Natural Light Portrait Photography

David Coultham

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This article on Portrait Photography is a basic guide to taking portrait photographs in natural light. It’s written for those starting 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.

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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 12 Mp 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 in the genre, then experiment with the kit you have.


Canon 24-105

Generally in the industry, a prime 85mm prime lens with an ultra low f-stop is considered the ultimate portrait lens to own. Indeed it has to be said that you get ultra-creamy bokeh with these lenses. But, they come at a price!

A great 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 low f-stop is going to blur your background, which in turn will make the subject stand out. The other advantage of this focal range is cost, as they are not going to break the bank compared to their 85mm cousin. 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 F5.6, this will not pose a problem for you, and you should still get great results.

Portrait Photography – Camera Settings

TIP 1: Set the ISO on your camera to the lowest native setting as a starting point.

TIP 2: 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.

TIP 3: Set the camera’s white balance to either sunshine or cloudy. This will keep your results consistent throughout your shoot. You can always adjust the white balance during post-processing.

TIP 4: Set the camera to Aperture priority mode, and dial the aperture to the lowest possible setting for the conditions you are shooting in.

TIP 5: Use Auto Focus, plus leave ultrasonic balancing on if your lens has it as this will help reduce camera shake.

TIP 6: 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.

TIP 7: 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

TIP 1: Create space between you and the subject, and between your subject and the background. When you focus on the subject, you are minimizing the Depth of Field, which will help give you a blurred background.

One of the mistakes people frequently make is to have their subject too close to the background objects. This generally results in a lack of separation between your subject and the background. At best your pictures will look OK but are likely to lack visual punch. At worst you end up with a portrait looking as though there are objects coming out of their heads like tree branches etc.

The background on this image is quite visually appealing with the combination of pink and green. If the subject was further away from the background then this would have blurred and made the subject stand out against orbs of color. The fact that the distant backgroud is also in focus also indicates that there was probably a lack of separation between the photographer and the subject. There is nothing bad about the photo, it just lacks the punch that it could have had if more thought had been placed on composition.

Now take a look at the following example. In this case, the photographer nailed the separation technique. The background has blurred nicely and the subject pops from the image.

TIP 2: 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!

You can see from our last image, that the photographer also nailed our second composition tip! Let’s take a look at a photo where the photographer didn’t take this into account. There are harsh shadows on the face of the subject, and the subject is having to squint. The background being in focus also indicates a lack of seperation between the photographer and the subject. Again, there is nothing bad about the photo, it just lacks the visual appeal that it could have had with more consideration for composition.

TIP 3: 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.

In the example below, we can see the photographer has considered separation, direction of sunlight, as well as position of sunlight.

TIP 4: In really bright conditions shoot with a lens hood 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.

Which is what the photographer of this example image has achieved!

The techniques covered here are not complicated, yet they are often overlooked. For example, you often see examples from professional wedding photographers where they don’t take separation into account. In conclusion, with a little consideration to light direction, position, and the separation around the subject; your natural light portrait photography will go to the next level.

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