Make the most of natural light

Learn how to take fantastic portraits anywhere at any time of day by making use of natural light

You don’t necessarily need Y lots of expensive studiolights to take high-quality portraits. Natural light can be just as effective – and it’s free too. The only extra gear you might need is a reflector to bounce light into shadows, but even then, a piece of white card works just as well.

However, shooting portraits in natural light isn’t simply a case of walking outside and taking a shot. It takes skill and experience to recognise the subtleties and differences in the sun’s rays, and how they translate into good and bad light for portraits.

Fortunately, our subject is moveable, so there’s no need to wait patiently

for the perfect illumination like a landscape photographer has to. In any place at any time of day there are likely to be several excellent spots of light in your immediate vicinity. But how do you find them?

Hard and soft light

It helps if you think about natural light in two ways – hard and soft. All natural light comes from one light source, the sun. But the quality of the light changes depending on the weather and your surroundings.

On a clear sunny day, the light is very hard. In general, this isn’t kind on faces. Shadows from the nose fall across the cheek, eye sockets are plunged into darkness, skin texture is exaggerated, and the subject will probably be squinting. All in all, this is not a good look. When it’s cloudy, the light is very different. The clouds act like a giant diffuser for the sunlight, transforming it into gentle, flattering light that’s much kinder on faces. The clouds make the light source much larger, so it’s softer and there’s less contrast.

If there isn’t any cloud cover, you’re better off moving the subject into the shade of a tree or building, or positioning a reflector above their head to block the sunlight. There are plenty of good spots for natural light to be found indoors as well and doorways are ideal, providing soft, directional illumination.

Which direction?

Once you’ve found soft light, the next step is to think about the direction of the light. For great black-and-white portraits, we want to give depth

to our subjects, so look for soft, directional light. Study the model’s face to see where the highlights and shadows are, and if necessary, use a reflector to bounce extra light into the shadows. With some light sources, such as window light, the direction is obvious, but under a tree or next to a building, you might find that it’s more subtle. The sun could be bouncing off a nearby white wall or reflecting off a street. Once you’ve determined the direction, you need to angle the subject’s face towards it. Then for extra impact, look for a background that’s different in tone.



Position your subject side-on to a window, and his face will be bathed in soft, directional light that falls gently away into shadow. North-facing windows are ideal. Use aperture priority, choose a wide aperture such as f/4 and set the ISO to around 400. Ask the subject to angle his face towards the window. If you want to lift the shadows, hold up a reflector or white card to bounce the light back.


You can get many different looks from a window light. Try placing the subject in front of the window so they’re lit from behind. Use a reflector to bounce some light back at the face. Expose for the face and the background outside will be over-exposed, creating a simple high-key effect. Alternatively, ask them to turn their head side-on and expose for the background instead to create a striking silhouette.


Dark brown skin

When your camera’s meter is presented with a frame dominated by dark tones, it will try to record it as midtone grey. Consequently, dark skin can turn out over- exposed. So make use of your camera’s exposure compensation feature to dial in one or one and a half stops of under-exposure.

Light brown skin

A camera’s meter exposes for a scene as if the average of all the tones is neutral

grey. So imagine a person’s skin tone as a shade of grey, and decide whether it’s lighter or darker than neutral. Light brown skin is generally close in tone to neutral grey, so no exposure compensation is necessary.

Pale brown skin

Just as if you’re taking a picture outside in snow, with pale skin, you may need to

over-expose the image to get a well-exposed face. Some photographers like to dial in a half stop or so of over-exposure as standard when shooting light-skinned subjects such as this new-born baby.

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