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Studio photographers rely on equipment to create masterpieces. Natural light portrait photographers, on the other hand, depend on weather and great timing to take stunning portraits. Relying on so many elements can get a little frustrating, especially if your creative mind is overflowing with ideas.

As a portrait photographer, I’ve found ways to enhance my pictures with the help of natural portrait lighting techniques. They have greatly improved my work, inspired me to experiment with more approaches, and given me more creative opportunities.

Your visions can come to life. Below are twelve ways you can use natural light to transform dull photographs into moody, dreamy, or magazine-worthy portraits.

shadowy close up of a girls face, a bunch of flowers casting dreamy shadows on her face. Natural light portrait photography

Experiment With Shadows

Harsh light may not be ideal for simple portraits, but it’s perfect for creating intricate shadows.

Shadows have the potential to transform simple elements into outstanding works of art. The best thing about them is their accessibility. You don’t need to go far to find dappled light that will enhance your model’s features and make your images look stunning.

For gorgeous natural light portraits effect, use parts of nature to create shadows. These can be branches, plants, etc. There really is no limit to what you can use when it comes to shadows, so be as creative as you like! The more original your ideas, the more outstanding your natural light portraits will be.

If inspiration hits during a sunny day and you feel like taking indoor portraits, look for interesting materials to use. A few simple items you could use are hats, curtains, and flowers. This way, you can create and control your own shadows. It’s like having a temporary little studio of your own!

indoor portrait of a girl in long grey dress - natural light portrait photography

Create Panoramas to Highlight Atmospheres

Natural light looks appealing on people and objects alike. It gracefully lights up indoor spaces and creates unique atmospheres. Such environments not only make photos look original, but tell a deeper story about the model.

It’s not always possible to capture a subject’s surroundings with one shot. In cases like this, panoramas come in handy. I often use them to sharpen my landscape photography skills and photograph people at the same time.

The panorama technique involves taking photos of a specific area and stitching them together in an editing program. (Don’t worry, it’s very easy to learn!) Once you get the hang of this technique, you’ll always be on the lookout for visually appealing surroundings to capture. As a result, your portraits will bloom.

natural light portrait of a girl looking out of a large window

When in Doubt, Use Window Light

Unless it’s completely dark outside, you can use natural light to take outstanding portraits. If your outdoor adventures fail because of weather or a lack of inspiration, use window light. No matter what, it won’t let you down.

Whenever possible, take photos in front of large windows. Unless you’re aiming to take dramatic natural light photos, make sure that at least half of your model’s face is lit. This will ensure that there is no unevenness on their face.

Window light has helped me take some of my favourite portraits. On bright days, I use curtains to create a shadow-making studio. When the sun disappears, I use it as a soft light source. In any scenario, window light makes my subjects’ faces look even, creates a pleasant gradient, and allows me to take classic portraits.

portrait of a girl in red hat looking through trees on a beautiful autumn day - natural light portraits

Look for Eye-Catching Backgrounds

Backgrounds that complement your model will look amazing in natural light. If your natural light portraits have no room for backgrounds, consider taking wider shots or creating panoramas. However, you can’t choose a random background and hope for the best. The last thing you want is a collection of gorgeous poses with unflattering backgrounds.

While preparing for your shoot, take your theme into consideration. Are you aiming for a romantic, dreamy, or edgy look? What kind of clothes will your model wear? All of this information will give you a better idea of the backgrounds you should look for.

If you don’t have any specific ideas in mind, simply look for colours. Oftentimes, the best backgrounds for natural light portraits are simply a combination of beautiful tones. You can check out our bokeh tips for some inspiration!

natural light portrait of a girl standing in green fields surrounded by bubbles

This was taken in a field on a relatively cloudy day. The fields made for nice backgrounds, but I felt that something was missing. To make up for all the negative green space, I added real bubbles to the shot. This enhanced my portraits and gave my team the opportunity to have lots of fun!

But If You Can’t Find Anything, Add Interesting Elements Yourself

There are times when locations look too simple in natural light. When you find your surroundings uninteresting, consider adding your own elements to them. This is a great opportunity to sharpen your creativity and appreciate the infinite possibilities that this genre offers.

You don’t need to invest in expensive equipment to make your simple portraits stand out. To enhance the photo above, I bought bubble wands for less than a pound. So use your imagination. Buy flowers, confetti, silly string etc., and find ways to add them to your compositions. You’ll not only get creative results, but also feel like a child again!

diptych photo collage of a girl with lace material casting dreamy shadows on her face

Create Diptychs to Tell Deeper Stories

Since natural light highlights the beauty of everything it touches, I recommend photographing both people and objects. Combine your love for several photography genres to create a wholesome artistic experience.

During your portrait session, watch out for details that could insert more meaning into your photographs. They can be as simple as grass, or as complicated as an abstract photo of a busy street. No matter what you choose, make sure it complements your model in at least one way. Look for colour combinations, similarities in shape, or just stories.

