Techniques #4 – Natural Light for Portraits

Getting good natural light for portraits is an easy concept to understand.  It can often be difficult to find the perfect location, but once you know what to look for, it becomes easier.   This post is dedicated to helping you take good portraits and learn how to see and use good natural light.

I recently posted a series of portraits on Flickr. I got a great response, so I though I’d explore why these portraits were successful.  I was just playing around with a new camera and decided to shoot some quick pictures of a bunch of kids that I teach English to here in Taipei, Taiwan.

I use the term “quick pictures” very deliberately.  All of the portraits were taken on a playground at playtime and I’m sure you know that 5 year-olds don’t stay still for very long.

What’s nice about this playground is that it’s got great light that is fairly even all over it.  Before we talk about the light specifically, let’s look at some other things you need to remember to get a good portrait.

First, of course, you want an interesting subject.  Cute kids, old wrinkly people, skateboarders, and monks are among my favorite subjects.

Learn more about natural light portraiture after the jump…

Sitting by a doorway and having an unlit room in the background is perfect lighting.

Sitting by a doorway and having an unlit room in the background is perfect lighting.

The light is coming from an open door to camera left.  The plain wall helps keep the viewers attention on the Tibetan Monk.

The light is coming from an open door to camera left. The plain wall helps keep the viewer's attention on the Tibetan Monk.

Second, you want a plain background.  A plain wall or dark room behind the subject works well.  A plain background means that the viewer’s attention will be on your subject, not what’s happening behind them.  If you can’t find a plain background, check out the third step.

Third, shoot with a very wide aperture.  It’s best if you shoot at f/2.8 or bigger.  Remember that “bigger” means a smaller number and a wider aperture (f/2.0 or f/1.8, etc).  A very wide aperture blurs out the background.  If you couldn’t find that plain wall for a background, shooting with a wide aperture will blur out all the commotion that might be happening.  Note that you have to be very careful of your focus point when shooting like this.  You want to be sure to focus on the subject’s eye or the whole photo will look soft.  Here’s an example of a busy background that I blurred out. (I shot all of the kids pictures with an aperture of f/1.4)  Some people might say that this step is the most important.  It’s true that just using a big aperture is enough to impress a lot of your average viewers, even if you don’t follow the next step.

Fourth and, in my opinion, the most important step is:  FIND NICE LIGHT.  In a single sentence, all you need to remember is:  Find soft light coming from one side.  Professional photographers will do this a number of ways using soft boxes or umbrellas, but you can do this just as well with a window, door or store front.  Direct sunlight is the enemy of good portraits.  It highlights skin blemishes, makes nasty shadows and often makes your subject squint an ugly squint.  Standing your subject just inside an open door or window will throw nice light on them.

I took a few pictures of the kindergarten playground where I shot this series.  See how the light comes in from the big opening to the one side?  Now this opening is much bigger than a window or door, but it still does the trick.

A look at the playground where I shot the portrait series.  Note that the sun came out just as I took this picture.  It was cloudy for all the portraits.  Also note that the light is fairly even across the whole playground.  That helps a lot with busy kids.

A look at the playground where I shot the portrait series. Note that the sun came out just as I took this picture. It was cloudy for all the portraits. But also note that the light is fairly even all across the playground... Helpful when shooting busy kids.

The fifth step is probably the most subjective.  Post processing.  All the pictures from this series got the exact same post processing steps.  I imported them into Apple Aperture.  Then I adjusted the exposure and highlights, if needed.  Then I added a vignette.  That’s it..  The use of the vignette just accentuates step three, the wide aperture.  By darkening the areas all around the edges of the photograph, you can bring the viewer’s attention to your subject.

So, can you take a good portrait without following any of these steps?  Absolutely.  But by following some or all of these points, you can turn a mediocre portrait into a winning one.

UPDATE: I wrote another article relevant to natural light portraits called “How to Shoot Travel Portraits.


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Categories: PHOTOGRAPHY, Portraiture, Techniques | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 20 Comments

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20 thoughts on “Techniques #4 – Natural Light for Portraits

  1. globetrotteri

    Great series, Neil. I really enjoyed it.

  2. Debbie Huang

    Wow! So Cool! Motorcycles, India, students, how do you think of all these different topics? Very special to see your blog here in Taiwan. Best of luck.

    • Thank you both! Debbie, I guess all these subjects just come from my head. These are the things I spend all day thinking about or doing!

  3. Debbie Huang

    OMG! Neil so COOL!

    Home come on your blog you never say how old you are? Maybe I be your model some day! ha ha.

    Debbie Huang

    • Hahaha, Thanks again! I have been wanting to do more contemporary modeling shoots and am always looking for subjects. Email me at if you’re serious. (I also need to update my “About” page and put some more specific information!)

  4. Pingback: Light is Your Crayon - And There's Always Another Color in the Box | Shutterbug Source Photography Tips

  5. Ashish

    Awesome photos Neil :)

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  9. Tyler Hendrix

    great portraits i used a couple of these techniques for an assignment in my photography class Thanks :D

  10. Pingback: How to Shoot Travel Portraits « Neil Wade's Photography Blog

  11. Marlene

    What awesome and invaluable tips! I’ve always love travel and portrait photography and this is EXACTLY what I need. Thank you so much for taking the time to share your expertise.

  12. Hi, Thanks for the tips and tricks and I have a question. My sigma 50mm f/1.4 does nice pictures but I don’t think I can be THAT sharp in the center at f/1.6… and that near the subject. Did you step back a couple of feets and then crop in post processed ? Thanks.

    • Well, try it and see if it works. I don’t know a lot about that Sigma lens, but if it’s not sharp at 1.6, your best bet is probably to open it up a bit. Try f/2.0 or a little higher and see what results you get. The change in depth of field that you get from using a different aperture will probably be about the same as moving back and cropping.

  13. Andy

    do you polarize your models?

  14. great advice and beautiful work!!

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