Six tips for shooting great portraits in natural light

Jun 21, 2021

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

Six tips for shooting great portraits in natural light

Jun 21, 2021

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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The phrase “natural light” is usually seen as a dirty word amongst flash photographers, but the light that already exists on a scene can often be just as pleasing as anything you can make with flash – if not more so. I’ve found that it helps to know how to work with both because flash isn’t always available when you want to shoot a photo.

In this video, photographer Emily Teague serves up six tips for shooting portraits outdoors in natural light on the streets of Brooklyn. Like many portrait photographers, Emily started out using just natural light for a few years before picking up a flash for the first time. So, she goes back to her photographic lighting roots for this one.

YouTube video
  1. Find even light – There’s nothing worse than harsh blotchy lighting that you can’t control.
  2. Get a good exposure – It seems like common sense, but when you’re not in control of the light, you need to be on top of the things you can control.
  3. Find contrast in the background – Make your subject stand out from their environment, not blend into it.
    1. (and a half) Find contrast in your lighting – There’s nothing wrong with a brightly lit subject and a dimly lit background – or vice versa!
  4. Don’t be afraid of direct harsh light – It’s not always ugly and can be very dramatic.
  5. Experiment with backlighting – This can be great for edge highlighting your subject or creating a little (or a lot of) flare.
  6. You can modify the light – Just because the light already exists doesn’t mean you can’t change its behaviour with reflectors and diffusers.

I actually went the opposite way when I started photographing people. I began with flash and then shifted over to natural light a couple of years later. It was definitely something of a challenge at first to get the kind of looks I saw in my head, but with a little effort and forethought, natural light can present some wonderful images. Personally, I’m a big fan of those cloudy days down dark alleys for my outdoor city portraits!

What’s your top tip for shooting portraits with natural light?

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John Aldred

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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