Once your photos are ready, combine them. If you’re feeling extra creative, make them into a double exposure. If you want a documentary-like feel, make a diptych. The results will intensify the beauty of both nature and your subject. All of this will be possible thanks to natural light.

natural light portrait of girl in red hat looking out through autumn trees

For Dreamy Natural Light Portraits, Take Photos During Golden Hour

You’re probably familiar with the golden hour, a time of day that almost every photographer has experimented with. During this time, natural light is the opposite of harsh midday sunlight. It can be used as a shadow-maker, backlight creator, or simply a gentle source of light. To put it simply, you can’t go wrong when you use it.

Since the golden hour bursts with perfect natural light, use it to experiment with poses, expressions, panoramas, and compositions. This will give you a lot of valuable experience and allow you to take beautiful natural light portraits at the same time.

Close up portrait of a couple in an embrace, the girl looks towards the camera - using reflectors to enhance natural light portrait photography

Use Reflectors to Light Up Your Model’s Face

Natural light has a mind of its own, which is why so many portrait photographers respect it. This doesn’t mean it’s completely uncontrollable, though. With the help of a handy DIY item, you can manipulate natural light and enhance your portraits. This item is called a reflector.

Reflectors are used to light up faces, create more natural light on cloudy days, and add a soft glow to photographs. On sunny days, they can be used to add an extra source of light for a more “commercial” look.

You can either make reflectors yourself or buy them for an affordable price. Before I got my own reflector, I used sheets of paper and foil. Both worked as efficiently as the professional version.

mysterious cinematic close up portrait of a girl looking out a window, natural light portrait photography

When It Starts to Get Dark, Create Cinematic Natural Light Portraits

As a natural light portrait enthusiast, you probably get disappointed when your shooting day comes to an end. Instead of giving up on the last minutes of light, use them to create mysterious and cinematic natural light portraits.

Increase your ISO number. Forget the rules and exceed the limit. You might cringe at the amount of noise you see, but you’ll find it useful during the editing process. You’ll also get to capture the gentler side of natural light during this time.

The results may not be magazine-worthy, but they will add a cinematic spark to your portfolio. As flawed as they may be, grainy photos have an incomparable beauty of their own, one that’s definitely worth capturing. Even if you don’t love your results, you’ll gain a new experience: leaving your comfort zone in the pursuit of natural light.

ethereal photo of a girl reading to her cat who sits on the windowsill, natural light portrait photography

Make the Most of Backlight

Using backlight, you can add more light to your portraits without getting overexposed pictures. This is achieved by placing a subject right in front of a source of light. The light then bleeds into the silhouette, creating a soft and ethereal look. The best thing about this technique is that it can be controlled with subtle camera movements.

Backlight is also ideal for dreamy indoor light. Place your subjects in front of a window, use a reflector to light up their faces, and slightly overexpose your photographs. The resulting light will make your images glow.

moody portrait of a girl with long hair, natural light portrait photography

Embrace Moody Lighting

Moodiness is uneven, emotional, and thought-provoking. It can help you express your deepest emotions without relying on expensive studio equipment. Most importantly, it’s indoor light’s best friend.

Indoor light might intimidate you because of its moodiness. You might be drawn to the lack of limitations that outdoor light offers. If this prevents you from shooting indoors, take the time to get out of your comfort zone and experiment. When you embrace moody lighting, it will transform your portraits into stunning works of art.

There’s no formula for perfect moody lighting, so I encourage you to experiment as much as you can. Take photos in beautiful buildings, but don’t forget to appreciate the beauty of your own home, too. Taking portraits in my own apartment has taught me an abundance of valuable things about natural light. The more you get to know it, the more you’ll love it.

close up portrait of a girl looking across her shoulder into the camera, hair swept across her face and focus on her eyes, natural light portrait photography

Focus on the Eyes

Focusing on your subject’s eyes will give your portraits more depth and sharpness. This isn’t always possible to achieve, especially when using auto focus or taking photos in different lighting conditions.

Fortunately, natural light is an expert at enhancing eye colours, especially on sunny days. Colours of all kinds look stunning in natural light, which is why you must appreciate their beauty in at least a few of your shots.

When you focus on your subject’s eyes, use manual focus. I highly recommend this. It will make you more patient, give you sharper results, and provide you with more creative control for your natural light portraits.

diptych photo collage of a girl, shadowy moody natural light effect

When I discovered the immense power of natural light photography, my portraits improved. I felt limitless, imaginative, and thrilled to have found so many ways of expressing myself. All it took was the hope that I could, in my own ways, manipulate natural light.

I encourage you to experiment with all of these techniques as much as you can. Most importantly, believe in your ability to improve as a photographer. Within a short period of time, your portfolio will be overflowing with graceful, naturally-lit portraits.

Why not try creating your own natural light portrait studio and experiment more!

A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:

Thank you for reading...

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Taya Ivanova

Taya Iv is a curious bookworm, portrait photographer, and admirer of nature. Her photos have been published in international magazines and featured on book covers.

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