Using Natural Light for Portraits

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Thanks for reading! Andrew.

Wimmy at Brooklyn Bunker


I’ve spent a lot of time recently taking portraits in natural light. I’ve come to the conclusion that there are several types of natural light that are most suitable for portraiture. I’m going to write about them here today because understanding the nature of the light in these different situations will help you take better portraits.

My aim is to take moody portraits, and I want the most evocative light possible to help me do this. Light is an important element of mood (my previous two articles looked at mood in more depth, you can read them here and here).

I often take portraits in the late afternoon as the quality of light is higher. Time of day is as important as location and model choice as the quality of light directly influences the end result.

Sun vs. shade

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. The first thing I look for if I’m taking portraits on a sunny day is shade as that’s where the best quality light is found.

Wimmy at Red Rocks

The above two photos show this principle in action. For the first one I positioned my model Wimmy so the sunlight just caught her hair and shoulder. It kind of works – the light is interesting. But it’s also created a couple of distracting highlights on the background.

For the second photo I moved Wimmy into the shade. There are no distracting highlights on her body or the background. These lighting conditions are much easier to work with in the field.


Bear in mind that the background is just as important as the light (and the model!) in portraiture. Everything should work together in harmony – the setting should suit the model, the clothes she is wearing and the light. It should complement the subject of your portraits without distracting from her.

A cloudy day

Portrait taken on a cloudy day

This is good light for portraiture. It’s soft and even. It lets bright colours come through (I haven’t done anything to enhance the colours of the above photo) and with a little care it won’t give you any issues with excessive contrast. All you have to do is find a good background and then you can concentrate on working with your model to create some interesting portraits.

Shade on a sunny day

This is my favourite type of natural light for portraits. It gives wonderful results. It took me a while to work out why, but here’s the reason. If your model is positioned in the shade, and whatever is behind you (the photographer) is lit by the sun, then it acts like a giant reflector and bounces a tremendous amount of light onto your model. Especially here in New Zealand, where the sun is very strong. This type of light gives the model’s skin an almost luminescent glow. Here’s the photo from above again, larger this time, so you get the idea:

Portrait taken in the shade on a sunny day

It also creates great catchlights. I can even see myself reflected in the model’s eyes. This is an enlargement from the above photo. The detail camera is picking up is incredible:

Close-up of eye

In the shade, standing in a doorway

This may sound a little odd until you see it in action. We’ve already seen that the quality of light in the shade is beautiful, especially on a sunny day. If your model is standing in the doorway of a building, and there is no light illuminating the interior, then you have a nice dark background behind her. This looks very cool.

These two photos show how it works. I used an old boat house I found by the sea. I asked Wimmy to stand in the doorway. The first photo includes the boat house. I created the second by cropping the first image when I realised in post that it would be a more effective composition:

Portrait taken standing in a doorway

Backlighting at sunset

Portrait backlit by setting sun

The light is incredibly dramatic and beautiful at this time. 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. It’s a bit hit and miss.

I get the best results when I take a photo with the sun setting behind the model just at the point it is about to vanish over the horizon. The light is at its warmest and softest, and the camera can cope with the contrast.


Portrait taken at dusk

The light at dusk is very beautiful, especially in the spring and summer. I live amongst hills and as the sun sets behind them it creates a very soft, even, warm light. It’s a magical time of day when just about everything looks a little special. Light levels are low so a fast prime lens and a camera with good high ISO performance help.

Nearly night

Portrait taken when it's nearly night

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 favourite 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 above photo is reflected on the road – super moody, especially when combined with the bokeh created by the wide aperture (f1.4 on a 50mm lens).


Hopefully these tips will help you take 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.

Understanding Photography Google+ Community

Are you on Google+ yet? It’s a fairly new social network that has proved popular with photographers. I’ve been thinking about ways for readers of this website to ask questions, share feedback, interact with each other and talk about the articles on my website and the topics covered by my ebooks. Google+ provides an excellent platform for this so I created a Google+ community called Understanding Photography. Everybody is welcome to join. Click the link to learn more.

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One Response to “Using Natural Light for Portraits”

  1. Mark Wendruff says:

    Andrew. Very enlightening (pun intended). I was happily surprised to see that I have been using some of your techniques over the years; even before I acquired my EOS 400D. I have a really nice backlit outdoor shot of my daughter, taken in 1987 on my trusty Canon AE-1 Program. She was just 11 at the time and we were walking along the Royal Crescent in Bath, Somerset. There was a little depression beside the pavement, containing an old tree with a very large exposed root. It was late afternoon and the sun was behind her, lighting up the root and the surrounding shrubs and trees. I just told her to sit on the root and give me a smile. I snapped off just one shot on aperture priority and got a fabulous print out of it. The 5 x 7″ enlargement has pride of place in our stairway and has been there for 26 years.

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