How to Take the Perfect Portrait Using Natural Light

I love natural light. I would shoot exclusively with natural light if these dark and dreary Canadian winters would allow it. There are times when I’m forced to pull out my studio lights and brighten a scene, even though I’d rather not. I’m one of those photographers lucky enough to have a nine-foot window in my studio which never receives direct sunlight. I take advantage of this feature every chance I get. And because I love window light so much, I want to share some of my best natural light photography tips with you. Once you learn the ropes, I think you’ll appreciate window light just as much as I do!

Let’s take a closer look at natural light and why it works so well for portraits.

Why I Love Natural Light

natural light photography tips
Shot using a 50mm prime lens and an open window. Notice how softly the light plays across mother and child. Photo By Erin FitzGibbon

Natural light produces beautiful skin tones and gorgeous catchlights in the eyes of my clients. It also keeps colors vibrant. Another benefit is, I rarely need to adjust the white balance or enhance the vibrancy of my images in Lightroom. If you’re looking to create portraits that have a relaxed and natural feel, using natural light is the way to go.

As an added bonus, natural light is cost effective and easy to set up. You’ll need a camera, a tripod, a few different reflectors, a homemade v-flat, and some appealing backdrops. When combined, these simple ingredients will create beautiful, memorable images everyone will stop to admire.

Get the Right Gear!

Once you’ve decided to become a natural light photographer it’s time to begin collecting the right gear. Here’s what I recommend you use to get started.

Reflectors

Reflectors are a cheap and easy item to attain. They’re compact and easy to store because they fold up into a small package. A nice quality, large reflector kit costs somewhere in the range of $100.00. If you aren’t ready to take the plunge and purchase a kit, you can create a reflector by covering a large sheet of Bristol board with tinfoil. I’ve used this technique many times–it works amazingly well.

V-Flat

The second item I consider essential to natural light portraiture is the use of a V-flat. Quite simply, a V-flat is a full body reflector that stands on its own in a slightly folded v-shape.

Photographers typically make their v-flats out of large pieces of foam core. One side of the v-flat should be black and the other white. For less than $75 you can create one of the essential tools for portrait photography. Simply use heavy-duty tape to attach two pieces of white foam core together, then paint one side black to create your folding reflector.

I’ve actually made a tutorial on how to make v-flats along with a few other indispensable DIY photo hacks. Check it out if you’re the handy type who finds DIY projects enjoyable. It could save you some serious cash!

The V-flat lets you control the way the light highlights the face of your model. You can shape light by positioning the v-flat closer to or farther away from your subject. A V-flat also allows you to take away light. By using the black side of your v-flat you create deep and dramatic shadows in portraits.  It’s a simple tool that will allow a lot of creative opportunities.

Backdrops

The last tool needed for creating natural light portraits is a backdrop. When I first started out I went to the local fabric and sewing store. I purchased 10 metres of curtain liner and pinned it to my wall. It worked perfectly and my clients loved the images.

backdrops for portraits
The background is a white sheet draped over a backdrop stand. Super Simple to create. Photo By Erin FitzGibbon

If you have the budget then, by all means, purchase professional level backdrops and stands. You won’t regret the ease with which you will be able to set up different looks. But all that’s really needed is a simple background that puts all the emphasis on your clients. You can find great deals on backdrops on sites like Amazon or Etsy.

Set Up Is Easy!

Once you’ve got everything, there are two other important considerations to make when setting up a location for the shoot, both involving how to use the window for lighting.

One option is to set up your studio so the light hits your backdrop at a 90-degree angle. This way, the light flows across the features of your model. One side of their face will be brightly lit and the other will have deeper shadows.

The second set up is arranged parallel to your window so the model’s face is fully exposed to the window light. The light will spread evenly across his or her entire face.

Both setups work very well. The one you choose to go with depends on your goals for the look and feel of the image. Just remember, unless you wish to shoot silhouettes, having your model’s back towards the window is a no-no. You want that soft and elegant window light to illuminate your model’s face (even if partially) and not squarely on their back.

