No Strobes, No Problem: Natural Light Portraits


Some people think the person with the biggest camera and most equipment must be the best photographer in the room. Really, all it means is that they are the person who has the most money or has been doing it long enough to amass a large collection. You don’t need two camera bodies, six lenses, a tripod, four light stands, pocket wizards, and so on. Don’t get me wrong, when you figure out how to use all of these things they can make photographing everything easier, but until you get to that point, all you have to know is how to make the light do what you want.

Photography literally means art with light. There may not be any chemicals involved in digital photography but you are still working with a light sensitive computer chip that can record all the information coming through the lens in less than a second. Once you start seeing the light, everything about portraiture becomes easier.

If you are lucky during an outdoor shoot you may get an overcast day, which is the best light to photograph in. The clouds act like a giant soft box, which filters and evenly distributes the light. You don’t have to worry about the harsh shadows that are often referred to as “raccoon eyes”. That’s what happens when you take photos in the direct, overhead sunlight, which causes shadows on the subjects’ faces usually around the eyes.

natural light portrait
Here are a few tips for using natural light when photographing portraits outdoors on a sunny day:
1. Avoid shooting in the middle of the day. The sun is at its harshest directly overhead, so it is harder to get even tones on faces. Sunlight is at its most flattering about two to three hours after sunrise and before sunset. When the light is coming in at an angle you can easily get even tones and interesting background light.
2. Try to shoot in the shade and spot meter to the subjects face. The spot light meter in your camera is basing it’s reading on what is directly in the center of the lens. So meter your subject first then work on the composition. To find the spot meter setting, use your manual or Google but you are usually looking for a sign that looks like a dot in a rectangle. The shade acts like a diffuser so there will be no harsh shadows.
3. Don’t make your subjects look directly in the sun. By putting the sun behind them they will look and act more natural. Which will make better, less squinty photographs.

When taking portraits indoors, there are a few things regarding natural lighting to keep in mind while you set up:
1. Look for windows. Natural light will always be the best light to photograph in, but remember indoor lights are a different color than sunlight. That means when you are photographing by a window make sure that the indoor fluorescent lights aren’t competing with the sunlight. When there are two competing light sources the auto white balance has a hard time picking the right one and can make the photos a funny color. If you can, turn off the fluorescent lights and just use the sunlight.
2. Turn all unnecessary lights off. If you are in a large room turn the lights behind your subject off so they are just lit by the lights in front of them. By changing up the lights that are already there you are adding depth and character to your portraits.

Like everything in photography, practice makes perfect. Every camera and photographer is different so the only way to really learn how to use your camera and develop your eye is to just start taking photos. Where is your favorite place to photograph portraits?

For more help with photographing portraits head here or explore natural light photography further here.

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