Natural Light Rebellion: Fun Ways To Use It In Portraits


When used properly, natural light can offer the best and most flattering light for portraiture of all kinds.  The trick is using it properly.  We’ve all heard the tips about best times of day to shoot outside and how we need to cover the subject to block the harsh down-light.  But portraiture does not have to follow a scientific textbook approach.  There are many ways to use natural light, and I’m going to share with you a few fun ways to introduce it into your portraiture.  Warning:  Some of these may be against the so-called rules and you may get scolded by the snobbiest of the photography elite.

Shoot in Broad Midday Sun

The purists know to avoid midday sun when shooting anything outside.  Light is harsh, contrast is high, and we all look like skulls.  But that’s assuming that we’re all looking straight ahead, does it not?  Midday sun is not so threatening with a model that isn’t afraid to move around.  You can’t change the position of the sun (though I suppose you could wait, but where’s the fun in that).  But you can change the position of your model’s face relative to the sun.  Facing the sun is difficult sometimes.  The model will feel blinded, but a slight angle change can correct that without significantly harsh shadows.  You can also bend the light using reflectors, or you can soften it using large white sheets (and a couple of volunteers…I mean “assistants”).

Sun Glare Adds Interest

The fear of sun glare comes from the way it can wash out a photo and desaturate colors.  It can also confuse your in-camera meter resulting in underexposed or overexposed shots.  The flare effect you see when the sun is in the shot can chew away the edges of your subject, disfiguring them for life (but only in that particular photo).  But let’s look beyond the problems.  Let’s realize that glare can create a dreamy effect.  Realize that the sun can be a subject in and of itself.  And when combined with the appropriate reflectors, we can get some pretty cool effects.  As for the desaturation of your photos, we can correct for that (if we want to) in post.  Sure, the sun itself will get blown out and we may lose some detail at the edges of our subjects, but it’s all for the sake of art.

Now, for this example, I’m cheating a bit.  I use the sun glare technique a lot in portraiture, but nothing that I have been released to share on this site.  This architectural shot of the building illustrates the effect quite nicely, though, and so I hope you’ll forgive me for using an architecture shot in a portrait discussion.

Hard Shadows Add Drama

The farther the light source is from our subject, the harder the shadows it will cast.  The sun is very far from us and it’s very bright.  Therefore it will cast some pretty harsh shadows.  If said shadow is cast by something like a nose or the person’s eyebrow, it can make the person look pretty goofy.  But supposing we introduce shadows cast by a controlled artifact, we can create some compelling shots.  Try shooting subjects near a window with partially-opened blinds.  The stripes cast upon your subject will not only be dramatic, but they will help to define the shape in a surreal way.  Maybe one model’s shadow is cast upon another model, that would make for some interesting compositions.  Maybe the models aren’t in the shot at all and we’re only shooting their shadows?  Isn’t that fun?  Case and point, we shouldn’t be afraid of harsh shadows.  They really can add interest.  Note the photo at the top of this article?  That’s my daughter.  She’s cute and all, but the real draw to this photo is the hard shadow, thanks to the sun.

Bounce It All Around

You can do a lot with a nice reflector (read:  a large piece of white foam core from the hobby shop).  You can do a lot more with lots of reflectors.  The sun casts light everywhere, and you can surround your subject with lots of reflectors to fill in the light as you see fit.  You can even use the sides of bright buildings, reflections from water, or place your subject in a large brightly colored area (concrete jungle, anyone?).  Back when I was learning, my instructor even used a concrete plaza as the reflector and used large black sheets of paper to block certain reflections.

The example I pose here demonstrates two concepts that we’ve discussed.  Previously, we spoke of hard shadows.  The shadows in this shot demonstrate how hard shadows can be used to create interest.  But I also share this photo because of the lighting dynamics.  The sun is high above and behind my family in this shot.  But eve with the limitations of the camera’s sensor, I can still clearly see detail in the faces.  Why?  Because the entire ground is a light colored pavement and is reflecting light everywhere, including onto the subjects.  Had the pavement been dark asphalt, everyone’s faces would be cast in darkness.

Natural Light Occurs Inside Too

Natural light can be controlled, and the best and easiest way to do that is move inside.  On a whim, you can move a subject into a building and use doorways or windows as your light source.  You can control the light with blinds, sheets, reflectors or what-have you.  Maybe even a big white wall.  I once visited a professional portrait studio that was situated at the south corner of a building with large windows on two sides.  There were two sets of curtains on each side, one opaque, one translucent (for diffusion).  Additionally, one bare wall was pained white, the other was painted grey.  Finally, he had mapped out on the short wall below each window the anticipated sun positions at any given time of day at given times throughout the year.  The photographer had strobes, but I’m pretty sure they collected dust in a closet.  He would schedule his appointments based on the position of the sun, and he could control the light in any way that he wanted, either with the curtains themselves, or with various cookies, scrims or reflectors that he placed appropriately.  This is extreme, of course, and I don’t anticipate that many of you will have such resources.  But you can do quite a bit inside with natural light.  Hanging a sheet over the window can really soften it up.  Reflecting it can get you some nice fill.  You can even position the subject so that the light is flattering.


About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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