Editor's note: My Lightroom Classic articles have moved to my new website Mastering Lightroom. Visit the store and get 20% off any ebook or ebook bundle with the code ml20 (valid until midnight October 21). Thanks for reading, Andrew.
A few weeks ago a friend of mine told me that he would like to take some portraits but he didn’t know where to start. The thought of learning to use flash combined with all the other skills a good portrait photographer needs was a little overwhelming.
The good news is that you can get started in portraiture by keeping things simple. You only need a minimum of equipment (any decent camera with a kit lens will get you started) and you don’t need to use flash. Natural light is more subtle, it’s not difficult to use and best of all – it’s free and in regular supply during daylight hours.
Let me show you an example. I made this portrait on an overcast afternoon in a local cemetery. I used a short telephoto lens and a wide aperture to blur the background so it wasn’t obvious that we were shooting in a graveyard. The model held a reflector in her lap to bounce light into her face, reducing shadows created by the top lighting. All very simple, but extremely effective.
There are photographers who work almost entirely in natural light and create beautiful portraits without touching a single Speedlite.
Eduardo Izq is one of my favorites. He’s built an impressive portfolio of natural light portraits of local models and dancers. Eduardo takes the idea of natural portraits to an extreme, often photographing his models without make-up. He photographs beautiful women in an unconventional way that concentrates on capturing character. As a result his portraits are beautiful in a deeper, more fundamental way.
You can see some of his work work in my interview with Eduardo about his ballerina portraits.
Further reading: How to Shoot Natural Light Portraits Successfully
Intrigued? Here are some more reasons why you should use natural light for portraits.
Natural light is simple
A friend of mine (who is a model) told me a story about a portrait shoot. She worked with a photographer at an outdoor location. He spent so much time setting up lights and measuring the flash output that the shoot never got going. She wasn’t happy with the photos and I guess the photographer wasn’t either.
Flash takes time to learn to use properly and you have to factor that into the learning curve. Natural light is much simpler. All you need is some good quality light. We know that is most likely to occur at the end of the day during the golden hour. If you want to create beautiful natural light portraits, get on location in the late afternoon or early evening. The beautiful quality of the light at this time will help you a lot.
You might find it helpful to take a reflector with you (and somebody to hold it) but that isn’t always necessary. I often go on a portrait shoot with just one camera and one lens.
This minimal approach to gear lets you concentrate on composition, making the most of the beautiful natural light and, most important of all, building a good rapport with your model.
It’s also quick and easy to move from one place to another if you don’t have much gear. This gives you the freedom to explore the location to find the best spots for portraits.
This approach paid off when I made some portraits of Lera with her horse. We shot in the early evening, on a local beach as the sun set over the sea. The light was so beautiful all I had to do was find the best composition and get to know Lera better. We talked about her horses and the rapport created helped us make portraits like this one.
Natural light is beautiful
It’s hard to beat the beauty of natural light at its best. This is something you’ll come to appreciate as you make the effort to get on location when the light is at its most beautiful.
The portrait below is a good example. We were at the beach at the end of the day. The light became more and more magical as the sun disappeared over the horizon. For a few short minutes we experienced the beautiful red afterglow of the sunset.
Moments like this don’t come often, but the results are worth it. Shooting in natural light that is beautiful, yet fleeting and difficult to find, elevates your portraits to another level.
You’ll learn how light and location are linked
To get the best out of natural light in any situation (not just portrait photography) you need to become an observer of light. How does the quality of the light change from hour to hour, and season to season? How is it affected by weather and location? The more you look, the more you’ll come to appreciate the subtleties and nuances of natural light.
As you become more aware of light you’ll understand that the quality of light is linked to location.
The light in the location where I made this portrait had a beautiful quality created by the way the marble reflected the light. We made the portrait after the sun had set and the sky was filled with the soft glow of the remaining light.
When you take a portrait of somebody outdoors the light links the model and the place they are in. It was only possible to take a photo of that person in that place with that type of light at one particular time.
It’s almost impossible to reproduce the effect afterwards – the uniqueness of the light becomes part of the image. That is something different (not necessarily better, just different) from the effect of using flash.
You’ll have time to build a relationship with your model
The factor that determines the success of your portraits is your relationship with your models.
Building rapport is essential, especially if you’ve never worked with your model before. Simplifying your approach means that you have more time to concentrate on building the relationship.
As a result, your model will be more engaged in the portrait session. This is important as your model’s pose and expression are the prime factors that determine the success of the portrait.
A portrait shoot is a collaboration. It’s two people working together to create beautiful images. The more time you can give to your model, the better your portraits will be.
Remember, you can always use flash in your portraits in the future. First, concentrate on composition, expression and the quality of the light. That, combined with building a relationship with your model, is enough to keep you busy for the moment. Master these skills first, then move on to others later.
The model in the portrait below has become a friend and participated in many shoots. The rapport and understanding we have built up helps us create beautiful portraits with soulful expressions.
Natural light is beautiful and ideal for portraits. But it does take some work from the photographer and the model to get on location when the light is at its best. The result though will be worth the effort.