If you’re looking to capture beautiful natural light portrait photography, you’ve come to the right place.
I’m a huge fan of natural light portraiture, and in this article, I share my best six tips to create stunning shots, including:
- The best type of natural light to produce soft, evenly lit images
- How to pick the right lighting direction (it’s different than you might expect!)
- How to spice up your portraits with beautiful backgrounds
- Much more!
Ready to become a portrait lighting expert? Then let’s dive right in, starting with my first tip:
1. Make sure you’re shooting in the right light
Natural light works great for portrait photography…
…but if you want beautiful results, you need to learn the types of natural light to use – and the types of natural light to avoid.
You see, some types of light will create soft, beautifully lit portraits, while other types of light will produce harsh shadows, unpleasant highlights, and just an all-around bad effect.
So what types of light are best?
I’d recommend working in open shade, which you can find under awnings, at the edges of trees or buildings, and inside doorways or windows. The idea here is to position your subject in an area that’s shaded, but not too shaded. You want the soft, flattering effect that’s produced by shade, but you don’t want to work in heavy darkness.
I positioned these girls approximately 5 feet (1.5 meters) inside the doorway of an old timber shed:
You can also work in the evening, starting about an hour before sunset. The soft light of the setting sun will produce a beautiful golden glow, and you can often use careful sidelighting or backlighting to create a gorgeous result.
However, avoid working on bright, clear days when the sun is high in the sky. This will cause harsh shadows, plus it will cause your subjects to squint!
2. Pay attention to the direction of the light
Good-quality light is a solid starting point, but it’s only that: a starting point. If you want to create a great natural-lit portrait, you need to pay attention, not just to the quality of the light, but also to the light’s direction.
Personally, I’m a fan of partial sidelighting, when the light comes across my subject’s face at approximately 45 degrees from the nose and approximately 45 degrees above the face. This produces a beautiful catchlight in the eyes, plus it gives nice shadows that increase the three-dimensionality of the image.
Here, my subject was lit from the upper left:
Portrait photographers tend to avoid frontlight – that is, light that comes from over the photographer’s shoulder and hits the subject directly – because it causes the subject to squint, plus it flattens the image and robs it of depth.
But you can use backlight, especially when the sun is low in the sky, to create a beautiful result. Just position your subject so the sun is behind their head or over their shoulder, expose for the background, then boost the shadows in post-processing (or bring a reflector into the field).
You can also use true sidelight to create a dramatic natural light portrait. Position your subject so the sun hits them directly from the side, then watch as you get an intense, shadowy effect!
3. Carefully choose the perfect background
Natural light portrait photography is about more than the subject. It’s also about the background, and if you can include the right background, it’ll instantly elevate your shots.
On the other hand, if you pick the wrong background, or if you don’t pay attention to the background when shooting, your photos are bound to turn out bland, boring, or just downright bad.
So once you find a location with solid light, be sure to look behind your subject.
I like to avoid high-contrast backgrounds with a mix of sun and shade; in my experience, these can become distractions in the final image. I’d also recommend avoiding backgrounds with bright, distracting colors or lots of busy shapes.
Instead, look for areas that are uncluttered, low in contrast, and darker than the subject’s face. That way, the subject’s face will project forward, and the entire shot will appear very three-dimensional:
If you can find a background that complements the subject’s clothing colors, even better!
And as you become more experienced, you’ll be able to incorporate background bokeh into the scene. For the best results, use a wide lens aperture, a longer lens (e.g., 85mm), and be sure to keep plenty of space between your subject and the backdrop.
4. Make sure to include a catchlight
Catchlights refer to small spots of light that appear in the subject’s eye:
And in portraiture, catchlights are essential. Catchlights add life to the shot, boost detail in the eyes, and enhance image depth. In my view, an image without a catchlight is hardly an image at all.
So how do you maintain a catchlight in your portraits?
First, make sure that you always include a bright light roughly in front of the subject, be it the sun, a patch of sky, or a reflector.
Second, before you take a photo, check your subject’s eyes for that catchlight glimmer. And if you don’t see one, ask them to turn or tilt their head until it appears.
Yes, it’s simple, but it makes a huge difference. If you can get the catchlight right, then your photos will look so much better.
5. Keep poses simple (but dynamic)
If you’re just starting out in portrait photography, you may be tempted to offer your subjects all sorts of fancy posing ideas.
But in my view, simple is generally better. A few tips:
- Make sure your subject is looking into the camera.
- Ask your subject to angle their shoulders at around 45 degrees.
- If you’re working with multiple subjects, ask them to lean their bodies and heads toward one another to create an emotional connection.
- Ask your subject to point their noses subtly to the side (i.e., make sure the noses don’t point directly at the camera).
- Pose the arms and hands to avoid attention. Ask the subjects to bend their arms and clasp their hands together. Avoid open fingers and elbows bent at 90 degrees. If it bends, bend it – but naturally.
That way, you can create poses that look great and add plenty of flow.
6. Shoot when the expression is best
Expression is the most important element in a natural light portrait. (In fact, a poorly lit and badly posed portrait with a beautiful expression will trump a technically perfect portrait with an average expression any day of the week.)
So if you can capture portraits with beautiful lighting, a beautiful pose, and a great expression, you’ll be on top of the world.
I recommend directing your subjects, but carefully. Ask them to smile, ask them to laugh, ask them to look pensive, and so on – but don’t force them to do expressions that make them feel uncomfortable, and if they don’t like an expression, just move on. More emotional expressions tend to look better, but don’t overdo it. You want mood, but you don’t want dramatic overacting.
Also, make sure that your mood reflects the expression you’re after. If you’re jumping around with your camera, you won’t get a soulful look; it just won’t feel natural to the subject! Instead, act the expression you’re looking for. Make sense?
Natural light portrait photography: final words
Now that you’ve finished this article, you’re ready to capture some stunning portrait shots.
Just remember the tips I’ve shared. Focus on the lighting, the subject, and the background. And get some beautiful images!
Now over to you:
Which of these tips is your favorite? Which do you plan to use first? Share your thoughts in the comments below!