Natural Light Portraiture: How To Succeed, Every Time

Image by Pezibear

I’m a very vocal proponent of natural light portraiture. I’m not out to push this onto anyone, it’s just a strong preference of mine. It doesn’t mean I don’t know how to use flash — I do. I simply enjoy using natural light whenever possible.

Working with natural light (sunlight in this case), however, doesn’t come without challenges; just like everything else in photography, the issue of how you choose to light your subjects is rife with compromise. There is no perfect solution.

It’s easy for some to rail against flash/strobe photography, but as such a strong advocate of natural light photography I feel compelled — for the sake of fairness — to discuss some of the pros and cons of my preferred lighting source.

If you're really keen on developing your knowledge of using light – portrait or otherwise, check out this Guide: Understanding Light – Book 2. Here you'll be taking through some more advanced techniques suitable for anyone – become a Master of Light!

Time Restrictions Of Using Natural Light

With flash photography, you’re bound to run into logistical constraints — there’s not enough room to set up your lighting, flash photography isn’t allowed, etc. But with natural light, you’re held back by what time of day you can shoot. Sure, you can shoot in the middle of the day but the light is typically harsh and unflattering.

If this is the only time of day you have to shoot, well…no one’s going to weep for you. On the other hand, if you get up early or wait until later in the day you will be met with light that casts an exquisitely warm glow and soft shadows. It’s ideal for portraiture, but you have a relatively narrow window in which to take advantage of it.

Photo by Matteo Paciotti

Natural Light Can Be Unpredictable

Flash photography means control: you can arrange the lights however you choose, control power, modify the direction of the light and so much more. You dictate the changes.

Natural light means you’re subject to the whims of nature; the environment can change in an instant, potentially ruining your heretofore perfect setup. All it takes is a bit of cloud cover, a strong gust of wind, or a smattering of precipitation to send you back to the drawing board.

The upside? You learn to roll with the punches. Your first impulse will probably be to give up and call it day, but if you learn to take what nature dishes out and adapt to it you will great expand your creativity. It can be frustrating, but this sort of versatility is an important skill.

Image by AdinaVoicu

Itinerant Environments – Changing Where You Shoot

When you’re in the studio working with flash, your environment is essentially static. You can move things around in a studio however you like or you can keep them as is; again, there’s an unequivocal level of control here. Your studio is going to look the same until you change it.

Nature is not as cooperative.

That perfect sliver of light peeking through the trees isn’t going to last forever; you’ve got to be quick to ensure you get the shot you’re envisioning. When that sliver of light disappears, so does your shot – unless, of course, you’re willing to chase the light until you reacquire a suitable replication.

Odds are you won’t be able to recreate it perfectly, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as your light-chasing adventure may lead to other incredible shots that you couldn’t have possibly foreseen! Natural light isn't going to make your work easy in many instances, but the results will be the big payoff.

If you're really keen on developing your knowledge of using light and taking it to new heights in your work as a photographer – portrait or otherwise, check out this Guide: Understanding Light – Book 2. Here you'll be taking through some more advanced techniques suitable for anyone who wants to really get the most from their camera and their time spent behind it!

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Photo by Ginny


Some photographers see working with natural light as a hassle, and in all honesty, a part of me agrees. While I may sing the praises of natural light portraiture, I am by no means oblivious to the challenges presented therein.

The endeavor is a worthwhile one because, in my view, the results are beautifully unique. But I don’t see this as a contentious issue; this isn’t natural light versus flash/strobe or an effort to crown one better than the other.

This is just to give those who have never given much consideration to natural light portraiture something to think about and, perhaps, to remind those who do prefer natural light why they love it so much.

Further Resources

About Author

Jason Little is a photographer, author and stock shooter. You can see Jason’s photography on his Website or his Instagram feed.

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