An Introduction to Shooting Portraits in Natural Light

Don’t have a strobe or not sure how to use one? You can still create some good portraits using natural light

Photographing portraits using natural light as the sole light source have become such a rage lately that some photographers have branded themselves as “Natural Light Only Photographers.” While you can certainly create some stunning images with the proper use of only natural light, understanding how light behaves and being able to harness light in all of its forms, natural or otherwise, will help shape you into a better, more complete photographer.

For the purposes of this tutorial, we will be focusing on shooting portraits using just natural light. Do note that there is a wealth of information here on The Phoblographer that pertains to portrait photography with flashes, and we highly encourage that you peruse them as well after you’re done with this tutorial in order to supplement your lighting knowledge. There are a number of things that you will need to keep in mind when shooting portraits in natural light that will help elevate you from a mere picture taker to a photographer that is shooting with the intention to create compelling, evocative portraits.

“The biggest drawback with relying solely on natural light when shooting portraits, however, is that you have little to no control over the strength, directionality, and the quality of the available light.”

Cloudy Days Are Your Best Friend

One of the benefits of shooting portraits in natural light is that you can get away with having a pretty minimal kit. All you’ll need is a camera, a lens, a subject, and obviously Sunlight, and you’re off to the races. This does limit the amount of time that you’ll be able to create portraits to only during the daylight hours. The biggest drawback with relying solely on natural light when shooting portraits, however, is that you have little to no control over the strength, directionality, and the quality of the available light. When photographing someone in direct sunlight, you will often notice hard, well-defined shadows on your subject. While this edgier look with well-defined shadows may sometimes be suitable for fashion editorials, it’s important to remember that hard light is far from flattering on most people. Your best bet is to wait until clouds are diffusing the harsh direct sunlight before taking your shot.

Nikon 105mm f1.4 sample photo

A cloudy day is a natural light photographer’s best friend since the clouds will help to evenly diffuse the light emitted by the Sun, basically acting as the largest softbox possible. When you’re shooting portraits on a cloudy day, all you really need to worry about is posing your subject in a flattering way and behind mindful of your composition and framing. How do you figure out when it’s going to be cloudy out, you ask? Unless you’re still using a flip phone from 1997, chances are there’s already a weather app preinstalled on your smartphone. While predicting the weather is far from an exact science, you can get a good idea of the kind of weather you can expect in the coming days using said weather app, so check what days coming up will likely be overcast and schedule your shoot accordingly. If for whatever reason you don’t have access to a smartphone, you can check upcoming weather forecasts using websites like The Weather Channel, AccuWeather, and even Google itself.

Utilize Open Shade, But Mind The Color Cast

Things start to get a bit more challenging on a Sunny day with intermittent cloud coverage. One problem that you will surely encounter under this scenario is that your exposure can differ wildly from one frame to the next as the clouds are moving about in the sky, haphazardly covering or revealing the Sun’s rays, drastically changing the quality of the light that is illuminating your subject. Since there is no way for you to control the behavior of the clouds, you will need to pay close attention to the direction that the clouds are moving towards, and time your portraits properly so that you can control the type of shadows that will appear on your subject. A good tip is to position your subject into areas with open shade, such as in the shadow cast by a wall or a tall building. This will give you better control and help produce more consistent results, which in turns help streamline your post-production workflow.

“A cloudy day is a natural light photographer’s best friend since the clouds will help to evenly diffuse the light emitted by the Sun, basically acting as the largest softbox possible. When you’re shooting portraits on a cloudy day, all you really need to worry about is posing your subject in a flattering way and behind mindful of your composition and framing.”

When placing your subjects in the shadows, something you will want to be mindful of is the color cast of said shadow. While color casts can sometimes create interesting effects or help set the mood in your shot, it can also make your subject look unnatural if you’re not careful. Let’s say you’re photographing your subject underneath a tree, the shadow cast by the leaves will most likely result in a green color cast. Green color cast on most skin tones will result in your subject appearing ill in your photograph. An orange color cast on your subject’s skin will make them look like they’re trying out for a sequel to Jersey Shore, and a yellow color cast on your subject’s skin will make them appear as if they’re suffering from jaundice. Stick to neutral colored buildings that are white or light grey and adjust your white balance accordingly will help maintain a natural look to your subject’s skin tone, and save you hours of work color correcting in post.

Tame Harsh Sunlight With A Scrim

Arguably the most challenging natural light scenarios are Sunny days during which nary a cloud can be found in the sky. Without any clouds acting as a diffuser for the strong sunlight, you will need to pay careful attention to the direction of the light and how it is casting shadows upon your subject. Shadows will also appear very harsh and well defined as well. You will want to avoid shooting at and around Noon while the Sun is directly overhead. Without any clouds diffusing the light, you’re going to find some very hard and less than pleasing under eye shadows appearing on your subject.

Pro Tip: Large diffusers can provide very soft light on a subject.
Model: Kristen Sirotta

You’ll obviously want to expose for your subject, but this means that the rest of your frame will likely appear blown out. Open shade will once again be super helpful, but if you’ve got a reflector or a scrim, this is the time to use it. A scrim refers to a light modifier that is placed between your subject and your light source in order to reduce the light source’s intensity and/or harshness, and is commonly made from lightweight fabric. The inner panel of your reflector is basically a scrim and when placed between the sun and your subject, it will diffuse the hard, contrasty Sunlight. It’ll also help make it easier on your subject’s eyes so that they’re not squinting thanks to the strong midday Sun. The larger your scrim is, the more of your subject it will cover, so keep this in mind if you’re photographing full body portraits and bring a scrim that is appropriately sized.

If You Absolutely Must, Shoot Raw and Fix It In Post

First off, we always recommend that you shoot RAW, but strive to get the image perfect in-camera as a JPEG.

Sometimes the only recourse when shooting with only natural light is to shoot raw (you should be shooting raw regardless to be honest) and hope that your camera has good dynamic range coverage so that there’s enough information in the raw files for you to work with so that you can “fix it in post.” If your image appears blown out, try bringing down the highlights during post-processing should help recover some details provided that your image wasn’t overexposed.

Conversely, if your image appears underexposed, dialing up the shadows will help bring out the details that would otherwise be lost in the shadows. You should always endeavor to get everything right in camera, and avoid “fixing it in post” from becoming a part of your workflow. Utilize the tips featured in this article will help you nail your shot from the get-go, giving you more time to click a shutter rather than your mouse.

If you have some handy tips that you swear by when you’re shooting portraits in natural light, we’d love to know about them. Share them in the comments below!

Pauleth Ip

Paul is a New York City based photographer, creative, and writer. His body of work includes headshots and commercial editorials for professionals, in-demand actors/performers, high net worth individuals, and corporate clients, as well as intimate lifestyle/boudoir photography with an emphasis on body positivity and empowerment. Paul also has a background in technology and higher education, and regularly teaches private photography seminars. When not working on reviews and features for The Phoblographer or shooting client work, Paul can be seen photographing personal projects around NYC, or traveling the world with his cameras in tow. You can find Paul’s latest work on his Instagram over at @thepicreative.