Recognizing good light is one of the foundation skills for any photographer. Setting up ideal lighting situations in the studio is one thing, but being able to capture quality, natural light for portraits brings its own set of skills. Carrying over lighting setups in the studio is going to help a lot with translating things like key and fill lights to a natural scenario, but it’s just as important to develop an eye for a scene and how it is lit.
Here we will go over a few tips which you can apply to your own images. Hopefully, they will give you a better understanding of how to quickly recognize settings and get the most from the available natural light for portraits.
Time of Day
When you’re solely reliant on natural light, the time of day when you’re shooting can be critical. An hour or two after sunrise and before sunset (often referred to as ‘Golden Hour’) are usually the best times to capture the best light of the day. Landscape photographers particularly like these times of the day to get the most atmospheric shots, and this also applies to portraits. The light at these times of day will depend on the time of year and the location in the world, but as a general guideline, you can’t go wrong with the Golden Hour.
The only way to truly know how your images will turn out at different times of the day is to get out there and shoot lots of example images at sunrise and around sunset to see which look fits your images the best. Golden Hour is a great time to get fantastic yellow to amber hues, an ideal time for many wedding photographers.
But like any guidelines or supposed rules they are there to be broken, so don’t completely discount other times of the day. If harsh midday light can be defused through a tree or act like the background behind a building, this can add definition to an image.
Into the Shade
For very even and flat lighting, move your subject into the shade. Once the lighting is flat and even, it can do the job of a strategically placed flashlights or strobes, but with a more natural and even look. As above, make sure the lighting is behind a large structure or building making sure there aren’t any harsh lights or shadows on your subject. A large wall can be equally useful, as will a tree with large overhanging branches, but it has to give you complete coverage otherwise you will get broken up light onto your subject.
Automatic white balance is good, but it doesn’t always get things correct. Setting your white balance manually will get you closer to what you want and save you time in post-processing. 5200-5600K for outside, with a starting point of 5500k will get you in the ballpark. An 18 percent gray card can also be used to fire off a test shot then match up the white balance to the rest of your images.
If you’re not carrying around with you a huge backdrop, you have to use what’s available on location. Because this post is about finding natural light for portraits, you don’t want anything too busy or distracting to take the attention away from your subject. Think about backgrounds that have opposite colors to your subject. That includes opposing colors to skin tones and clothing.
This is also where a shallow depth of field comes into play; for example, shooting with an aperture of f/1.8 or f/1.4. This can eliminate unwanted background items by keeping them out of focus, but you still need to be aware of having simple background colors and a simple background scene.
Producing a nice creamy, blurred background is always beneficial to naturally-lit portraits. This can get rid of some potentially distracting elements and create a nice smooth backdrop to your subject.
To get a really nice shallow depth of field, you will need f/1.8 or f/1.4 which usually means a prime lens. Many tops zoom lenses only go down to f/2.8, but the new breed of lenses for mirrorless might take up the slack. Zoom lenses built in the last few years definitely have the quality needed for portraits, but you can’t beat primes to get that extra shallow depth of field.
Also, the focal length is an important factor, usually being between 85-135mm on a full-frame body for portraits, as these focal lengths give the subject a more flattering appearance.
We photographers like our accessories and this includes different ways to bend light to get certain effects. Placing a subject next to a glass window can create some interesting effects like reflections on the subject or other points of light. Very cheap fairy lights run from a small battery pack are ideal for creating blurred background highlights.
Glass prisms can also be used in various different shapes from concave, convex and equilateral placed just over one side of your lens to create an interesting lighting effect in front or behind your subject. You could even use the likes of a crystal ball to center your subject, just don’t make the background too complicated.
Reflectors can also be used to bounce available light onto your subject. These are usually lumped in with flash or strobe photography, but there is no reason why a reflector can’t be used to bounce natural light for portraits. This could be just a touch of neutral light or to use a gold reflector to add a golden glow to your subject.
Getting Creative with Natural Light for Portraits
With all the different scenarios of natural light available throughout the day, there are endless possibilities for creativity. The way to know what works for you is to get out there and start shooting, then noting down what works for you.