You should also try to avoid using windows in which the light shines directly into the location. This light is often quite harsh and can wash out colors and create deep dark shadows. Be creative by playing with the angles and how you set up your lighting.

how to light portaits
Notice the difference in the light between these two images. When the model’s back is to the window you don’t get those beautiful catchlights in the eyes. Photo By Erin FitzGibbon
Lighting for portrait photography
This image was shot at the same time as the one above. The difference is I turned my model around to face the window. Photo By Erin FitzGibbon

White Balance: Getting Color Temperature Right In Camera!

Take the time to set up your white balance properly. You can use a gray card if you have one or take a few photos and try to eyeball the white balance. If you’re unsure what I mean when discussing white balance, that’s okay. White balance refers to the color of the light in your image. Set your camera to shoot RAW and you will be able to easily adjust your white balance later on when you import and edit your photos.

Alternatively, go through the different settings in your camera and find a look you like based on the image you see on your view screen. In general, you should be looking for a setting that is called “Open Shade”. Typically the Open Shade setting is signified by this type of symbol.

white balance settings

Having the correct color tones is important to create beautiful and natural feeling images. If you’re shooting in a living room with strong colors on the wall, be aware the light will pick up those colors. Try to find a place within your home or shooting location that has neutral colored walls. A light beige or white wall will help keep your colors looking natural.

You Purchased A Reflector, Now Use It!

Once you have everything ready and your model is positioned in the way you wish, it’s time to shape the light. This is one of my favorite parts about shooting with window light. I can create highlights in my model’s eyes or add touches of light to their hair by positioning my reflectors in certain places.

Place your reflector on a homemade stand or enlist a helper to hold the reflector as you move it around your model to find the most flattering lighting. Once you’ve found a look you like, it’s time to snap those images!

window light portraits
Use a reflector to fill in shadows, then start shooting! Photo By Erin FitzGibbon

There’s really no right or wrong to this. Go with your instincts and try to find a look you like. Just be sure to check your exposures regularly. If you don’t, you might be surprised to find the highlights created by your reflector are way too bright and “burn out” parts of your image. The last thing you want to create is glaringly bright spots of light on the end of your model’s nose!

A Quick Word About Shutter Speed, ISO, and Aperture Settings

Since you’re shooting in open shade be aware the automatic settings might not be the best choice for this type of work. Humans never really sit perfectly still so you need to ensure you use a shutter speed that will freeze motion. You may have to adjust your ISO to accommodate a faster speed. That’s okay, don’t be afraid to up the ISO–today’s cameras are very good at handling low light situations.

I know many professional photographers who are happy to shoot their images at ISO 640. If you are worried about noise, play around with different aperture settings. A wide open aperture will allow you to shoot at a faster shutter speed. The most important part is to make sure you get your model’s eyes and most of their face in tack sharp focus.

family portrait tips
While this image does not use window light it uses open shade. It’s the same kind of soft and beautiful light. Photo By Erin FitzGibbon

Now for the Fun Part!!!

You have everything you need. It wasn’t hard to set up and certainly didn’t break the bank. Take a deep breath and smile. It’s time to get creative with your photography.

Here’s some tips to help you capture awesome natural light portraits:

  • Experiment with different poses, and move the v-flat or the reflector around.
  • Get your model to make goofy faces, then capture that natural smile.
  • Try using the black side of the v-flat to create something dramatic.

Natural light photography is a lot of fun to play around with since the light will always be soft and beautiful. You won’t have to worry about harsh shadows or bright spots on your model’s face, so don’t be afraid to experiment!

Show Us Your Natural Light Photography Skills!

As you can tell, window light is most definitely my favorite type of light. I hope it quickly becomes your favorite too! Leave me some comments below. In fact, try out my natural light photography tips and show me examples of your work. I would love to see what everyone creates!

natural light photography tips
Natural light is beautiful, use it to your advantage! Photo By Erin FitzGibbon

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About the author

Erin Fitzgibbon

Erin FitzGibbon is a Portrait, Sport, Fine Art Photographer and Writer from Ontario, Canada. When she's not taking photographs or writing articles she loves to escape to the backcountry for week long adventures with her family.

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