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6 Natural Light Tips for Portrait Photographers

Photographing in natural light can be intimidating for the budding photographer. Without that direct control of lighting and composition, many can feel lost or unsure of what to do. Once you’ve mastered the art of manipulating natural light, however, you will be pleased with the results! Here are six tips and tricks you can use today to start improving your natural light portrait photography.

 6 Natural Light Tips for Portrait Photographers

  1. Learn where the light is during certain times of the day

The first thing you want to do is figure out how the light changes throughout the day. When is it the brightest outside? When are you going to have the least amount of light, or shadows? Typically, you’ll want to avoid shooting at high noon, or the hours between 11 am and 2 pm, as this is when the sun is the highest in the sky and the shadows are the harshest and most unflattering to the face.

You’ve probably heard the term “Golden Hour” thrown around a bit – this is the time of day when the sun is lowest in the sky (morning or evening), and a golden hue can be seen everywhere. This is a great starting point for newer photographers, as there is less direct light and shadows to worry about. It will also help add a sense of warmth to your photos with beautiful golden and orange tones! You can learn more Tips for Shooting at Golden Hour here.

Believe it or not, the best day to shoot outside is when it’s cloudy – unless you’re hoping for dramatic shadows, cloudy days are the easiest to adjust your settings to when shooting outdoors.

  1. Determine your manual settings

While you may be able to get some decent photos on Auto, it’s always good to learn how to shoot in manual – this opens up an entire world of experimentation and can help give your photos personal style!

When setting your aperture, the larger the opening, the more light you’ll take in. f/1.4, for example, will let in more light than say, f/8. Keep in mind, however, that backgrounds will become more blurred if you have a wider aperture (which, personally, I think is nice – it can add a sense of depth to the photo!).

For shutter speed, you’ll want to make sure it’s at a setting where you won’t get motion blur from holding the camera. Try to work at least at 1/100 or higher. The faster the shutter speed, the more light you’ll let intake this into account with your other settings.

Lastly, you’ll want to take a look at your ISO. This was used for film sensitivity but has been transferred over to digital photography as well. The higher the number, the better your camera will expose in the dark, but beware of grain. Most cameras these days can give you a pretty high ISO with minimal grain, so if you’re shooting past sunset, keep this in mind.

Here are two examples of settings that I have used – use this as a quick reference if you need something in a pinch:

Morning/evening: f/2.8, 1/250, ISO 400-800

High noon: f/2.8 – 4, 1/250, ISO 100 (I like to keep my f-stop on the lower end for blurred backgrounds - you don’t have to go this low).

These aren’t the *correct* settings – there’s no such thing. But – these can be a starting point for you to adjust from!

  1. When in doubt, underexpose

This is a personal tip – if you do end up in a situation where you have to shoot in harsh lighting, try to expose for the highlights. Your image will look darker than you may want it to in-camera, but your highlights won’t be blown out. Personally, I find that bringing up shadows is easier than toning down highlights in post-editing – you’re able to preserve details more easily!

  1. Use objects and unique shadows

Get your creative juices flowing by using objects on the subject’s face to create unique shadows and lighting! I love using prisms, window blinds, or lace to create cool patterns and give my photographs a new sense of dimension. Don’t think you have to splurge for items either – chances are, you have objects in your own home that you can use to your advantage!

  1. Reflectors are your friend

Did you know that you can control natural light to an extent? 

Consider purchasing a reflector on Amazon or at your local photography store, and have a friend assist you on your next shoot with it. Reflectors are great for pointing light where you need it or absorbing light if there is too much.

Don’t want to purchase a reflector? You can use white or black cardboard or even a mirror to the same effect!

  1. Learn how light illuminates the face

One great way to quickly figure out how the sun and shadows will illuminate your subject is to have them stand in one spot, and then have them continuously turn with you as you walk around in a circle. With this trick, you can figure out how the sun illuminates the face at different angles and decide what kind of effect you want to go for. You can do this same test by holding your hand up in front of your face and spinning in a circle.

We hope these tips and tricks make natural light portrait photography much less intimidating for you. Once you get the hang of it, you can create some amazing photographs with outdoor lighting. Good luck, and be sure to share images of your natural light photography with us!


Do you prefer studio lighting or natural lighting, and why? Let us know in the comments!

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