3 Ways to Control Natural Light for Portraits

3 Ways to Control Natural Light for Portraits

I usually use natural light as my go-to for quick group photos or for portraits that need to be done very quickly or with very little gear. That doesn’t mean you can’t shape or control natural light to create studio quality images wherever you are. Here’s three easy ways to shape natural light for your next portrait shoot.

One of the huge positives to shooting more natural light photos is you can lighten your gear bag if you desire and the cost of modifiers is much lower. In this case we are looking to control the natural lighting a bit more and having a medium telephoto lens is highly worthwhile in this scenario. This will give us the option to shoot at the edges of the shade while picking our backgrounds that place our subject in the brighter areas of the image.

In this case I’m going to be using the new Tamron 35-150mm f/2.8-4 Di VC OSD Lens. This variable aperture medium telephoto from Tamron has several really nice features I like especially for portraits or headshots. It’s not a huge lens overall but reaches out to 150mm which is fantastic for a few reasons including being able to choose your backgrounds with ease, and eliminate any busy objects that may dissuade from your subject. At f/4 on the long end of the lens you still get some really nice bokeh, and a background that can melt away for those of us who want a non-distinct background. You also have the option to shoot fast and wide open at f/2.8 and 35mm where having that fast aperture is worthwhile for vista inspired environmental portraits, or even low light events which makes this a well rounded all purpose lens.

The Tamron also comes with vibration compensation when hand holding at slower shutter speeds which is great to have in such a wide focal range. Next to the zoom ring on the lens there's markings for all of the most popular focal lengths to easily line up a shot from full length to head and shoulders. Lastly, there is also a lens zoom ring lock feature which I personally think every extending zoom lens should have.

Tamron 35-150mm f/2.8-4 Di VC OSD

To begin on the lighting side we will need either a medium or large combination reflector and scrim. I use a 40-inch round 5-in-1 reflector, but many times really prefer the large oval type 5-in-1 reflectors. This way if my assistant (many times the friend or parent of the subject) is smaller in stature, the 40-inch reflector is something they can feel comfortable holding for me for a few minutes. If they are so inclined and comfortable with the larger reflector they can use the 72-inch oval 5-in-1 and position the scrim much closer to the subject for a very soft light. What’s nice is you can throw the 40-inch reflector in the same bag as the 72-inch reflector and they are always together.

Starting off with the softer lighting modifier; the scrim, we can position the subject at the edge of any open shaded area with the sun 30 to 60 degrees from the front of the subject with the scrim in between the subject and the sun. Beyond 60 degrees and we are heavily split lighting which may not work for a portrait image depending on the circumstances and intention of the portrait. Overall, this is very similar to how we would position a soft box to a subject in a Rembrandt lighting scenario. I like to angle the top of the scrim closer at the top of the subject and angle away from them at the bottom to have an even fall from brightest at their face and darkest towards their feet. This also allows their entire body to fall within the shading of the scrim. This creates a very soft light that works well for skin and has a great fall off on the shadow side of the subject.

We can’t forget the background in this instance and having the length of a longer lens like the Tamron at 150mm works great. I like to choose a shaded area in the background that’s about one to two stops under the brightness of the subject. When you are looking at backgrounds remember that the farther away the background the more out of focus it will be, but when deeper in the shade away from the subject the darker that background will become. In our case we had a pond and small waterfall roughly 15 feet behind the subject with a denser level of tree line behind this area.

Natural Light Portrait with Scrim

Moving on let’s talk about harder lighting with reflectors and how they differ then when using a scrim. First, we need to account for where the sun is in this case. Preferably the sun should be on the opposite side of the reflector to bounce more light to the subject. For this setup I positioned the sun directly behind the subject. Now when choosing a background we can shift left or right to choose an area with more or less contrast if we so desire. We are still in the open shaded area that we began in, we have just turned the subject about 90 degrees.

In positioning the reflector it is still very similar to the scrim and the subject previously with keeping the reflector between 30 to 60 degrees from the front of the subject. If you have areas behind the subject that have sunlight hitting them you will need to bring the reflector closer to the subject to compensate and attempt to balance the lighting while not blocking the reflector with the subjects shadow. For this reason a reflector will almost always be a harder light source than a scrim can be as you cannot bring a reflector as close as you can bring a scrim of equal sizes.

By using a reflector and positioning the subject on the edge of the open shaded area you now have essentially a two light set up. Your hair light or separation lighting in this case is the brightest part of the open shaded area and the direct bounce of sunlight from the reflector lights up our subject’s features very well. I really enjoy using a set up like this for lifestyle business portraits where the client wants a brighter look with a bit more contrast that also has a natural light feel.

Natural Light Portrait with Reflector

Both of these lighting options create a great key light in the eyes while giving an easy to replicate light quality for portraits, but they do require having an assistant to hold your reflector or scrim. You can always set up a light stand with a grip and arm so you can use this technique by yourself but be mindful of the wind in these cases.

