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How to Shoot Beautiful Portraits Using Available Light

by Jim Newberry
February 17, 2017 | Living

Are you interested taking up photography but not sure where to start? Even though most of us have amazing photography technology at our fingertips at all times in the form of our smartphones, it can be a challenging hobby to pick up—there are so many techniques to learn and gadgets to buy. But beautiful portraits can be made without expensive and complicated special lighting. The trick is finding nice ambient light, and when necessary, wrangling it.

Let the sun shine in (through your window)

Sunlight through a window is classic portrait lighting. For inspiration, have a look at 17th Century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer’s work (he painted "Girl with a Pearl Earring," for example). He’s a favorite of photographers for his masterful depiction of light in portraits. 

For best results use indirect light, which is nice and soft, though the hard shadows of direct lighting can also be effective and dramatic (but less flattering).

Beautiful Portraits
Shot in late afternoon direct window light. Photo by Jim Newberry.

Here are four ways to avoid direct sun when using window light:

1. Use north-facing windows

2. Shoot at midday, when the sun is directly above

3. Shoot on a cloudy day

4. Use curtains, window shades or paper on the glass to diffuse sunlight (tracing paper, parchment or any neutral-color paper that's not too heavy will work)

If there are any overhead lights on in the room where you're shooting, make sure they're off. Household lights are typically a different color temperature (usually yellow or green when compared to daylight). Also, shooting in a room with dark walls will yield different results than shooting in a white-walled room, where light will be reflecting a lot more.

Beautiful Portraits
Shot in late afternoon curtain-diffused window light. Photo by Jim Newberry.

Go outside!

There's plenty of light outside during daylight hours, but, again, it's usually best to avoid direct sun. One exception is sunrise or sunset; when the sun is very low on the horizon. That can make for beautiful portrait lighting. Midday sun (directly overhead) is usually terrible for portraits. It's hard and contrasty, often causing dark shadows around the eyes—the last thing you want in a portrait.

Beautiful Portraits
In these two photos, the midday sun is too bright. It's making the subject squint and casting dark shadows. Photo by Jim Newberry.
Beautiful Portraits
Photo by Jim Newberry.

If you have to shoot outside when the sun is directly overhead, here are some tips to make it work:

1. Find a shady spot. This can seem counterintuitive: on a bright, sunny day, shady areas look relatively dark. But a shaded area, especially when adjacent to a sunny one, will provide more than enough light for a photo, and it will be a much softer and more flattering light than the harsh midday sun would provide.

Beautiful Portraits
Outside, but under the shade of a big tree. Much better. Photo by Jim Newberry.

2. Use a diffuser. Diffusers, also called silks or scrims and made from translucent white fabric, will dramatically soften any hard light source like the sun. It can be tricky to get the diffuser high enough above your subject when trying to filter midday sun; you'll have to have a helper hold it, maybe standing on a ladder. Or use a heavy duty light stand (C-stands are good for this) to hold the diffuser, with sand bags on the stand to keep it from tipping over.

Beautiful Portraits
Shot outside in midday sun with the help of a diffuser. Photo by Jim Newberry.
Beautiful Portraits
In this case, our subject is self-diffusing. Photo by Jim Newberry.

3. Use a reflector or bounce card. Reflectors can be used to minimize shadows by bouncing light into them. There are reflectors made for photography, usually collapsible and easy to carry, but you can also use any white board, like foam core from an art supply or dollar store. 

"Five-in-one" reflectors are very useful for photography, and collapse to a small size for easy carrying. The core is a translucent white fabric for diffusion, with a cover that is white on one side (for bouncing light) and black on the other (for blocking light). The cover is reversible, with silver (harder bounce light) and gold (harder bounce light with a warm tint) sides.  

Observe and experiment

Keep your eyes peeled, even when you're not taking pictures. Notice how daylight changes throughout the day as the sun changes position. Observe how the sun looks after getting filtered through glass or fabric, how it reflects off buildings and sidewalks and walls. 

When you're photographing someone, try different things: bounce the light, diffuse the light. Shoot in direct sun, shoot in the shade. Have your subject turn their head toward the light, away from the light. Have them turn around and shoot from the opposite direction. Through experimentation and trial and error, you'll find that available light can be beautiful and evocative, as well as accessible to a budding or hobbyist photographer.

Jim Newberry
Jim Newberry is an internationally published, award-winning photographer based in Los Angeles. His interest in photography began as a young child, when his father—James Newberry, who founded the photography department at Columbia College Chicago—gave him a camera and taught him how to use it. He later graduated from Columbia, and soon after began shooting assignments for magazines and record labels. Jim continues to shoot for editorial and commercial clients, as well as shooting fine art photography, especially street pictures.
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