How to Master Natural Light Portraiture

I love working with natural light, I always have. Even more so now that our digital cameras have sensors so incredibly capable of making images in extremely low light. Making portraits using natural light only is a good skill to learn so you can make photographs anywhere. Here are some tips to help you mast nature light portraiture.

Be aware of the quality of light

When you want to make a series of portraits using only natural light, you first need to be aware of what the light is like at your chosen location and the style of portrait you want to make. Is the quality of light hard or soft?

If it’s a bright sunny day and the light is harsh (hard), you will get portraits with a much different look and feel, than if the sky is cloudy and overcast. Morning and evening light will give your portraits a different quality (soft light) as will photographing your subject indoors and using light from a window.

What kind of photo do you want?

Having a concept in mind for the type of photo you want will give you a better chance of success. If you’re heading out to make some portraits on a sunny day and have an idea of making some soft dreamy romantic photos, this will be difficult. But if you want to make some photos to illustrate the idea of a journey in a hot country the light will be your friend and support your idea.

Use light to your advantage

If the sky is heavily overcast you will find it challenging as the light will be very dull. On days when there’s not such thick cloud you will notice the light is still soft, but brighter and more vibrant (less flat,) so nicer for making portraits. Be careful of your exposure settings if the clouds are moving and the light value is frequently changing.

Finding a shaded space and making use of naturally reflected light will help you achieve a different look on a bright sunny day. This is not the same as the light you have on a cloudy day. Light reflecting off a wall close by or light-toned pavement, (cement rather than asphalt or dark paving,) will fill in shadows on your subject’s face and produce a more even, lively result.

The Golden Hours

Of course, making portraits with the rich morning or evening sunshine (often called Golden Hours), or even subdued light can produce very pleasing portraits. Be careful though not to have your subject look directly ahead into the sun as they will typically make an unpleasant face. Backlighting or side lighting your subject at these times can be more effective and more comfortable for your subject. Diffused morning and evening light is lovely to work with as it is soft yet can still be quite rich and warm toned.

Try new things

I’ve loved making natural light portraits for many years, but I also enjoy developing my technique by trying new ways of working. If you enjoy a particular aspect of photography, stick with it, develop what you do. But don’t just do the same thing every time.

If you like making portraits in natural light on a cloudy day because you find it easier, sometimes try shooting on a sunny day. Stretch yourself to learn some new technique. You may discover something new, a new way working that you really enjoy.

Portable natural light studio

I have a portable natural light studio I love to take into the mountain villages here in northern Thailand. We’ve even started including it in some of the workshops we run and our customers love the professional looking results they can achieve. My outdoor studio only requires that we have space to set it up, (just a few square meters is enough,) and a sunny day for the best light, but I do use it on cloudy days too.

The best thing about it is having control over how the sun lights my subjects. I set it up so the sun is behind the backdrop. Above the backdrop is a fine gray nylon screen to filter the sunlight. The light reflects off the ground which is a light colored earth and works well with Asian skin tones, or a large plastic sheet. I have more recently introduced a large reflector too and am achieving some very pleasing results.