Simple Portraits with Natural Light

Portraits of friends and family are a good way to train your skills as a photographer. A simple home studio is easy to build and will offer you a valuable lesson in light.

Most of the photography in the world is done with natural light, or available light. Even indoors a lot of photography is done without using artificial light. Here are some tips to get the most of natural light indoors.Some of them you may also use outdoors.

Let’s make this clear: portraits of family and friends can be done with some level of sophistication at a home based studio. You do not need any special conditions to do some great portraits that everybody will love to look at. A window and some simple reflectors will do the trick. And almost any camera with manual control and a lens offering some framing options will suffice for you to setup a studio in a question of minutes.

Many photographers, even professionals, work deliberately with natural light, even if they know how to handle artificial lighting. While many people stating they don’t like flash say so because they’re afraid of it and don’t want to bother learning how to tame a flash, nothing forces you to use flash, even for doing a lot of indoors photography.

A flash, which is nothing more than a portable sun, is great to use, because it frees you from having to wait for the Sun to do your work. That’s important, especially for professionals working on tight schedules. And essential if you love to work at night, something many photographers do. Flash is also important to create setups with absolute control of light, but that could be the theme for a completely new article. Here we look at natural light and simple ways to use it for better results.

A good understanding of light, how light reflects and diffuses, and its relation with reflecting and diffusing materials, as well as the characteristics of light, will make it easier for you to get better photographs with natural light, whatever the conditions are. This article aims to provide you with a better understanding of what can be done with materials you may already have at home, and also points viable directions for some investments if you want to control light better. Learning by using is something I truly believe works. By this I mean that through using materials you’ll have at home, from the white shower curtain to a single sheet of paper, you quickly understand their potential as reflectors and diffusers, essential tools in photography.

Window Studio and a Styrofoam Model

This is not a tutorial about the best poses for portrait photography. You’ll find multiple articles about how to pose people simply by searching on the Web. This is about light and the way it works, so you understand that with natural light from the Sun and a window you can do some photos that you’ll be proud of.

My living room is my make shift studio when I need to do some photography at home. I’ve a large window that opens Southwest, so I get a nice amount of light during the afternoon, all around the year, although sometimes the light is too harsh. A curtain can soften harsh light, if needed,  sometimes combined with a diffuser, like the one you see in picture number 4.

A diffuser can be anything from a translucent paper or cloth (like some curtains) to a commercial reflector like the one shown in the photo. The normal 5in1 or 7in1 reflectors, which have multiple surfaces – black, white, gold, silver and more –  available in the market always have a diffuser option, so buying a small portable one that fits your needs might be a good option, meaning you’re always ready to shoot with diffusers or reflectors.

I convinced my older son, Miguel, to pose for me for some minutes, to create a couple of examples of what can be achieved, but for most of the session creating images that show how light works, I was helped by Mrs. White, my always present model. Mrs. White is an excellent assistant to help you understand light, because it (she?) can sit patiently for hours and follow your commands… with a little help from your hands.

Picture 1
Photo number 1

The first image in the series shows what direct sunlight from a window offers in terms of light. Depending on the angle of the sun and time of day, it may look different. As I said, my studio window open Southwest. Yours may be different. The first thing to do is to study the conditions you have, to understand what best works for you. Having a model head like Mrs. White can be an asset. There are some more human-like models, more expensive too, but this is more than enough to try a few settings and discover what can be done with the light from the window you choose.  Go and get your own styrofoam model head.

From Cardboard to Kitchen Foil

Photo Number 2
Photo number 2

The second image shows the normal way to deal with the contrast when shooting in bright sunshine: add light into the shadows by using a reflector to bounce light back onto the subject. It’s the simplest way to control contrast, and yet many people tend to forget it. Once you start to play with this, and a simple white cardboard will be enough, as the image shows, you’ll discover that by slightly moving and changing the angle of the cardboard you can control the final result in terms of light and shadow. Remember, “angle of incidence equals angle of reflection”, and you’re set.

Introducing a second piece of cardboard, or foamcore, styrofoam or a simple sheet of white paper can, again, change completely the final result. This photo (3) is a good example of what happens when you position a new reflector in front of your model, at a 45degree angle: the lower part of the chin of Mrs White becomes… whiter! Now it gets even more interesting. Imagine now that you cover one of your reflectors with gold or silver foil (you’ll have some in your kitchen, I bet)? Can you imagine what the result will be? Try this at home!

Photo number 3
Photo number 3

Although you can buy commercial reflectors and diffusers, anything from a sheet of white paper to carboard, foamcore or styrofoam can be used.  Try with different surfaces and discover how the materials react differently to light. Doing so in the controlled conditions of your home window studio will be a valuable lesson that you can use in the future.

I use everything from styrofoam used in packaging to cardboard covered with kitchen foil in true DIY (Do It Yourself) style. I’ve also bought some A3 sized sheets of cardboard, both white and black, and that’s what I use a lot of times. Black cardboard? Yes, If you look at images 5 and 6 you see what happens when white and black cardboards are used: white opens the shadows while black kind of sucks light into it. Black can be used to accentuate contrast.  Photo number 7 is present so you remember that you can transform your styrofoam model into whatever you like. Use scarfs, hats, even glasses.

Voice Activated Reflector

Mrs. White is not the best model for backlit portraiture, but try to go against all the rules and do a backlit portrait with a real person, like the example shown in photo number 8. Turn your model with the back to the window and do a first image: The results will be from a completely dark figure to a more or less visible face, depending on how you measure light. Try to get enough light to have some detail on your model’s face and then… introduce a reflector redirecting light into their face. The results can be quite amazing and will surprise your friends. They will not believe it was done just using your window light.

By now you’ve the essential understanding of light by a window to play on your own. So grab the material needed and get to work.  Many of the lessons learned in your window studio may also be applied outdoors. Moving outside, it is probably a good idea to leave the cardboard home and invest in a small foldable reflector. A 50 cm diameter reflector, which closes to become a 15cm disc, can be your best friend when outside. You can use a tripod or light stand to support it. A Justin clamp or a cheap plastic clamp help positioning the reflector, and this tip is useful both inside and outside.

Photo number 4
Photo number 4

When you’re photographing people outside, look for walls or buildings that can be used to reflect light.  In fact, in sunny days, you’ll be spoiled for choice: big white buildings facing the sun are an invitation to pose your subjects looking at them with their back turned to the sun, and shoot.

Be aware of coloured buildings and walls, because they will introduce casts in your image, but learn to use the light, either direct, reflecting or bouncing around you, to get the best photographs with natural light. In some places most of the houses and even the sidewalk can be used as giant reflectors for natural light!

As a last resort, if you’re outside and forgot your reflector, check if any of your friends is using a white shirt, and ask them to be your substitute reflector for the session. Then they will become a VAR, or Voice Activated Reflector. Just tell your VAR, “go to the right, move a bit further left”, and you’ll see how the system works!

Photo number 5
Photo number 5
Photo number 6
Photo number 6

Suggestions & Footnotes

The accessories suggested here are good to start with, and probably enough for many of us. But if you feel you want to invest more time and effort in portrait photography, check the commercial accessories available in the market. You might find some interesting items that will make your workflow easier. Just don’t buy stuff because… buy it because you REALLY need it.

As a footnote to this article, let me explain how the two pictures of my son Miguel were created. Both were taken at the same window, during one session that took a few minutes. A white piece of cardboard was used for one and a black piece of cardboard on the other. I wanted to touch the extremes, to show how the results can be different with such a simple setup. A white curtain diffused light and a simple A3 sized cardboard clamped to a light stand was all I used. Now it’s time to go and do your own experiences!

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