Lighting II: Master Portrait Photography Under Natural Light

For many photographers, taking portraits under natural light is the simplest and most common option of all. That way you don’t have to worry about equipment costs. However, you do have to take into account the characteristics of natural light and subordinate your subject’s placement and your exposure settings to these.

Portrait Lighting II: Master Portrait Photography Under Natural Light

When you’re shooting portraits under natural light, you can make do with just your camera alone. But working this way does have the downside of restricting your creativity, because natural light has some fixed properties that you have to adapt to. And what’s more, it can change quickly and unpredictably.

The Sharp Noon Sun Will Be a Problem

Over the course of the day, you’ll see changes in the light’s intensity, color, quality, and direction. And you have only very limited means for directly influencing these.

Still, using the exposure settings for your camera (aperture, shutter, and ISO), you can cover just about any light conditions. But you’ll always have to take those conditions into account. So you can’t, for example, use a low f-stop on a sunny day to separate your subject from their background, because then the photo would be overexposed.

According to the basic exposure guideline that’s called the Sunny 16, at noontime when the sun is shining the brightest, with an ISO of 100, a cloudless sky, and an exposure time of 1/100 second, the correct f-stop is f/16.

So if you set these exposure values in your camera, you’ll get a well-exposed portrait. But keep in mind that the background behind your subject will be very visible, because the photo will have a large depth of field.

Portrait Photography Under Natural Light: sharp sun.

1/100 s, f/16, ISO 100, focal length 145 mm. I’m simulating sunlight here by using a strong spotlight, which emits light that strongly resembles sunlight. At high noon the light is high above the subject’s head. It’s very intense, neutrally colored, and a very poor fit for portrait photography (it’s too harsh and creates sharp shadows). Within the subject, you can clearly see areas with deep shadows and overexposed lights.

Portrait Photography Under Natural Light: sharp sun with shorter exposure time.

1/6400 s, f/2, ISO 100, focal length145 mm. Shortening the exposure time by 6 EV lets you lower the f-stop enough to blur the background. This effect is strengthened through the use of a telephoto lens with a relatively short focal length. Still, none of this can change the bad fundamentals of the light that’s hitting the subject. This light is unflattering and, again, not at all good for portraits.

Only advanced cameras will let you use an exposure time that’s as short as was used in my last illustration. For basic DSLRs, you can generally find minimum times of around 1/2000 to 1/4000 of a second.

If your camera doesn’t let you use a short enough exposure, then it’s time to use an accessory that can influence natural light—specifically, that light’s intensity. I’m talking about a neutral density (ND) filter.

With this type of filter, you reduce the amount of light passing through the lens. This lets you set a lower f-stop while keeping the same exposure time. In my example, after applying an ND filter with a 3 EV correction, you could use a shutter speed of 1/800 s, which practically every camera can handle.

To some extent, a polarizing filter can serve the same role as an ND filter; it can usually reduce light input by 1 to 2 EV.

Diffuse the Light

Your daytime picture-taking situation changes dramatically the moment the sun hides behind the clouds. Its light’s intensity drops by 2 to 3 EV, and its quality improves—it’s dispersed and stops producing ugly contrasts on your subject.

The only property that will see some mild degradation is light temperature. Ignore it, and your subject’s surroundings will be desaturated, and your pictures will feel colder.

But fortunately you can very easily compensate for this via your camera’s white balance settings. Just set the white balance to Cloudy (the cloud icon).

Portrait Photography Under Natural Light: dispersed sun.

1/1600 s, f/2, ISO 100, focal length145 mm. I added a large diffusion surface to my simulation setup; it simulates clouds covering the sun. This has reduced the light intensity by 2 EV, which you can see due to the shadow of the diffusion panel. This has dispersed the light perfectly, making it a much better fit for the portrait.

Portrait Photography Under Natural Light: dispersed sun and black reflector.

1/1600 s, f/2, ISO 100, focal length 145 mm. The portrait in the previous illustration is lighted evenly from all sides, because the light is dispersed perfectly. However, that also makes it flat. So I’ve used a black reflector to block the light from one side, to get better-defined shadows.

The illustrations above naturally lead us on to two important accessories through which you can influence light characteristics. The first of these is a diffuser.

You can buy this diffusion device in a photo supplies store in the form of collapsible panels in all shapes and sizes. You can also get superb light diffusion from ordinary tracing paper, although that paper isn’t as widely available today as it was in pre-digital times.

