An Introduction to Natural Light Portraiture


When Nicéphore Niépce invented the first permanent photographic process in the early 19th century, he named it heliographie—or, sun-writing. Nearly two hundred years later, the sun continues to provide a quality light source to photographers at a fraction of the cost of its competitors. Like any creative decision, using natural light for portraits has its pros and cons. Its popularity stems from the facts that it is free, accessible, and (mostly) predictable. Nevertheless, and contrary to the opinion of certain lighting snobs, it is just as easy to take a terrible photograph using natural light as it is with any other source. Understanding when, where, and how to use natural light is crucial to maximizing its benefits. Follow the tips below to get the most out of your natural light portraits.

Placing diffusion on a boompole makes it much easier to position outdoors.

Time of Day

The sun’s position in the sky changes throughout the day. This matters for photographers because the character of the light it provides and the shadows that it creates change with its position relative to your subject. Unobstructed, midday sun is the most challenging light to navigate because it creates harsh, often unflattering shadows on subjects. Even worse, it will cause even the most stoic model to squint, ruining otherwise good shots. Luckily, direct sun can be tamed via diffusion.

Full sun creates harsh shadows (left) remedied by diffusion (right).

Depending on the position of your subject, you may be able to get away with accomplishing what you need handheld. Many “all-in-one” collapsible reflectors include a diffusion or blackout panel that can be used for this purpose. However, to cover more space, diffusion on a boompole like Sunbounce’s Sun-Swatter really comes in handy. This gives an assistant the ability to modify the effect of the diffusion panel by raising or lowering it. Flags and scrims can also be mounted on light stands to manage the amount of light reaching your subject. For larger jobs, panel kits provide support and diffusion in a single package.

The time after sunrise and before sunset presents distinct, warm lighting for portraits.

The time immediately following sunrise and immediately preceding sunset, often referred to as the “golden hour,” offers a distinct, warm glow that many photographers plan entire shoots around. Similarly, the light preceding sunrise and following sunset is known as “blue hour” light, an equally distinct and—you guessed it, cooler environment. If you intend to shoot during one of these daily windows, allocate ample setup time so that you can best maximize your limited working time. The challenge—and frustration—of shooting during these times is that lighting conditions change rapidly, so be ready to adapt on the fly. They can also be relatively low-light environments so, depending upon your subject, you may need to add a little extra light to get your exposure where you want it.

Aside from ruining hair, makeup, and camera gear, rain can lead to unique shooting conditions for those practiced in patience.


Any photographer who has worked outdoors in variable climates knows how frustrating weather forecasts can be. As I was preparing for this article, I rescheduled a shoot on account of a forecast touting a 90% chance of rain. Naturally, the 10% prevailed and the day ended up being a missed opportunity. This comes with the territory and contingency plans are a crucial part of any outdoor shoot. Rain is not always bad. The time right after rainfall can offer dramatic atmospheric effects for environmental portraits. It’s always a good idea to scout outdoor locations under a variety of weather conditions when in the planning stages of your shoot. When working on location with a team, always have a place nearby for shelter in case conditions change. Rain protection for your camera gear can also be a lifesaver in the event that you get caught in unexpected weather. For more advice on coping with the outdoors, read my story How to Protect your Camera Against Nearly Everything.

Cloudy skies provide clean backgrounds and even lighting conditions.

If you take precipitation out of the equation, overcast skies offer some of the best shooting conditions for portraits. Clouds are Nature’s diffusers, transforming the harsh light of the sun into a much more neutral, even source. The only drawback of shooting under cloud cover is the possibility of your light being too neutral, causing images to appear washed out. Reflectors can be powerful tools for bouncing and directing light to mediate this issue. Choose your bounce surface wisely—silver, gold, and white reflective surfaces each produce distinct looks with the light they modify. Be aware that strong light sources bounced off of reflective materials can create overwhelming fill and unnatural images. The shape of your reflector also determines where and how light will affect your subject.

A silver reflector was able to bounce a considerable amount of light on this shady stoop.

Natural Light Indoors

Shooting with natural light indoors might seem counterintuitive. However, a well-positioned window can provide a surprising amount of light. Daylight studios have long been cherished by portrait photographers for providing the benefits of shooting outdoors while offering protection from the elements. If they were good enough for Nadar and Irving Penn, they are certainly good enough for the rest of us. To see examples of daylight studio portraits check out our “What is Photography?” series, which has been made entirely in the north-facing natural light studio at Highlight Studios. Just like when shooting outdoors, reflectors and diffusion are your friends when working with natural light indoors.

Daylight studios offer the benefits of natural light alongside protection from the elements.

Mixing Light Sources

Using natural light is not an all-or-nothing decision. Sometimes you need a little more illumination than your location can provide. On-camera flashes, LEDs, and battery-powered strobes can help out when you need an extra boost to get the correct exposure. It is good practice to always pack backup light—just in case you need it.

Whether you are working on a high-budget fashion shoot or just taking snapshots of friends, all photographs depend on light. You don’t need to break the bank to make good photographs if you know how to use what is right in front of you. Do you incorporate natural light in your photography? Share your experiences and tips in the Comments section, below.