Natural light is freely available, requires little or no kit, and comes in enough different forms to keep your portraits looking varied for many years to come. In fact, many professional photographers use natural light exclusively.
Of course, this comes with as many challenges as benefits, with the weather, intensity of the light and time of day being just a few of the variables you’ll need to consider.
You’ll need sufficient light on your subject’s face to create an exposure, but not so much that they end up squinting. You’ll need to protect your kit – and your subject – from extreme conditions. And you’ll need to react as the light changes, sometimes on a minute by minute basis.
Although you’ll never be fully in control of natural light, there are ways you can react to what’s available: you can position your subject cleverly to get the benefits of shade, time your shoot well to benefit from the golden hour or use two low-cost tools – a diffuser and a reflector – to manipulate the light.
Having limitations forces you to be creative. Read the advice on the following pages then go out and get experience in every type of lighting situation – soon you’ll be able to handle anything nature throws at you.
Using window light means you get all the benefits of natural light without having to worry about the weather. There are two main restrictions, the first seasonal: some rooms, particularly with small windows facing away from the equator, may not get enough light in the winter months to make indoor portraiture feasible. The second relates to time of day – obviously you will need to time your shoot for when the sun is strong enough to light the room sufficiently.
Direct and indirect window light
If you have strong, direct sunlight streaming into the room, this can cause the same problems as shooting outdoors without shade – your subject’s eyes may be forced into a squint due to the glare, and there will be high levels of contrast in the image. To resolve this, simply hang a thin, white sheet across the window to diffuse the light.
In the northern hemisphere, a north-facing window will always have indirect light, which has a softer, more diffused quality as it is reflected, but this also means it is weaker. In the southern hemisphere, the opposite is true.
Larger rooms with big, floor to ceiling windows (or patio doors) and pale, plain walls are ideal for window-lit portraiture.
Positioning your subject
The distance between your subject and the window will affect the strength of the light that falls on them. The closer the subject is to the window, the more intense the light will be. However, it falls off faster too, leaving any background looking dark and underexposed. Sometimes this may be desired, especially if the background is cluttered or will otherwise distract from your subject. Sometimes, however, you may want to show the subject in their environment. To do this, move your subject further away from the window, and compensate for the reduced light strength by increasing the ISO, widening the aperture or decreasing your shutter speed. Any object or background that you wish to be correctly exposed needs to be the same distance from the light source as the subject.
The angle of your subject relative to the window will determine the extent and position of any shadows that fall on their face. For flattering shadows that slim your subject’s face, position them 45 degrees to the window. To remove facial shadows completely, have them look towards the window. Remember that ‘narrow lighting’ – with the near side of the face in shadow – is more flattering than ‘broad lighting’ – with the near side of the face lit.
Using a reflector
If you want to lighten any shadows, position a reflector opposite the light source and angle it towards the area you want to brighten. Alternatively, to deepen shadows, you can use the black side of a 5-in-1 reflector, or place very dark fabric on the appropriate side of your subject. These create a barrier stopping reflected light reaching that area of your subject.
It’s a common misconception that good weather results in good portraits – direct sunlight actually presents the most difficult challenge to the photographer out of all natural lighting situations. Aside from during golden hour, the sun is a harsh point of light that makes subjects squint their eyes and creates ugly, unflattering shadows around the contours of their face, highlighting any imperfections. It’s also tricky to expose correctly, because of the high levels of contrast it produces.
Even if you position your subject so that the sun is behind them, you risk unwanted lens flare and still need to overcome the exposure challenge, otherwise your backlit subject’s face will be underexposed. You can alleviate this a little by using a reflector in front of your subject to bounce some light back on to their face, however even a reflector’s glare can be blinding, again causing the subject to close their eyes. Instead, you could angle the reflector so it pushes light towards the ground in front of your subject, which then will result in a small amount being reflected from the floor back onto your subject’s face (the colour and texture of the ground will determine how much).
Sometimes there’s a need to capture a portrait in a large open area with little or no shade when the sun is fierce, and there are no other options other than having the subject face towards the sun. If you don’t want your subject to be squinting, you could have them wear sunglasses, if it suited the mood and intentions of the kind of image you wanted to capture. You could ask them to close their eyes fully and look towards the light, as though they are basking in its warm glow. You could have them look away from the camera, so the squint is not obvious and it’s not so important to have flattering light across their face. Or, you could use a diffuser, so that the subject is shaded from the direct light, while the background behind them is still bathed in sunlight.
If you want to take outdoor portraits in places like beaches and fields, which typically don’t have any shade available, then a diffuser is a worthwhile accessory. They have opaque fabric stretched across a frame, and are positioned between your subject and the sun. They come in several different shapes and sizes – as part of a 5-in-1 circular, collapsible reflector set, triangular versions with a handgrip for solo shooting and larger versions aimed at pros which can be attached to stands for free-standing use. Unless you use the latter two types, you will need someone to assist you by holding it in place.
The more expensive versions have different weights of fabric which block the light to different degrees, in case you want very precise control over the level of diffusion. Look for one that is at least 60cm, and always check your viewfinder to make sure that the edges of the diffuser aren’t visible in the frame, by way of its outline visible as a shadowed shape. Bear in mind that your background may become overexposed, as you will be exposing for your subject’s face, which will be in the shade of the diffuser, while the background may have the full glare of the sun falling on it.
On bright, sunny days, when you want to avoid dark shadows and squinting eyes in your portraits, head for the shade.
You can find shaded light under trees, around buildings, by angling your subject so their face is in the shade, or even by asking your subject to wear a hat, if it suits your intentions for the final shot.
