Behind the Photo – Natural Light Portrait

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You have reached the archive of articles posted on my personal blog. This blog is no longer updated, but you can read my latest articles at my new website The Creative Photographer and find my photography ebooks at my new store.

Thanks for reading! Andrew.

Natural light portrait

I’ve been taking advantage of the summer months in Wellington to take some portraits. I enjoy portraiture. I like the entire process, from finding models, to planning and arranging the shoot to the shoot itself and the satisfaction of seeing the final result. There’s nothing particularly deep about my portraits – I’m just trying to take some nice photos of beautiful or interesting people (hey, some people are lucky enough to be both beautiful and interesting).

I created this portrait at the weekend. I found my model, Elizabeth, on Model Mayhem. We arranged a time and a concept – I asked her to wear a summer dress as I wanted a summery feel to the images. One of the images I visualised before the shoot was a photo of Elizabeth on the beach, in a long flowing dress, backlit by the setting sun. Beautiful!

Windy weather

However, when we arrived at the beach I had chosen it was clear that it was too windy for the shoot (Wellingtonians will know what I mean). So, change of plan required, we drove to a nearby location that I knew would be sheltered. This place (Karaka Bay) has an old boat shed that makes a great background. Why?

Because the model can stand in the doorway, lit by the ambient light. The light was very soft, as the sun was setting in the other side of the sky. And the interior, because it is dark inside the boathouse, is dark. But just enough detail registers to make an interesting background. It doesn’t look like a studio photo taken against black paper.

Natural light portrait

The original photo shows part of the boathouse exterior (above). I found it distracting so I cropped it out at the processing stage.

Beautiful colour

Colour is another aspect that makes this photo work. The dress is a beautiful deep red colour that goes well against the black background. The neutrality of the background colour emphasises the dress. Elizabeth’s lipstick colour matches too.


This image needed very little post-processing work. I set the Picture Style to portrait in Lightroom 4, adjusted the exposure and white balance (to give a slightly warm feel) then used the shadows slider to make sure that Elizabeth’s hair was light enough not to disappear into the dark background. You could do this in Digital Photo Professional (DPP) too easily enough.

Lens choice

Lastly, I used an 85mm lens, my favourite portrait lens (I also like my 50mm lens, even on a full-frame camera, I will show you a portrait taken with that lens next). The 85mm lens is ideal for portraits as it lets me crop in on the model keeping the background to a minimum (unlike wide-angle lenses which always include a lot of background). I can also use a wide aperture to throw the background out of focus.

You can do this with longer lenses too, but the disadvantage is that you have to stand further away from your model to take the photo, and that makes it harder to communicate. Good portraits come when you connect with the model. It doesn’t matter which lens you use, if you can’t communicate and connect with the model you will struggle to create good portraits.

Understanding EOS

Understanding EOS

If you own a Canon EOS camera and want to learn how to take photos like this, then you should take a look at my newest ebook Understanding EOS. There’s a £2 discount until the end of the month – click the link for details.

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