Curtains and translucent drapes are also classic examples of diffusion surfaces. Meanwhile 5-in-1 reflectors are also very popular; these cheap and portable accessories offer a diffusion surface and four reflection surfaces, including black, in a single accessory.

Portrait Photography Under Natural Light: 5 in 1 reflector.

A 5 in 1 reflector. A diffusion surface is stretched onto a metal frame. Different reflection surfaces (white, silver, gold, and black) are then “worn” on top of this.

You work with a diffusion surface by placing it between the sun and your subject. The closer the diffusion surface is to your subject, the stronger its light-diffusing effect.

Then place a black reflector on the side of your subject that faces away from the sun. This will emphasize the shadow side of your portrait.

However, using these accessories tends to take some effort and require the help of at least one assistant. And yet there is also the possibility of buying a special arm for your tripod to hold and position your reflection and diffusion surfaces.

The Best Times for Outdoor Portraits: Morning and Evening

Taking pictures during the day when the sun is high in the sky and gives off bad light is demanding, and the results won’t always be great. You also often need long preparations and an assistant to help with diffusing the light.

In the morning and evening, when the sun hangs low over the horizon, things are different. The Earth’s atmosphere, which contains a large amount of evaporated water, also works as a perfect diffuser. And at the same time the light is tinted towards pleasant warm shades.

If you get up early to take your pictures, you can even make use of the morning mist, which gives your pictures a great atmosphere.

But getting up at 4 a.m. in the summer so that you’re ready to take pictures by 5 isn’t for everyone. So generally you’ll be trying to at least use the golden light of the evening.

Portrait Photography Under Natural Light: simulation of evening light.

1/500 s, f/2, ISO 100, focal length145 mm. In the evening the light is more diffuse and has a golden tint that serves portraits well.

Seek Open Shade

However, sometimes you don’t have a say in when you’ll take your pictures. Sometimes you can’t even bring accessories and an assistant with you to adjust the light quality. Weddings are a good example. In this kind of situation, you’ll have to count on having only limited time to shoot your portrait, and having to do it in the worst possible light.

The most appropriate way to deal with such a situation is to place your subject in what’s called “open shade.” Vertical structures and other vertical objects cast this kind of shade. When you step into it, you’re standing in shadow, and yet you have the open sky above you.

Portrait Photography Under Natural Light: open shadow.

The model in this illustration is standing in open shade.

Portrait Photography Under Natural Light: open shadow and diffuse light.

The model is shaded entirely and has the light source behind her back. She’s lighted using diffuse light that’s reflected onto her from her bright surroundings. She’s blending into her surroundings somewhat.

Portrait Photography Under Natural Light: open shadow without reflection.

Moving the model further from the wall separates her from her background better. Both by shifting the background farther away from the focal plane and, above all, by shifting the model’s head and shoulders out of the open shade. My light source (the simulated sun) is now taking on the role of a hair light and of a rim light—one that separates my subject from her background.

Portrait Photography Under Natural Light: open shadow with reflection.

When the sun’s light is reflected onto your model using a reflector (a silver one in this case), you get a perfectly lighted portrait even in the lowest-quality natural light.

Shoot in Closed Spaces

When you’re taking pictures in natural light, you’ll get the best results in closed spaces.

If you place your subject in a relatively dark room with a large, spacious window, the window will take on the role of a giant softbox. Ideally the sun shouldn’t be shining onto it directly. That’s why photo studios have their windows facing north.

But if the window is under direct sunlight, you can cover it with some kind of diffusion surface. That way you can direct the light towards your subject however you need. You’ll just be moving your subject around the light source instead of moving the light source around your subject.

Portrait Photography Under Natural Light: light from the window - head-on..

By placing your subject directly across from the window, you light them head-on.

Portrait Photography Under Natural Light: light from the window - from side.

For a more “spatially interesting” picture, position your subject a little to the side.

In Bad Light, Use Artificial Lights to Help

Shooting portraits in natural light is mainly demanding because you have limited possibilities for adjusting that light. But with the right equipment, you can do it.

In the next article in this series, you’ll learn about work with artificial (permanent and flash) light. While that does mean a larger investment into equipment, you have this light entirely under your control.

But you’ll get the very most creative freedom out of a combination of natural and artificial light, as you’ll learn in the last part of our series of articles on portrait photo lighting.

Last updated 4. September 2018

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Author: Jan Zeman

I’ve been digitally editing pictures since 1996. I started taking pictures in 2006, and since then I’ve gradually been becoming a full-time photographer. In my work, I focus on portrait, architecture, cityscape, and product/advertising photography.

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