Mastering Natural Light Portraits: Tips & Techniques
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 8 min read


  1. Understanding natural light
  2. How to read natural light
  3. Direction of light and its effects
  4. Working with different types of natural light
  5. Using natural light creatively
  6. How to create dramatic portraits with natural light
  7. Tips for shooting portraits at golden hour
  8. How to manage natural light in difficult conditions

Exciting news, folks! You're about to take your first step towards getting better at portrait photography with natural light. This blog will share some helpful tips and techniques that will have you mastering natural light portraits in no time. So, ready to dive in? Great! Let's go.

Understanding Natural Light

First off, let's brush up on the basics. To get the most out of natural light in your portrait photography, you need to understand what it is and how it works.

Natural light, simply put, is the light produced by the sun. It's free, abundant, and can create stunning and dramatic effects in your photographs. But here's the deal — natural light is not constant. It changes throughout the day and can be influenced by weather conditions, location, and the time of year.

For starters, let's look at a few key concepts:

  • Quality of Light: This refers to how hard or soft the light is. On a bright, sunny day, the light is hard and can create strong shadows. On an overcast day, the light is softer and diffuses evenly.
  • Color of Light: Light can have different colors, or 'temperatures'. Morning and evening light tends to be warm and golden, while midday light is cooler and bluer.
  • Intensity of Light: This is about how bright the light is. Higher intensity light can result in overexposed photos if not managed properly.

So, what's the takeaway here? As you're getting better at portrait photography with natural light, remember to observe these changes in natural light. Understanding these basics can help you take your photography to the next level. It's all about practice, patience, and a whole lot of fun. You've got this!

How to Read Natural Light

Now that you've got a handle on what natural light is, let's learn how to read it. Reading natural light is like learning a new language. It's all about understanding the tell-tale signs and interpreting them correctly. This is a key step in getting better at portrait photography with natural light.

One of the easiest ways to read natural light is by looking at shadows. Shadows can tell you a lot about the direction and intensity of light. Here's a little trick: use your own shadow. The longer your shadow, the lower the angle of the light.

Another handy method is using a light meter. This tool measures the amount of light in a given area and helps you set your camera settings accordingly. But don't worry if you don't have one. Your camera's built-in light meter will do just fine!

  • Shadow and Highlight Details: Look at how detailed or soft the shadows and highlights are. This can tell you about the quality of light.
  • Direction of Light: Identify where the light is coming from. Is it in front of, behind, or to the side of your subject?
  • The Catchlight: This is the little sparkle you sometimes see in your subject's eyes. It can give you clues about the direction and source of light.

Remember, the best way to learn how to read light is by practicing. So get out there and start observing! You're one step closer to mastering portrait photography with natural light.

Direction of Light and its Effects

Understanding the direction of light can drastically improve your portrait photography with natural light. Each direction of light—front, back, and side—creates a unique mood and depth in your photographs. Let's dive into each one and see how they can transform your portraits.

Front Lighting: This is when the sun is directly behind you, lighting up your subject's face. It's an easy and forgiving light to work with, perfect for beginners. But beware, it can sometimes make your images look flat and less dramatic.

Backlighting: Here, the sun is behind your subject, creating a beautiful halo effect. Backlighting can add a dreamy, magical feel to your portraits. However, getting the exposure right can be tricky—you don’t want to end up with a silhouette unless that's your intent!

Side Lighting: As the name suggests, the light source is to the side of your subject. This creates interesting shadows and highlights, adding depth and dimension to your portraits. It can be a bit challenging to work with, but the results are worth it!

Remember, there's no 'one-size-fits-all' approach here. Mastering the art of using light direction in your favor is a journey, a process of trial and error. But with time and practice, you'll start getting better at portrait photography with natural light. So don't be afraid to experiment and push your creative boundaries!

Working with Different Types of Natural Light

The beauty of natural light is that it's ever-changing, providing a vast playground for photographers. Understanding the different types of natural light can take your portrait photography to the next level. Let's explore a few common types and their unique characteristics.

Soft Light: Think of an overcast day, where the sun is hidden behind a layer of clouds. This diffused light is gentle and even, making it ideal for portraits. It minimizes harsh shadows and brings out the details in your subject.

Hard Light: This is your typical sunny day, where the sun is high and the shadows are strong. Hard light can add drama to your portraits, but be careful—it can also create unflattering shadows on your subject's face.

Golden Light: Who doesn't love the golden hour? This warm, soft light occurs during sunrise and sunset, adding a magical touch to your portraits. It's one of the favorite types of light among portrait photographers.

