4 Different Kinds of Outdoor Natural Portrait Light You Should Look For

4 Different Kinds of Outdoor Natural Portrait Light You Should Look For

It is pretty common knowledge that photography is based on understanding the principles of good lighting. It's also pretty common for the average photographer not to have the budget to afford a studio and light their subject from 8 different directions. Instead of worrying about not having enough, use the natural light you do have.

Good lighting can be found anywhere outside. Sometimes you have to wait around a few hours or walk around to find it, but there's almost always a way to use natural light in any given situation. One of the first and major rules in photography is NEVER shoot in direct mid day sun. If your subject has the sun shining right on him or her, it's very difficult to get a good looking picture. Not only will there be harsh shadows on their face and eyes, the mid day sun washes out the color of your scene. Here are 4 basic kinds of outdoor portrait lighting to look for instead.


Back light:

If you stick the sun behind your subject, it can make for very pleasing results if you choose your spot well. When you want an evenly lit shot, the sun can act as a fantastic rim light. The important thing is to find a background that is shaded so that brightness and attention of the picture remains on your subjects.

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If you cannot find a shaded background, get creative and create a silhouette.

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Direct light:

If you're in an open space, sometimes there's no option to find a shaded background. If you have a sunny day and you want to light your subjects evenly, the only time the only time of day to do it well is when the sun is low. Direct light can be harsh and you dont want your subjects having to stare into the sun too long, so be careful how often you use this shot. Still, it can produce some well lit results.

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Even shade is one of a photographers best friends. As long as there's something taller than your subject, there's usually a good opportunity to find a piece of even light to work with. Shade removes the trouble of harsh shadows on the face and allows for beautiful light.

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It might be easy to get disappointed when an overcast day rolls through on the day of a shoot, don't. Clouds act as a giant diffuser for the sun and give even light to an entire scene. Even when you have your subjects face the direction of the sun, clouds even out the harsh shadows that would be under their eyes.

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Happy Shooting!


David Strauss's picture

David Strauss is a wedding photographer based in Charleston, SC.

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Good summary of using natural light. I happen to live in Holland, where it's overcast like 60% of the time, and when the sun does come out it's generally low in the sky. Makes for very easy use of natural light :)

What do you mean by "When something is taller than your subject" within the Shade comment?

I think he means like a building that will provide enough shade but yeah, I wasn't sure either.  

I wish we could get away from the "fig leaf" or "penalty kick" hand over the groomsmen's junk photos. Does this bother anybody else? What's wrong with the guy's hands in their pockets or at their sides?

A concise post with some basic and helpful advice. This is the kind of content I prefer to see on fstoppers.

Very informative article. Great!