5 Ways to Take the Best Advantage of Natural Light for Portraits

Pro Tip: Despite the fact that we all love bokeh, don't ever let it get in the way of good composition and an even better vision for the end result.

Pro Tip: Despite the fact that we all love bokeh, don’t ever let it get in the way of good composition and an even better vision for the end result.

Sometimes you don’t always feel like toting around strobes and in many situations you downright don’t need them. Even though they can make any image better there are lots of times where it’s just easier to work with natural light. If you’re a portraitist, knowing how to make the best of the light vs being a hipster with a camera wanting to stay true to an ideology and cling to it without any other real experience is something that you’ll want to have in your bag of tricks.

Here are a couple of ways to make better use of natural lighting.

Wait For an Overcast Day


Shooting during an overcast day can give you what many photographers and editors call, “The softbox look.” This is essentially not always true, but it surely makes for an easier time for taking photos in many situations. For starters, since the sun isn’t as strong you can basically shoot all day due to the clouds working as a natural diffusion panel–just like a softbox.

One of the worst things that you can have is the sun randomly peeking out of clouds and covering its face again to throw off your exposure and change the entire look of your photo. Shooting during an overcast day encourages you to often shoot wide open with your lens and maybe even crank up the ISO levels a bit. But overcast days are also when the light is naturally soft and diffused just like a softbox–but keep in mind that nothing can add extra sharpness to your images like artificial light from strobes to add specular highlights. In fact, we recommend still mixing natural and strobe light but we understand that it’s not always possible in every situation.

Go for this method if you really want to strive for a shadowless look on your subject. It may also help to spot-meter and overexpose a bit.

Use Shadows in the Middle of the Day

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Adams portrait (1 of 1)ISO 1001-1000 sec at f - 1.4

If you’re shooting in the middle of the day or around it, a great idea is to find shadows like those that buildings or awnings give off. These shadows can give your subject a naturally diffused look and the surroundings (like from concrete, grass or just light seeping into the area) can provide fill for shadows almost in a way similar to a reflector. Shadows also provide you with a more consistent lighting type to work with instead of having the sun come in and out from clouds–which is really annoying as we mentioned above.

Again, we recommend using spot metering and focusing on the face.

Look For Places Where the Sun is Breaking Through a Bit

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Natalie's portrait (1 of 1)ISO 1001-800 sec at f - 2.0

As you get more advanced, you’ll find that some spots of sun can actually look really nice–such as those breaking in from a window or those from a gate. Just make sure that it’s only in specific spots providing highlights and nothing more.

In the right spots, the sun peeking through onto your subject can look really nice–almost like the effect that a snoot with some sort of grid can give you. The sun works especially well as a hair light to give better illumination and accenting to your subject’s head and face.

Back Light Your Subjects

Another way of using natural light to your advantage is to backlight your subjects. Though many of the professional workshop photographers will tell you not to do this, we more than gladly tell them to instead focus on creative effects and capturing a beautiful image. With that said, backlight on your subject can be positively beautiful when done correctly.

Better backlit portraits starts with the dynamic range of your camera’s sensor, goes into the specific color of the lighting at the time and careful placement of the sun is also critical.

We’ve got an entire guide to better backlit portraits that you should check out here.

Find Natural Reflectors

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Retouches of Dave Shim (6 of 6)ISO 320

One of the best ways to fill in shadows and also make better use of the way that natural light falls is to make better use of natural reflections. Water, the white side of a building, and other objects that bounce light back into the shadows all make for excellent reflective surfaces. Some of the absolute best are silver or metal in color if you’re looking to extract more details.

For more, please follow us on FacebookGoogle+Flickr and Twitter.

Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.