No Studio? No Problem! Natural Light Photography Tips for Portraits

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It’s a mistake to think that you need a photographic studio to make money as a photographer. Natural light portrait photography was popular in the 1980s and it’s making a comeback.

No Studio? No Problem!

Keen amateur photographers are often asked to take photographs of their family and friends. If this request fills you with dread because you don’t have a strobe set, a studio background and a large studio in which to photograph your subject – think again, it’s no problem!

A Real Life Example

In England in the 1970s and 1980s a small town photographer named Peter Lowry became nationally famous for his work. He won many awards including ones issued by Kodak for professional photographers. His shots were portraits using outdoor locations and only natural light. When asked why he’d chosen to use outdoor location’s Peter would explain that his studio was only really big enough to take passport photographs and lone person ‘Head and Shoulder’ shots. To produce more creative photographs he was forced to find an alternative way to take portraits.

The alternative way was to step outside, He chose both beautiful locations and everyday places to help him create stunning portraits.

Natural Light Portrait Photography Is Back!

As with flared jeans, most fashions follow cycles and using natural light in portrait photography is no exception. Photographers are utilizing natural light and using natural and urban scenes to create national award winning images.

Portrait Photography Ideas

Don’t Fear Bright Days

We know that photographing in bright sunlight causes us a number of problems.

Bright sunlight makes people squint and causes unflattering wrinkles and lines to appear around their eyes. We could Photoshop them out but we can avoid the problem in the first place.

There are several ways to deal with a bright, sunny day. Here are a few:

Back to the Sun

  • Don’t face the person towards the sun.
  • Instead turn their backs to the sun. This will cause ‘rim lighting’ – a beautiful effect where a bright rim of golden light can appear around their hair and body shape.
  • As this can cause the face of your subject to fall in to shadow, experiment with using your camera flash to light the face. If your camera has a ‘fill in flash’ setting, choose this as you want the lighting to appear natural. If you don’t have such a setting, turn the flash power down by about two stops and take a test shot. Adjust the setting until you get the effect you’re looking for.
  • If you don’t have a flash, try some white card, paper, foil or cloth. Positioned so that it reflects light back towards the subjects, this will brighten the faces, put a sparkle in their eyes and make the shot far more appealing.

Find the Shade

  • Find a tree or other object big enough to throw a shadow that shields the subject of your portrait. Place the subject within the shadow and set your exposure for this area.
  • If you choose your location well the brightly lit background will produce vivid colors for your shot.
  • Try the old trick of folding a business card in half to help you more clearly see the direction that the light is coming from within your frame. Turn the subject’s face so that you see soft, gentle shadows that flatter the model. In this type of angle will normally produce a more pleasing effect if you have a gradient of light fall across the model’s face rather than have them face directly in to the light.
Example of assessing the direction of the light using a card during a natural light portrait photography shoot
Notice how the folded card allows you to see the direction of the light more clearly. In the image on the left the light is flat and uninteresting. On the right the light produces shadows that shape the model’s face.
© 2011 Used Under License. Copying prohibited.

Use a Window

A photographer can achieve great looking, natural light photography shots by using windows that let in natural light. Take in to account the direction of the windows while shooting and also the type of windows.  Old wood framed windows can lend a classic look, while the use of stained glass windows can give a photo contrast and “personality”.

Where’s The Sun?

One important aspect of your planning is to know where the sun will be at various times of day. When you plan your shoot it’s often a good idea to visit the location before you take your model there. Choose your locations, work out where you want the sun to be to cause the best shadows and modeling. Then work out the time of day that you’ll need to be there.

If you struggle to judge where the sun will be, try this on-line tool called SunCalc that calculates were the sun will be using a Google Maps window.

It’s Not Just Valleys, Woodland and Lakes

So you live in a crowded city and can’t find a suitable park. No problem! Why not take photographs of your client walking on a busy sidewalk amidst a crowd of pedestrians? You could experiment have them stand very still, mounting your camera on a tripod and using a slow shutter speed to blur everyone else around them. Or use very shallow depth of field to isolate them from their environment. You could even use a library or café to add character and context to the shot.

Other Photography Tips for Portraits

Communication Skills

Improving your communication skills can be an important ingredient to improving your photography. This is important from the beginning. Ask you model what type of look they are going for. Let them know what you had in mind so that you both are on the same page during the photo session. Also, ensure you are open to feedback from your client as to whether or not they are comfortable with certain poses or the use of props.

Learn to Speak Backwards!

What I mean by this is that your left is normally your subject’s right and vice versa. When you ask them to move a limb say, for example, “Move your left leg…” make sure you have reversed it in your mind so that it really is their left leg. If you fluster the model by getting this wrong it can spoil the whole shoot. You might try moving your own limbs as if you were a mirror and have them copy you.


So while you’re building your equipment collection you can still earn money as a photographer or do your family and friends proud. Step outside and look at the world with a photographer’s eye. Use your surroundings to influence your portrait photography ideas. Urban photography and environmental photography are exciting and valid forms of photography. You don’t necessarily need a studio or strobe lighting to make a living from photography. Step outside and give this a go!


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