Natural Light Portrait Photography

David Coultham

Updated on:

Portrait Photography

This short article on Portrait Photography is a basic guide to taking portrait photographs in natural light. It’s written for those starting out in this genre, but may also be useful for more experienced photographers, as it goes through some useful hints and tips on camera setup as well as composition.

Portrait Photography – Equipment

Canon 1100D


One of the great things about this genre of photography is that you don’t need the latest / greatest DSLR. Anything 12Mp or more is going to get you great results. There are advantages to higher-end, more modern DSLR cameras in terms of their low-light performance, but if you are just starting out in the genre, then experiment with the kit you have.


Canon 24-105

The ideal focal length for natural light portraits is between 100mm and 200mm, either fixed focal or zoom. The reason is that you can create distance between yourself and your subject. This distance, combined with a small F-Stop is going to blur your background, which in turn will make the subject really stand out. More on this in Camera Settings later in the article.

When you select a lens, you want one with the lowest aperture that your budget will allow. Anything equal to or lower than F4 is great. If you are lucky enough to own an F2.8 or lower like an F1.4 lens then fantastic. However, if your lens is a general kit lens, it is likely to be F5.8, this will not pose a problem for you, and you should still get great results. My go-to lens for this genre is a Canon EF 24-105MM F/4L IS USM.

Portrait Photography – Camera Settings

Set the ISO on your camera to the lowest native setting on your camera as a starting point. But, when you are shooting, to avoid camera shake (and your subject moving), check that the shutter speed is not less than about 1/125s. If it is, then gradually raise the ISO up.

Set the camera’s white balance to either sunshine or cloudy. This will keep your results consistent throughout your shoot. Set the camera to Aperture priority mode, and dial the aperture to the lowest possible setting for the conditions you are shooting in – more on this in techniques. Also, set the camera to auto-focus, plus leave ultrasonic balancing on if your lens has it.

If your camera has it, then multi-shot or burst mode is useful, as it enables you to get a few shots each time you press the shutter button. This gives you a better chance of capturing a great shot, e.g. if your subject blinks just at the wrong time as you press the shutter, then you have a few shots to choose from.

One of the things I find is that it is useful to increase the exposure compensation by up to 1 stop. The reason is that camera software struggles with the range of light and balances the photo; leaving you with a nicely exposed background, but an underexposed subject. Setting the exposure compensation up enables you to get a correctly exposed subject, and a slightly over-exposed background, which also helps your subject stand out.

Portrait Photography Techniques

Ok, so your lens is in Aperture Priority mode, and you have dialed in the lowest aperture that your lens and the light conditions will allow. Create space between the subject and the background. You now want to create space between you and the subject, and also between your subject and the background. When you now focus on the subject, you are minimizing the Depth of Field, which will help give you a blurred background.

Shoot into the direction of the sun, with the subject between you and the sun, i.e. so their back is in the sun. Also, try to shoot with a darker background behind your subject. The combination of these two techniques will accentuate the rim light around the subject. The rim light is a visually pleasing glow around your subject.

Your subject should look directly away from the sun to avoid harsh shadows, and also so they don’t have to squint; which is never the best look!

Shoot with a lens shade to avoid sun-flare, but, if you want the sun-flare effect, then increase the aperture setting from the lowest to highest to give a star effect. This will help you get those visually appealing light star effects in conjunction with light leaks.

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