Making the Most of Available Light for Portraits


With digital cameras and editing software constantly improving, photographers are able to get away with a lot more today than they could in the past. Better sensors, flexible ISO ranges, raw image processing, and ever-advancing lens technologies have all contributed to a more forgiving margin of error for the photographer—or, to put it more optimistically—greater creative possibilities. For the portrait photographer, this means you don’t have to invest in a studio’s worth of gear to create compelling photographs of your sitters. Some will say this has always been the case, but it is certainly truer today than in the past.

Many portrait photographers love natural light.

Many portrait photographers love natural light.

These upgrades under the hood of the latest cameras can lead the beginner to wonder if lighting tools are necessary at all. Happy with the results they have achieved using natural light, new photographers can be leery of introducing unfamiliar equipment to their workflow. This article begins by tackling how to make the most of what your camera and lens have to offer on their own, before diving into the benefits of some common modifiers and lights.

Choose Fast Glass

It should come as little surprise to hear that the quality of your photographs depends to a great degree on the quality of the lenses you use. The faster your lens, the brighter your images will be, and the more flexibility you will have when working under less-than-ideal lighting conditions. When you hear someone refer to a lens as “fast,” they are not (usually) talking about autofocusing or other mechanical speeds; they are talking about the maximum aperture of the lens. Fast lenses open up wide, let in more light, and allow you to shoot at higher shutter speeds. “Slow” lenses have smaller maximum apertures, let in less light, and require you to compensate with lower shutter speeds. Another reason fast lenses appeal to portrait photographers is because they can create images with very shallow depth of field. This allows you to make portraits where only the sitter’s eyes or face are in focus.

“Fast” lenses allow you to create portraits with shallow depth of field.

Whether you are choosing a prime or zoom lens, pay attention to its specifications, especially aperture. Many prime lens enthusiasts swear by their bright f/1.4 lenses, whether at 50mm, 85mm, or 105mm focal lengths. For photographers craving the shallowest depth of fields, there have been a handful of f/1.2 lenses released in recent years at focal lengths ideal for portraits.

When choosing a zoom, note whether it features a constant or variable aperture. Constant aperture lenses, as the name implies, maintain the same maximum aperture across the entire zoom range. Variable aperture lenses lose brightness as you zoom from wide to tele views, making it more difficult to capture subjects in low-light settings.

Shoot Raw

If you are committed to shooting portraits using only available light, you had better be creating raw files. Whether you are using Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Lightroom, Capture One, or a proprietary editing software, working from raw files greatly expands your editing possibilities. If you are shooting jpegs and mess up your exposure or white balance, you may be able to recover your image, but it can often be an arduous process. Raw capture preserves all of the data from your exposure, allowing you to make dramatic changes to a file without necessarily losing detail or introducing noise.

Shape Your Source

While it is possible to create beautiful portraits using only natural light, you should be prepared to modify or supplement it when necessary. For example, you may find yourself in a scenario where you want a more even distribution of light on your subject. Unfortunately, there is only one sun in our solar system, so its light must necessarily come from a single direction. Never fear, there is a cheap and effective solution to this dilemma: reflectors.

Circular reflectors provide a quick and easy means of filling shadows. Note the extra bounce the silver surface provides compared to the white.

Circular reflectors provide a quick and easy means of filling shadows. Note the extra bounce the silver surface provides compared to the white.

In the first photograph above, the window-facing half of the model’s face is being illuminated by indirect sunlight and the opposite side of her face is falling into shadow. Depending on your creative intention, that may be fine, but supposing you want to fill that area in a bit, you can easily do so with a reflector. Any neutral-colored material can be used to bounce fill into a portrait. However, portrait photographers often prefer circular reflectors because they appear naturally in a sitter’s eyes when visible. Note the difference between a white reflector and a silver reflector. Due to its comparably higher reflectivity, the silver surface has more bite than its white counterpart, filling in shadows across a given surface to a greater degree.

Simply placing diffusion between the sun and your subject can make a huge difference in your portraits.

Simply placing diffusion between the sun and your subject can make a huge difference in your portraits.

Another scenario in which you may find yourself needing to shape ambient light is when it is too bright, such as when shooting outdoors in full sun. This is easily fixed by placing a scrim between your light and subject. Scrims come in a variety of strengths, depending on the amount of light you need cut from your source. Diffusion is another means of lessening, as well as evening, a light source that is too strong. To learn more about scrims, check out this article.

Add a Light Already

OK; we made it this far using only a camera, lens, and a few simple tools. It is entirely possible to create portraits with only reflectors and diffusion—trust me, I did it for an entire series—but there is no good reason to avoid adding lights to your portrait gear. Countless opportunities become available once you are able to control the direction, shape, and strength of your light.

Once you are able to position lights wherever you need them, you can create images that would not be possible using natural light alone.

Once you have a light source independent of the sun, you don’t need to worry about natural light at all, if you don’t want to. Whether working with on-camera flashes, strobes, or continuous lights, it is much easier to manage where and how light will appear in your portraits. This is a topic worthy of its own articles. If you are new to studio lighting, have a look at this guide for choosing your first light for portraiture. To learn how the image above was made, check out this article on basic portrait lighting.

Do you incorporate natural light in your portraits? Share some of your advice in the Comments section, below!

1 Comment

Very Unique and Fascinating, indeed!!!