Natural Light Portrait Photography: what does it really mean?

I’m going to be honest here…  when you see a photographer claiming to specialize in “natural light portrait photography” it usually means they either do not have a mobile off-camera lighting system to create artificial light when they need it, or they don’t know how to use it effectively.

Common mistakes I often see in these collections:

  1. Shooting at the wrong time of day. When the sun is too high, it’s too bright and the angle causes distracting high contrast shadowing.
  2. Not using a key light – sometimes when it’s too bright, novice photographers will simply put the light behind the client.  This can work, but almost always works better if there’s some kind of light modification (fill flash or reflector) redirecting some key light onto the otherwise too dark subject.   Good natural lighting creates the same type of lighting fundamentals that a studio photographer would set up with his or her lights in studio.
  3. blown out backgrounds. If you shoot a subject in the shade against a sky or a background that is in direct sunlight, you will either have an underexposed subject or an overexposed background without some kind of light modification. When using natural available light, it’s best when your subject an your background are similarly lit.
  4. Over-processed  editing in an effort after the fact to correct lighting errors and anomalies.

Natural Light sounds great and it is.  In fact, under optimal conditions it is the most ideal lighting you can get for  on-location portraits.   But it’s not always available and sometimes when it is, it may not be at a useable angle for the background in the shot you are trying to compose in your natural light portrait photography.

With that in mind, it is buyer beware when a photographer boasts of being a master of natural light .   There are very few full session photo-shoots that can be accomplished beginning to end without some kind of light modification, and the real value a photographer can bring to their client’s experience is knowledge of how light works in general – natural light and artificial light alike.   Having said that, natural light portraits do have a purity and honesty to them that when properly done is my personal favorite portrait light.  Just ask your photographer before the shoot how they plan to light shots that can’t be achieved through natural light alone.

Lighting in general is an incredibly in-depth topic however and for the purposes of today’s blog, I want to talk specifically about the conditions and strategies for getting great portraits without using any artificial lighting or reflectors first in a downtown setting, and later in a park.   Obviously using a reflector opens up a whole new world of natural light opportunities, but if you are traveling light with only a mobile off camera light and your camera to work with and you want natural light, you have to use what nature provides.

Recently, we did a session with Bixby High School senior portrait client Izzy Pearcy.  Izzy is a beautiful young woman made even lovlier for our session by our makeup artist partner Destry Davis.

We met in the middle of downtown Tulsa 2 hours before sunset.   While that is far too early to use direct sunlight as our key light (too high, too bright) in most situations, it creates perfect bounced light off of the surface of buildings all over downtown, lighting up the street level with gorgeous diffused light when you know where to look.

The first thing to do is find the background you want for your shot, and then evaluate the direction of this bounced light.   Lining up the background you want with the available light can be a little challenging in some cases but what you are looking for is basically finding a spot outside of direct sunlight but near a brightly lit source.    Basically, get them as close to the ‘too bright, blown out’ light you are trying to avoid, without actually getting them into it.

senior portraits in front of downtown Tulsa mural

As you can see from the pullback shot, it’s not very interesting when you see the whole set up, but when you frame the shot the way you want it, and that bounced light is what you need, there’s just no need for a flash.    I’ve found this time of day (about 2 hours before sunset) is ideal for finding the most opportunities to use natural bounced light, using neither lights nor reflectors.  Just pure available light.

natural light headshot of a high school senior girl

Downtown Tulsa has an endless variety of locations and settings, almost all of which have their own natural “natural light” angle if you look for it.

pretty girl's senior portrait in wood sculpture downtown.

natural light senior portrait, downtown tulsa

smiling high school senior girl in a natural light portrait

As we got closer to sunset we went to a nearby park, where we found another great source for diffused natural light.     In this scenario, we were in the lower part of the park with walls and hills and the Tulsa skyline itself obstructing direct view of the setting sun.   In this shot we faced our model directly west into the direction the obstructed sun – because even though the sun was not visible, the ambient light was still coming from it via the atmosphere it was shining through.  The resulting light is so soft and balanced it looks studio quality, and the background actually happened to be in line of sight with direct sunlight making it pop with a vibrancy that really added life to this portrait – first with the cellphone pullback to see the basic as seen lighting…

And here is a portrait image from this setting…

pretty girl in a senior portrait at a Tulsa park

So there are a couple of great go-to scenarios for natural available light portraits.  Bounced indirect light or blocked/direct light.   Sometimes you luck out and have a day with just the perfect amount of thin cloud cover that allows you to put your subject directly in the light of the setting sun before that “golden hour” light occurs and allows you to still get a nicely lit shot without making your client squint in pain.

natural light senior portrait of a girl blowing a dandelion

And of course, the warm golden hour light itself in the final half hour before the sun disappears is almost always great light on a clear day.  By that point it is at the correct angle and is shining at that angle through tons of atmosphere which filters its strength and brightness down to a level that’s tolerable to point you client’s eyes towards.

Mastering natural light portrait photography is essential for portrait photographers, but it can’t be all they do, or it will limit their ability to provide a diverse and professionally lit overall shoot.   If that’s the look you want, convey that to your photographer, but know also that with good lighting and a knowledgeable photographer, the subtle feel of natural light can also be accomplished artificially.