This is a continuing take on portraits because portraits seem to be a very popular topic.  I’ll often hear from readers who tell me that they can’t take great portraits because they don’t have a studio, or expensive off-camera strobes, or a team of assistants to hold reflectors and flags.  Fair enough, but it is possible to capture great portraits using nothing more than your camera and lens.  The compromise being that you’ll need to pay attention to the sun, the time of day, and plan carefully for the best natural light.  Personally, I think natural light provides the most attractive lighting for portraits period.  Let’s look at some portraits I did a while back with three young ladies using nothing more than a camera body and single lens.

 

All three wanted their portraits taken in a certain garden.  Arriving at the garden all I could see was the very bright sun directly overhead and I wasn’t very hopeful.  What do you do when the conditions aren’t right?  Stall!  The sun and clouds are moving all the time, sometimes just a few minutes can change things.  I stalled by discussing poses, print sizes, or anything else on-topic I could think of.  Not even ten minutes later the sun went behind some clouds and I knew the time was right.

 

All three wanted their portraits taken in a certain garden.  Arriving at the garden all I could see was the very bright sun directly overhead and I wasn’t very hopeful.  What do you do when the conditions aren’t right?  Stall!  The sun and clouds are moving all the time, sometimes just a few minutes can change things.  I stalled by discussing poses, print sizes, or anything else on-topic I could think of.  Not even ten minutes later the sun went behind some clouds and I knew the time was right.

 

When the sun went behind the clouds and I told them it was time to take the portraits they looked at me like “are you crazy, can’t you see the sun is behind a cloud?”  Reassuring them that this was great light I quickly put them in some poses and within a few minutes had enough material to make them very happy

 

When the sun went behind the clouds and I told them it was time to take the portraits they looked at me like “are you crazy, can’t you see the sun is behind a cloud?”  Reassuring them that this was great light I quickly put them in some poses and within a few minutes had enough material to make them very happy.

 

Why would the sun behind the clouds make great light?  Because the clouds filter the light and soften it, blanketing the subjects with an even soft light that literally makes their skin glow.  How can this be when your eyes are seeing nothing more than unlit dark skin?  Remember white balance?  That if you shoot in RAW (or evening Jpeg but you must adjust the WB in real time) you can adjust your white balance after the fact?

 

Why would the sun behind the clouds make great light?  Because the clouds filter the light and soften it, blanketing the subjects with an even soft light that literally makes their skin glow.  How can this be when your eyes are seeing nothing more than unlit dark skin?  Remember white balance?  That if you shoot in RAW (or evening Jpeg but you must adjust the WB in real time) you can adjust your white balance after the fact?

 

All I had to do was make sure the poses were great and the exposures spot on.  Even though on the camera LCD the pictures looked ‘wrong’, I knew I had what I needed.  Back on the workstation I simply adjusted the white balance to show the cloud covered temp as daylight temp, and their skin came alive and glowed just like it was under the sun.. but if it really was under the sun it would have been way too harsh and their eyes would be squinting, and the coverage would tend to be very uneven.

 

All I had to do was make sure the poses were great and the exposures spot on.  Even though on the camera LCD the pictures looked ‘wrong’, I knew I had what I needed.  Back on the workstation I simply adjusted the white balance to show the cloud covered temp as daylight temp, and their skin came alive and glowed just like it was under the sun.. but if it really was under the sun it would have been way too harsh and their eyes would be squinting, and the coverage would tend to be very uneven.

 

This way I had the best of both worlds.  The glowing great color of the sun on their skin, and the soft filtered light you get as sunlight passes through clouds.  No other lighting, reflectors, or flags were used.

 

This way I had the best of both worlds.  The glowing great color of the sun on their skin, and the soft filtered light you get as sunlight passes through clouds.  No other lighting, reflectors, or flags were used.

 

All three girls were more than pleased and I captured some wonderful portraits.  All with the sun behind a cloud.  Shade would work just as well.  Next time you’re out and want to make a portrait, remember a cloudy day or even shade will provide what you need.

 

All three girls were more than pleased and I captured some wonderful portraits.  All with the sun behind a cloud.  Shade would work just as well.  Next time you’re out and want to make a portrait, remember a cloudy day or even shade will provide what you need.

Soft filtered light through a cloud or shadows is only one type of natural light.  In future columns we’ll be discussing other types of natural lighting and their application to portraits.