How To Take Better Natural Light Portraits

How To Take Better Natural Light Portraits

Rethinking Natural Light
Many photographers choose to use natural light as their chosen style, almost as a badge of honor. Natural light is a wonderful source, providing ease of use and flattering light to your subjects, but you should be using it the same way as you would studio lights. You need to create light and shade that will add emotion or mood, not flat lighting that gives no shape, texture or mood. Hopefully, these tips will help you on a path to refining your natural light classic portraits.

Finding Quality Light And Shadows
First, find good quality light – preferably open shade, as this offers soft flattering light and is lower in contrast. Avoid the sun as your main light as it will cause harsh shadows and squinting, which is undesirable for quality portraits.

Open shade can be found under awnings, the edge of trees or buildings, and inside doorways or windows, for example. In these images, the girls are positioned approximately 1.5 meters (5 feet) inside the doorway of an old timber shed. Look for the shadows; they are equally important. Shadows subtract the light and create shape and mood.

Choose The Right Background
After you have established your location, check the background. Even if you have found the perfect, open shaded location, make sure the background isn’t too contrasty with sunlit areas. These can be visually distracting, so try and select uncluttered backgrounds that are lower in contrast and darker than the subject’s face. This will allow the face to project forward by being the lightest tone against the background (all the images in this article demonstrate this).

Find The Direction Of Light
Once you have found a good quality of light, check its direction. You want the light to come across your subject’s face at approximately 45 degrees to the nose, and from a higher angle. That height should also be at around 45 degrees, as a basic starting point.

You can check the catchlight positioning by looking at the eyes; there should be one in both eyes at around 10-11 or 1-2 o’clock. (This depends on the side of the face that is being lit and the structure of the eye sockets). Deep-set eyes will need a slightly lower light source. You should also notice the nose shadow to be at around 45 degrees.

To lower the catchlights you need to change the angle of your subject’s head by tilting more or less. Even moving the subject further away from the edge of an overhang will lower the angle of the light. It’s the opposite of being in a studio where you can move the lights. Natural light is fixed and requires you to move the subject and/or camera to achieve good lighting.

Eyes Are Windows To The Soul
Catchlights are very important in portraiture. They not only guide you where the light is coming from but also create a sense of depth. TIP: no catchlights = NO photo. When there are no catchlights, there will be minimal, if any, texture and color in the eyes. Always study the eyes for guidance.

Simple Posing
The portraits here are the basic classic style, looking into the camera. It’s usually more flattering to angle the shoulders away from the camera, again 45 degrees is a handy starting point. Leaning the bodies and heads toward each other gives an emotional connection. Upright or leaning away would show detachment from each other.

It’s also a good practice to have the noses turned slightly away from the camera, particularly with adults. Noses that point directly at the camera will look broader in many cases, particularly when combined with flat lighting. With kids, it’s not as critical and good lighting will create a better shape.

Arms and hands need to be posed simply so as not to draw attention. In images #1 and #2 above (top of article), the lower arms are bent downwards and the hands clasped softly. Things you should avoid are open fingers, particularly draped over a shoulder, as this can make a portrait busy and untidy. Elbows bent at 90 degrees should also be avoided. Here’s a simple mantra to remember when it comes to posing people’s heads, arms, legs, hands, hips, shoulders, etc: “If it bends – bend it. If it curves – curve it. If it twists – twists it.” Applying this will help you avoid static poses.

Above all else, an expression is the most important element in a portrait. In most cases, a poorly lit and posed portrait with a beautiful expression will trump a technically perfect portrait with an average expression in most cases, but this is no reason to pursue a path of mediocrity.

An expression is a personal thing. A moody, soulful style is my preference, but your sessions should always include various expressions such as laughing, smiling, pensive, etc. To achieve this soulful style you can’t be jumping around in a hyperactive mood expecting soulful looks. The best approach is a more Zen-like style, quietly giving direction. These classic style portraits produce beautiful open eyes, relaxed facial muscles, and true shape to the lips. Truly timeless, heart and soul portraits, but it all takes practice.


  • Treat natural light photography the same as studio lighting.
  • Find quality soft light.
  • Look for shadows to create shape and mood.
  • Place your subject at 45 degrees to the light as a starting point.
  • The light source is fixed, so move your subject and camera to reduce the height of the light in the eyes.
  • Check for catchlights in the eyes.
  • Simplify your posing.
  • Soft expressions work best for classic low-key portraits.

With each of these images, other angles of the face (2/3 face and profile) can be achieved by simply moving the camera position. Although the pose and light would remain the same, you may have to adjust the head tilts slightly and check your backgrounds.

Clothing colors also play a big part with quality portraits. Darker clothing works best for low-key portraits. Your eyes should be drawn to the brightest tone in the portrait, therefore, light-colored clothing would be visually distracting.

originally posted on by Wayne Radford