Natural light portraits are honestly one of my favourites, they have this extra feel that studio portraits don’t. Compared to studio portraits, they are much easier – you don’t need to learn all the lighting techniques. They are also much cheaper, you don’t need to buy any strobes, flashes, or light modifiers such as soft boxes beauty dishes. Studio portraits are really fun but they are much more difficult than doing natural light portraits.
Starting off, making portraits with natural light is a first great step. It will enable you to work on your composition, your communication with your model, and help you build your confidence. Then you can decide whether or not you want to invest in studio equipment.
Camera gear and settings
There are some simple tips and tricks to get the most out of your portraits with natural light. But let’s start with camera settings and camera gear first.
Shoot in manual mode
The ideal situation is to have total control over your settings, so I would highly recommend using manual mode. I recently wrote an article about using manual mode, so you can go check it out here; How to Use Manual Mode to Make Artistic Choices for Your Photography.
You need a minimum shutter speed of around 1/100th of a second (or faster). This is very important as it helps you avoid blurry images as your model will be in constant movement most of the time.
Aperture and blurring the background
To get a soft background blur, you want to use the largest aperture possible – around f/4 works but the ideal would be f/1.8. If you want a larger aperture than f/1.8 the lenses can become quite pricey.
If you don’t have that kind of lens, you can still get nice results but separation (space) between the model and the background is needed. This really helps to drag the viewer’s attention to the model and avoid any unnecessary distractions. If you want to show the background behind your model then use a smaller aperture. I have an article on how to achieve background blur, I speak about bokeh in more detail there.
What lens to use?
If you are using a long (telephoto) lens then a large aperture isn’t as critical because you will automatically have some background blur separation. Long lenses are the best for portraits because they compress the subject to background very nicely. Avoid wide angles lenses because they distort the subject’s face and amplify features like the nose or the forehead. Try to use lenses with a minimum focal length of 50mm with a full frame sensor and 35 mm with an APS cropped sensor.
For the ISO, choose the lowest possible option taking in consideration that your shutter speed must be 1/100th of a second or higher. Using the light meter in your camera, you can get a fast shutter speed by adjusting your ISO if the lighting conditions are low. But, knowing that you will be using a larger aperture as well, that shouldn’t be a big problem.