Using natural light for portraits is an interesting way of working. It keeps things simple – you can potentially take nothing but a camera, a short telephoto lens and a reflector with you on a shoot.
Natural light is ideal if you like portraits that reflect character as well as show beauty. Natural light portraits are often more authentic than those taken with speedlights and the involvement of make-up artists, stylists etc.
Authenticity is often lost in the search for perfection – natural light portraiture is about embracing imperfection.
Natural light is ideal for creating mood. Light is at its most evocative in the late afternoon and early evening. Low light often has a moodier feel than bright light. Combine a modern digital camera with its excellent high ISO performance with the wide aperture of a prime lens and you have the ideal tools for exploring the moody nature of low light.
Using shade for portraits
It’s surprising how many people think that you need bright sunshine to take portraits (models included). That couldn’t be further from the truth.
Late afternoon or early evening are the best times for portrait photography, but sometimes you have no choice but to schedule a shoot in the middle of the day. If that happens you need to find some shade. That’s where the best quality light is found. It’s important that the entire scene (or at least the part of it in the frame) is in the shade. Bright highlights caused by sunlight are distracting and create problems with exposure.
I made this portrait on a sunny day by placing my model in the shade. If there is a sunlit area behind you it can act as a giant reflector, bouncing light into the shaded area and giving your model’s face a beautiful glow. That’s what happened here. Look closely and you can see the blue sky reflected in her eyes.
Natural light portraits in early evening light
By early evening light I mean the light created by the setting sun at the end of the day. It’s soft, warm and beautiful. Another advantage of shooting at this time is that there’s a lot of shade around, especially as the sun dips towards the horizon. You can use these shaded areas for your model to pose in. It’s difficult to go wrong shooting in early evening light, especially in the summer when the quality of the light is exceptionally beautiful and it’s warm enough for the model in the evening.
I made both these portraits in the late afternoon.
If you’re brave you can experiment with backlighting. The light is incredibly dramatic and beautiful in the early evening. But backlighting is tricky because of the high contrast. The correct exposure for the model will blow out highlights in the background. You could lose some detail around the edges of the model, especially her hair. If you have somebody to help you ask them to use a reflector to bounce some light from the setting sun onto the model.
You’ll get the best results when the sun’s setting behind the model just at the point it’s about to vanish over the horizon. The light is at its warmest and softest, and the camera can cope with the contrast.
Taking portraits at dusk
This is the time after the sun has set and the light levels are rapidly fading. Street lights come on and so do the lights in any buildings in the background. Fast lenses and high ISOs are essential. I’ve taken some of my favorite portraits on the edge of night and day like this. The low light levels are a challenge but when it works out the results are worth it. You can see that the light from the street lamp in the portrait below is reflected on the road – super moody, especially when combined with the bokeh created by the wide aperture (f1.4 on a 50mm lens).
Using doorways to shape the light
Another technique you can use is to place your model in a doorway or under an arch or bridge. The light is no longer coming from above (i.e. from the sky) but from the side.
I made the portrait below on a cloudy day. Cloudy days are potentially tricky – the light is usually coming from overhead and even though it’s soft still creates shadows on the model’s face. One way to deal with this is to use a reflector to bounce light into the shadows.
Another is to do what I did in this situation and ask the model to stand under an arch. You can see that the light is coming from his side, rather than above. One side of the model’s face is in shadow, creating mood.
An interesting thing about asking your model to stand in a doorway is that the interior of the building is usually much darker than the exterior. This creates a natural dark background that is very effective.
Both the portraits below were made this way. For the one on the left the model is standing in the doorway of a concrete bunker. In the other the model is standing in the doorway of an abandoned boat house. I made both portraits in the late afternoon and the quality of the light is almost studio like.
Hopefully these tips will help you create better natural light portraits. When it all comes together (model, setting, background, lighting) the results can be really evocative. The effort required to be in the right place at the right time for magical lighting is always worth it.
The Candid Portrait
My ebook The Candid Portrait is a great guide for those of you who want to learn more about creating candid portraits in street and travel photography.