One of the most consistently flattering places to shade a subject for a portrait is just inside a doorway entrance to a building, with yourself positioned outside, shooting back in. When the subject is standing far enough inside that no direct light falls on their face (or just inside the edges of a north-facing doorway in the northern hemisphere or a south-facing doorway in the southern hemisphere), they will be lit purely by reflected light, bouncing back on to them from all sides of the door-frame.
If no doorways are available, look for topshade. This could be under the overhang of a building, or under the branches of a leafy tree. Topshade blocks the direct rays of sun, which means your subject will be surrounded by softer, reflected light. This will result in lower contrast across the scene and smoother-looking skin on your subject. Make sure that dappled sunlight isn’t creeping onto your subject’s face as it will result in blown highlights – areas of pure white with no detail recorded. However, dappled sunlight looks great as out of focus highlights in the background of your shot.
Be aware that coloured surfaces reflect coloured light, so if you shade your subject by positioning them next to a bright red wall, the reflected light will carry a red tint. Equally, a subject standing on grass underneath a tree will be lit by subtly green-tinted light. Move your subject further away from the reflecting surface to reduce the effect, or adjust the colour balance in photo editing software afterwards. Concrete floors reflect a lot of neutrally coloured light, so are ideal for using in this situation, especially for close-ups where the background isn’t visible.
Shaded light can sometimes look too flat or ‘muddy’; to rectify this, use a reflector to bounce more light onto your subject’s face and fill in any slight shadows. For close-ups, ask your subject to hold the reflector for you. Angle it towards his or her face, adjusting its position until the light appears to gently glow from your subject’s skin. You could also use a fill-in flash for a similar effect, and to add catchlights to your subject’s eyes.
The colour temperature of shaded light is much cooler than direct sunlight, and has a blue tinge. Change your white balance to the cloudy setting to compensate for this and warm the images back up.
If the area behind your subject is also in shade, then due to the way that light falls off, the background will appear dark, and potentially unexposed. Conversely, if you have an unshaded area in the background, it will be lighter, and potentially overexposed. Always prioritise the exposure for your subject’s face, but be aware that the level of lighting in the background will affect the final look and feel of your portrait.
Once the sun drops below the horizon, there’s a brief amount of time when any area will be shaded but there’s still sufficient ambient light, enabling shots in open spaces that may not have been possible earlier in the day, while the sun was visible.
CLOUDS / REFLECTOR
On overcast days, clouds become a giant diffuser in the sky, softening the sun’s light before it reaches the earth. This reduces the levels of contrast, making it easier to expose a shot without blowing highlights and losing detail in shadow areas.
When the cloud cover is very thick, light levels may be so impaired that you need to raise your ISO or widen your aperture to compensate. Cloudy but bright days are the easiest to work with, as there is still plenty of light available, although if the clouds are too thin, you may need to look for shade to soften the light further.
Lots of small, individual clouds mean the light will keep changing as they pass in front of the sun then move away again. You’ll need to constantly watch the changing light levels and time your shots accordingly.
Although light on a cloudy day is significantly less directional than on a clear day, there will still be some direction to it. Look up to the sky and note where the lightest patch is, as this is where the majority of the light will come from. For a flattering portrait, angle your subject with their face towards the brightest part of the sky and take your shot from above their eye level, at an approximately 45 degree angle.
If the cloud cover is thick, or the light on your subject looks flat or ‘muddy’, boost it by using a reflector to bounce light back onto your subject. Use a white reflector for a more subtle boost, a silver one for a stronger effect or a gold one for a strong effect with a warm colour tint. Remember that light travels in a straight line, so consider the placement and angle of the reflector to ensure it catches the light and bounces it back to your subject. The closer the reflector is to your subject, and the stronger the light source that you are reflecting, the more pronounced the end result will be. Alternatively, use a fill-in flash to lighten any shadows and add catchlights to your subject’s eyes, ensuring you don’t overpower the ambient light.
Selecting the ‘cloud’ white balance setting will ensure the camera compensates for the slightly cooler colours of daylight under cloud cover.
The Golden Hour – sometimes referred to as the Magic Hour – occurs just after sunrise and just before sunset, when the sun is about ten degrees above the horizon.
It is the one time of day that direct sunlight is soft enough to use in portraiture without making your subject squint. In addition, it adds bags of atmosphere to your shots, with a warm, golden tinge to the light.
Confusingly, this period of beautifully soft sunlight doesn’t necessarily last an hour. Its duration depends on both the season, and your distance from the equator. Nearer the equator, the sun moves very quickly above ten degrees, so Golden Hour sometimes lasts only a few minutes, while nearer the poles at certain times of year, it can last all day. There are free smartphone apps and dedicated websites that accurately calculate the exact time that this period of magical lighting will occur for your location. Of course, if the sky is too cloudy, then it won’t happen at all.
It occurs because when the sun is lower in the sky, its light passes through more of the atmosphere before reaching earth. This reduces its intensity and filters out a lot of the blue end of the spectrum, making it appear orange-red.
At this time of day, you can shoot in the sunlight without needing a diffuser as the light is no longer harsh and directional. This softer light means that there is less contrast between the highlight and shadow areas of your scene, making it easier to expose without losing any detail.
As well as using the low sun to light your subject, you could also position him or her so that they become rim-lit by the sun behind them, giving the edges of their hair a halo of gold. Alternatively, you could include the sun in the image too, spilling an atmospheric flare across your image. When you include the light source in your shots, shadows become muddy grey-brown instead of black, so you will need to use photo editing software to bring them back to black.