The last lighting option I’ll touch on is a bit more in depth but allows you to do paramount or butterfly lighting (the term is used interchangeably) that can be very soft if kept close to the subject, and also defines the cheekbones very well in the face. Essentially we are boxing in our subject with black flags and positioning a scrim above them. Just to define negative fill if you have not heard of it before, it is when we are blocking ambient light from hitting a subject. In our case we want to add contrast to the sides of our subject and will be blocking ambient lighting from contributing to these areas.

I personally use three 5-in-1 reflectors in this case but you can always use a flag on the sides with black cardboard or styrene. I personally like to be able to tuck by reflectors away when traveling so black sided reflectors work for me. I use two 5-in-1 reflectors with the black covering on the outside for the negative fill on my subject and place the scrim above and just in front of the subject. I also position the subject on the edge of the open shade so I can choose the background with a longer focal length, in this case at 150mm on the Tamron, while controlling how much ambient fill is coming from in front of the subject versus the overhead scrim key light. This works very well for midday portraits where the sun is at its “worst” angle, but now this set up provides a great option no matter the time of day you are working with the client.

Natural Light Portrait with Scrim Above and Flags on Sides

A couple additional takeaways for working outside with your subjects or clients would be to bring blotting papers for men or women with oily skin. This allows you to remove any glistening on the brow, cheeks, or chins. Remind women to bring extra powder or makeup just in case as they may not prefer the blotting paper. Lastly, always bring extra hairspray for outdoor sessions (which in my case I forgot during this shoot).

Do you have any other ways you control natural light during your sessions? Let us know some of your favorite setups in the comments below.

JT Blenker's picture

JT Blenker, Cr. Photog., CPP is a Photographic Craftsman and Certified Professional Photographer who also teaches workshops throughout the USA focusing on landscape, nightscape, and portraiture. He is the Director of Communications at the Dallas PPA and is continuing his education currently in the pursuit of a Master Photographer degree.

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Dude. You prefer he use a pin-hole camera? Everybody's gotta pay their bills...

Generally I don't mind sponsored even though the sponsored logo is pretty clearly designed not to be seen well. In this case I completely agree with you. The point of the article really is about convincing people the lens is great and the lighting is secondary.

I saw sponsored, and thought the sponsor was the 5 in 1 oval reflector company :)
And yeah, she could've used something to cut the shine.

Now possibly I’m picky but I wouldn’t consider any of the above shots portraits, snaps or headshots yes, but portraits no. Standing someone in front of a camera and, saying cheese, taking a shot does not automatically produce a portrait, regardless of how many reflectors you employ or how adsorbent your blotting paper is. Why is it that most of these ‘the secret to a good portrait’ invariably speak about some item of kit being the answer?.....because it’s easy and requires little or no thought. Why do they never speak about all the stuff that should be done prior to any shoot, like research, planning, aesthetic intentions, communication with the subject or model, preparing a shot list? Or how you work with your subject during the shoot to realise your creative ideas? Because all these these softer skills are much harder to write about, but it’s this pre-shoot thinking and photographer/model communication that makes or breaks a shoot, given you know which the business end of the camera is. In my opinion too much space is given to discussing the hardware and not enough to the much more important soft/firm ware. Just look at the above images and you will soon understand where I’m coming from.

To be fair, the article was to promote a lens not how to shoot a portrait/snap/headshot in 15 minutes. There are plenty of sponsored and unsponsored posts about how to relate to the subject. This is not one of them.

There is no indication of lens promotion in the title, but you may have a point.

I was desperately looking for a picture showing the reflectors... but only found pictures of a lens having nothing to do with what the article is supposed to be talking about. sorry, but useless.

I was hoping to see the same thing! And more behind the scenes.

I think pictures or diagrams of the positioning of the sun, subject, photographer, etc. would have been much more helpful than photos of the lens and links to pages selling the reflectors. The lack of the former with plenty of the latter are dead giveaways that this was more advertisement than tutorial. I did learn something though, and so am grateful for that.

The article discussed the reflectors at length but there are no photos showing the use. positioning etc that he likes to get his results. However the extensive discussion of the lens leads me to think the title of the article should be "using the new Tamron 35-150mm f/2.8-4 Di VC OSD Lens" That would have been totally acceptable since I would not have been misdirected into this read.

What a shame F-Stoppers, it seems that almost every article now is sponsored. I was looking forward to reading tips from an expert, and there were some, but I couldn't shake the nasty taste in my mouth of overt $$$ making on F-Stoppers part.

I agree with the previous comments. Is this an ad for a lens? It certainly is not about ways to control natural light. I'm sorry to dis the article, but as the author of the video Portraits Unplugged, this is not very well done. There is os much to know about using and controlling natural light, it actually requires a lot of "visual acuity" and this article is not very "enlightening". Sorry