How to use natural light for portraits?
People Photography Portrait Photography Street Photography
December 26, 2018

We have been trying to replicate the natural lighting condition using artificial light sources for years. We have made significant progress too. But no matter how far we actually go, natural lighting will never be replaced. Natural lighting is a boon if you are shooting portraits. Portraits shot in natural light have a completely different look and feel from the ones shot using artificial light sources. Using natural lighting requires certain skills as well as a strong grasp of the concepts of photography. There are several types of natural lighting conditions. You also don’t need to carry a lot of extra gear if you are shooting in natural light. Portraits shot using artificial lights require quite a bulky lighting gear. Let us take a look at the various natural lighting scenarios and how you can effectively use them in your portraits…


Image courtesy 500px ISO


  1. Front lighting: The most common lighting condition you will ever come across is the front lighting condition. The light source is behind you and hence the light is falling straight onto your subject. This may seem to a very convenient lighting condition. However since the light is falling straight onto the subject, it lights up the entire subject and renders the image flat and dull. The solution to this problem can be by using different colours in your portraits. Since the lighting is rendering the image dull, try to include things in your frame which are having a lot of contrasting colours. Colours and contrasts will compensate for the dull lighting condition. For example, you may include some colourful scarf around the neck of your model. A colourful hair can also come in handy. Try to have a contrasting background as well. You can use front lighting to actually shoot over exposed images or high key images. The extra brightness actually helps in the removal of unwanted things from the face of your subject. High key images are those in which the highlights dominate the image. A high key portrait is one which is purposefully overexposed to provide an entirely different perspective.

  2. Back lighting: The lighting source is placed behind the subject. As a result you are shooting into the lighting source. Due to the excessively bright background, the subject’s face may appear dark. Use spot metering option and expose for the highlights behind the subject. Once this is done, the over exposure is taken care of. The face will be dark since the camera is bringing down the tonality of the entire image in order to make sure no data is lost in the bright background. Use a reflector in this scenario. Hold the reflector at an angle that will reflect the bright natural light straight into the face. It spreads the light evenly and also reduces the intensity, thus giving a soft feel to the image.

  3. Side lighting: Side lighting can be used to introduce drama into your portraits. The lighting source is usually from the side and hence throws the other half of the face into darkness. This introduces a lot of drama and suspense. You can use this sort of lighting to depict different stories and expressions. You can also use this to show the physical features of your model in a very stylish way. For example, you want to show the contrast in thoughts in someone’s life. You can use this side lighting to show both the normal and the dark thoughts going through someone’s mind.

  4. Top lighting: Top lighting is a very uncomfortable lighting condition to shoot in. It leads to a lot of harsh shadows on the face. You can get rid of them by firing the flash at the face to fill in the shadows. In such a case, use a diffuser to soften the light. However, it will be better if you can do so using a reflector. Firing a flash directly at the face is not a good option as it looks quite artificial.

  5. Diffused lighting: This is paradise for portrait photographers. The diffused lighting created mostly by clouds is perfect for shooting portraits. The soft and even light falling on the face looks very beautiful and natural. You do not need any extra gear to soften the light. The only challenge can be lack of a lot of light. The image may also be rendered a bit flat by the even distribution of light. Shoot in black and white to tackle this challenge. This will introduce a punch in your photograph.

Natural lighting can be used effectively to create brilliant portraits. However the basics of portrait photography should be in place too. Let us take a sneak peek at the very basics of portrait photography before we actually start using the various lighting conditions…

Depth of field and composition: This is a very important aspect of portrait photography. The blurred background helps in popping out your subject nicely. Depth of field is dependent on the aperture, the focal length of the lens and the camera to subject distance. The wider the aperture, shallower the depth of field. Use a prime lens with maximum aperture around f/1.8 to get a shallow depth of field. You can also use a telephoto zoom lens and shoot from a distance to great the beautiful background blur or the bokeh effect. The camera to subject distance is also an important parameter which decides the depth of field. In case this looks complicated, there are depth-of-field calculators available in different websites and applications. They will readily calculate the depth of field of a particular image when you enter the other parameters like aperture and focal length. Don’t place the subject in the centre of the frame. Use the rule of thirds and place the eyes of your subject in any one of the four intersecting points. Although it is not mandatory, it can improve the aesthetics of your images.



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Using natural lights to create amazing portraits is a prized asset to have. Post processing skills are also quite important when it comes to portraits. With the combination of basics of photography, post processing and the effective use of natural light, portrait photography can be great fun!


People Photography Portrait Photography Street Photography
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