Natural light is a powerful tool for any photographer. Uncover these secrets from the pros as they share how they shoot incredible portraits with natural light.
Shooting portraits with natural light has the power to evoke an ethereal, minimalist style that takes the viewer’s breath away. There’s something so simply stunning about a visually impactful natural light portrait. Whether it’s a soft shadow during the perfect morning light, or a look and feel that seems almost faded, capturing dreamy portraits with natural light is a skill many photographers seek to master.
Image by Lightfield Studios
Understanding how to manipulate natural light to capture an image of a person, and how to use shadows and highlights to your advantage are vital skills for any portrait photographer to master. That soft light doesn’t come easy, but your environment (and sometimes, a good assistant) can help in a lot of ways if your goal is to capture portraits with natural light.
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Natural light can influence the tones of your image, the style of your photograph, and the overall look and feel of the imagery you create. On Shutterstock, we are seeking images of authenticity and diversity. And many of these impactful images come from the visual inspiration that drives many breathtaking portraits shot using natural light.
Image by Mentatdgt
In the following article, we’ll be sharing the secrets you need to know before your next photoshoot capturing portraits with natural light. Keep these tips in mind before your next photoshoot for stock.
10 Secrets to Capturing Portraits with Natural Light
Tip #1: Prime lenses create breathtaking portraiture
While expensive and high-quality zoom lenses are absolutely necessary for most forms of photography, we prefer the look and feel of prime lenses on portrait photography. Having a defined focal length allows you to really play with your subject, and forces you to move around to capture different compositions through focal length. An 85mm f/1.8 or a 50mm f/1.4 are fantastic lenses to get started with when shooting portrait photography. The wider aperture will allow you to capture stunning bokeh when shooting portraits with natural light, and soften the background to create that magical look.
Image by Stockfour
Tip #2: Magic hour is necessary to avoid harsh light
When you are capturing portraits with natural light, you want to avoid harsh daylight whenever possible. Natural light portraiture is meant to be dreamy, with soft light. This light is best found during “magic” or “golden” hour. That time generally falls an hour before sunrise, and an hour after sunset. But golden hour is largely simply based around the time the sun rises or falls. When the sun is lower, shadows extend and highlights soften. In turn, this allows your image to be soft instead of harshly contrasted. Always seek magic hour when capturing portraits with natural light.
Image by Olena Yakobchuk
Tip #3: Position your model towards the light
Use that soft light to your advantage. Highlight your model’s features with the light you are using. This also minimizes the risks of any unwanted shadows on your model’s face. By positioning your model’s face towards the light, you allow that light to fill that space and create a soft look and feel to your natural light portraiture. Because the light is low (if you are following our advice and shooting during golden hour) you shouldn’t see any harsh shadows on the models face. Instead your shadows will be soft and less defined.
Image by Mimagephotography
Tip #4: Bring a reflector on every shoot
A mobile reflector is key to all photoshoots outdoors where your plan is to manipulate light, even if you don’t have an assistant. Consider bringing a tripod or C-stand to support your reflector, or try a DIY approach by leaning it against an object. A reflector can be pivotal in lifting shadows on the darker side of the models face, and will bounce that natural light to fill the space. If your reflector has a gold side, you can use this if you want to create a warmer tone to your imagery. All of this will depend on your style of photography for shooting portraits with natural light.
Image by LightField Studios
Tip #5: Keep your ISO low to keep your portrait sharp
The last thing you want is to capture a breathtaking image, only to have a lot of unnecessary noise and unwanted grain in your image. Try to use the lowest ISO possible to keep your natural light portrait as sharp as possible. Consider adjusting your shutter speed or aperture in order to compensate for light as it dims.
Tip #6: Shoot in RAW to have the most flexibility with your imagery
We always recommend our photographers shoot in RAW settings whenever possible. Why? Because it allows you the most creative flexibility to adjust the image to your pleasing in post production. In portrait photography, this is even more key.
When you are shooting portraits with natural light, it’s very easy to accidentally expose for shadows and thus overexpose your image. That causes you to lose information in your model’s skin tone, which is incredibly important when you are shooting natural light portraiture. A RAW file allows you the most flexibility for recovering detail in an image.
Image by AnnaTamila
Tip #7: Stuck on where to shoot? Here are some ideas:
We get it. You get a creative brief and think of a creative concept, but you get stuck on where to shoot. We’re here to help. Here are four ideas on where you can shoot portraits with natural light to create the most beautiful imagery possible.
Use buildings strategically: Using buildings or walls is a great way to break up light if you don’t have the time to shoot during sunrise or sunset. Walls create natural shadows, which are fun to play with in portrait photography.
Windows: Windows are fantastic for shooting portraits with natural light as they act as a natural diffuser. This will naturally create a nice, soft light on your model’s face. Consider shooting inside with the model, and then if possible, move outside the window to shoot through it.
Sunrise or sunset: Shooting outdoors during sunrise or sunset is a great way to get the best light possible for natural light portraiture. Find a park or a landscape that inspires you, and work within that to capture imagery of your models.
No sunrise? Aim for overcast: Overcast or rainy days are other great natural diffusers when you are shooting portraits with natural light. The sky acts as a natural soft box, which naturally diffuses the light for your images.
Image by Jacob Lund
Tip #8: Play with shadows
Not everyone has access to sunrise or sunset times. If you need to shoot in harsh daylight hours, try playing with your shadows. Shadows have the ability to transform your portrait photography by creating interesting and dynamic shapes within your images. Finding any sort of mixed light is perfect for capturing perfect portraits with natural light. Start with nature! Use branches, flowers, or trees to create shadows on your model’s features. Shooting indoors? Use curtains or hats to manipulate the light for your imagery.
Image by Kastaprav
Tip #9: Backlight your subject
With portrait photography, you want to avoid overexposing your model. Backlighting your model is a key way to minimize that risk. Place your model directly in front of a source of light. The light softens the silhouette of the model, and creates a soft overall look and feel. This is a fantastic technique to use if you are shooting portraits with natural light indoors.
Image by Irina Bg
Tip #10: Cinematic portraits with darker light
Your shooting doesn’t need to end just because the light gets low. We’ve been all about the cinematic approach to portraits with natural light lately. They bring ethereal to a whole new level.
Now, we know we said not to increase your ISO earlier, but this is an exception. Bump that setting up a bit to compensate for the light, drop your aperture to the lowest setting, and have fun with it. This is no-rules photography. While these images may create some grain, that’s only going to add to the look and feel of these stunning portraits.
There’s an incredible beauty to capturing stunning portraits with natural light, and as a photographer, you truly have the power to take a viewer’s breath away with these images. We can’t wait to see what you upload on Shutterstock next.
Top image by Andreshkova Nostya
Looking for more inspiration for your next portrait shoot? Check out these articles:
Portrait Photography: How to Pull Off Rembrandt Lighting
Five Tips on Taking Authentic and Natural Portrait Photos
6 Cheap Ways to Light Your Next Portrait Photoshoot
5 Expert Photographers Share Their Best Portrait Photography Tricks
4 Photographers on How to Capture Intimacy in Portrait Photography
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