Remember, each type of light can bring a different mood and feel to your portraits. By understanding these differences, you can make informed decisions about when and how to shoot. So next time you're out with your camera, make a conscious effort to observe the quality of light around you. It's a key step in getting better at portrait photography with natural light.

Using Natural Light Creatively

Now that you have a better understanding of the types of natural light, let's talk about how you can use it creatively. Yes, natural light is a powerful tool, but knowing how to use it will make your portraits stand out even more. Here's how you can get creative with natural light.

Backlighting: This technique involves positioning your subject between you and the light source. By doing so, you can create a beautiful halo effect around your subject. It's a fabulous way to make your subject pop out from the background and it adds a dreamy touch to your portraits.

Sidelighting: Here, the light source is to the side of your subject. This technique helps to create depth and texture by casting shadows and highlighting contours. Just imagine the side of a face lit up, while the other side is subtly in shadow—it can make for a dramatic portrait.

Direct Sunlight: While many shy away from direct sunlight, if used correctly, it can result in striking images. You can experiment with the harsh shadows and highlights for a bold, edgy look. It might be a bit tricky at first, but with practice, you'll get the hang of it.

Remember, these are just starting points. The real fun begins when you start experimenting and coming up with your own unique ways to use natural light. So, go out there and play with the light. It's all part of getting better at portrait photography with natural light.

How to Create Dramatic Portraits with Natural Light

Creating dramatic portraits is all about understanding light and using it to your advantage. But how can you use natural light to add drama to your portraits? Let's break it down.

Chasing Shadows: Shadows can add an element of mystery and intrigue to your portraits. Look for natural structures like trees or buildings that cast interesting shadows. Positioning your subject in a way that allows the shadows to fall across them can create a dramatic effect.

Golden Hour Glow: The golden hour—the time just after sunrise or just before sunset—offers a golden, diffused light that can add a magical quality to your portraits. The warm tones during this hour can enhance the drama in your photos.

Weather Elements: Overcast days, fog, or even light rain can add a mysterious and dramatic effect to your portraits. Don't be afraid to shoot in different weather conditions. The overcast sky can act as a giant softbox, eliminating harsh shadows and providing soft, even light.

Remember, the best way to create dramatic effects with natural light is to experiment. Try different settings, play with shadows, and don't be afraid of the weather. It's all part of the journey of getting better at portrait photography with natural light.

Tips for Shooting Portraits at Golden Hour

Golden hour: that magical time when the sun bathes the world in a warm, golden glow. It's a favorite among photographers for a reason. But how can you harness this enchanting light to improve your portrait photography? Here are some tips to help you:

Plan Ahead: The golden hour doesn't last long. Know exactly where you'll be shooting and have your gear ready. A great website to check the exact time for golden hour in your location is The Photographer's Ephemeris.

Master the Exposure: With the sun low in the sky, you may face challenges with exposure. It's smart to use spot metering to expose for your subject's face. This might blow out the background, but your subject will be properly exposed.

Play with the Sun: The position of the sun can drastically change the mood of your portrait. Try placing the sun behind your subject for a nice rim light, or use it as a front light for a warm, natural glow on your subject's face.

Use a Reflector: Reflectors can help bounce some of that beautiful golden light onto your subject. They can fill in any harsh shadows and add a lovely catchlight in your subject's eyes.

Remember, practice makes perfect. The more you experiment with golden hour photography, the better you'll get. It's all part of the journey in getting better at portrait photography with natural light.

How to Manage Natural Light in Difficult Conditions

Not every day is going to be a sunny one. Sometimes, it's cloudy, or the light is just too harsh. But don't worry, you can still take amazing portraits with natural light. Here's how:

Embrace Cloudy Days: Overcast days can actually be your best friend. They provide a soft, diffused light that's perfect for portraits. Think of it as nature's softbox. You won't have to deal with harsh shadows or squinting models.

Find Shade: If the sun is too harsh, look for some shade. It could be a tree, a building, or even a simple umbrella. The light in the shade is softer and more even.

Use a Diffuser: If you can't find any shade and the light is just too strong, use a diffuser. It can help soften the light and reduce harsh shadows.

Wait for the Right Time: If all else fails, wait. The light changes throughout the day. Early morning and late afternoon usually offer the best light for portraits.

Challenging lighting conditions can seem intimidating. But with these tips, you'll be able to manage natural light effectively, making your journey to getting better at portrait photography with natural light a successful one.

If you're eager to improve your natural light portrait photography skills, don't miss the workshop 'Demystifying Portrait Photography' by Cyn Lagos. This workshop will help you enhance your understanding of natural light and provide you with practical tips and techniques to create stunning portraits.