How To Take Natural Light Portraits

Rembrandt didn’t have a softbox. Neither did Vermeer or Caravaggio. Yet the portraits created by these artists have been held up as examples of beautiful lighting for centuries.

Borrow a page from the Old Masters: leave the lamps at home, and use the lovely light from a window to illuminate your next location headshot or business portrait. As an added bonus, you’ll have almost no setup, and won’t be dependent on electricity. Here’s how to do it.

Step 1. Find a large window or doorway that does not have direct sun streaming through it. Indirect lighting is key to this setup.

Step 2. (Optional) Set up a portable backdrop in front of the window/doorway. A 5′-wide roll of seamless paper suspended from a C-stand works well, as does a sheet of black foamcore clamped to a lightstand.

Step 3. Position the model in front of the backdrop. It doesn’t have to be far; you just need enough distance between the subject and the backdrop to ensure that his or her shadow will not be visible on the background.

Step 4. Take your shot. If you position the model facing directly into the window, you’ll get a soft, even light that is very flattering for female subjects.

Here’s an example that uses a doorway instead of a window, and uses the interior of the room as a background.

If the completely frontal light is little too flat for you, just angle yourself or the model slightly. This will allow the light to have a bit of directionality, without creating dramatic shadows.

For a male subject, you may want to angle the model and backdrop even more. This will give you a very “painterly” quality of light. You can easily adjust how much light falls on the background by angling it towards or away from the window. This setup is great for on-the-fly business headshots.

A nice benefit of using window light, as opposed to artificial lighting is that the model’s pupils will be larger (which is usually more appealing), and his or her face won’t have the muscular tension that inevitably accompanies the anticipation of a sudden, very bright light. Moreover, since the actual light level is relatively low, it lends itself readily to the use of a wide aperture, providing very flattering, shallow depth of field.

In post-processing, your photo straight out of the camera may look a little dingy. Bring up the brightness (midtones) in your image to give some life to the skintones, and then boost the contrast to give the image some punch. Pull up the blacks level to add richness to the shadows. White balance and vignette to taste (with small windows, you may need to add a very soft negative vignette to brighten up the outer edge of the face).
In just a couple of minutes, you’ll have a finished image that you can tell people is reminiscent of Rembrandt, Vermeer and Caravaggio!

  14 comments for “How To Take Natural Light Portraits

  1. March 12, 2012 at 1:00 pm

    What we should actually learn, from the given group of circumstances, determines whether we become increasingly powerless or more powerful.
    My son is currently an ‘entrepreneur.’ It is precisely what you’re called if you don’t have a job.

  2. January 13, 2013 at 3:14 pm

    Taking my first ‘real’ headshot tomorrow w/ minimal equipment. A bit anxious as I want to give a great first impression… Thank you, this was extremely helpful.

    • Alexander
      January 13, 2013 at 3:47 pm

      Good luck to you! Feel free to post a follow-up comment with a link to the shot you took.

  3. October 20, 2013 at 1:26 pm

    Thank you for this post. I am about to do some natural light photos. I really prefer it and I like what you have done! Thanks 🙂

  4. Ashley
    June 24, 2014 at 5:17 pm

    Thank you for the tips! I did head shots for a business today and these tips worked excellent and produced some photographs that I am very happy with, and am sure the business will be, too.

  5. August 21, 2014 at 10:39 pm

    Will try this ASAP. Thanks for keeping it simple and to the point!

  6. Shari
    September 22, 2014 at 1:36 pm

    Thank you so much for these simple but extremely helpful tips regarding natural light headshot shooting indoor. I have a home with windows and perfect places to shoot head shots and portraits. I will make use of all the windows. I would also like to inquire about the yellow/gold backdrop that is used in the 1st photo example. Where was it purchased and what color is it.

  7. Shari
    September 22, 2014 at 1:49 pm

    Also, can you give the specific equipment is used to hold and use the yellow/gold backdrop? Thanks in advance. Sorry, newbee here 🙂

  8. Shari
    March 18, 2015 at 9:45 am

    Alexander,
    Thank you so much for the links. Just one more quick question. What is the actual color of the seamless paper used in the first photo example. Your link sent me to “Deep Yellow”. Just making sure this is the color that you used as the photo example looks as if it could be a warmer yellow color such as “Autumn”. I do understand that different lighting can change the appearance of the backdrop color. I like how the color represents in the example you showed. Much appreciation!!

    • Alexander
      March 20, 2015 at 4:48 am

      Thanks for the question, Shari! Yes, that link goes to the actual color I used.

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