Photography 101: Natural Portrait Lighting

The quality of the images you take, whether it be on your DSLR, point-and-shoot camera, or cell phone, is largely determined by the quality of the available light. Failure to  account for ambient light can result in lackluster + mediocre photography. If you take a  moment to learn about the three types of ambient light, you can step up your photography game, no matter what it is you like to photograph!


diffused light

When sunlight is softened by an environmental feature such as clouds or foliage, diffused lighting is created. In the portraits below, the 9 am sunlight was diffused through dense trees. This type of lighting is considered universally flattering!

When photographing with diffused light, it is important to have your subject face the light to avoid unflattering shadows. When shooting in diffused light, it can be helpful to use a reflector to fill in shadows on your subject’s face.

Seeking out diffused light is especially important if you are shooting with a cell phone camera or a point-and-shoot. As sensor capabilities are much lower in these cameras; choosing this type of lighting will result in clear, low-grain images.

Matthews NC Photography Portrait Photographer

Matthews NC Photography Portrait Photographer


back light

This lighting situation occurs when the portrait subject is placed in front of the light source. Shooting with a backlit subject is a personal favorite of mine! I love how the ethereal rim light rendered by golden hour backlighting beautifully outlines my portrait subject.

Artifacts appear such as lens flare often appear in backlit photography when the photographer is using a DSLR. Lens artifacts can be used to add interest + emphasis to portraits. In fact, some photographers place faux lens flare in their images with Photoshop!

The images below include lens artifacts that occurred naturally with my Canon 50mm 1.4 lens.

Matthews NC Photography Portrait Photographer

Matthews NC Photography Portrait Photographer


direct light

Direct light occurs when the subject faces the light source. This type of lighting situation is difficult as it often results in harsh, deep shadows and blown-out highlights. Photographers working in this condition must be conscious of subject’s position in relation to the light source + adjust their subject for the desired affect.

Direct light is favored by fashion photographers -you may note this the next time you flip through Vogue! Though direct light can be tricky, a skilled + intentional photographer can use the severe light to his/her advantage to create dramatic portraits.

While I don’t have a lot of experience in direct light portraiture, I tested my skills during Emily’s portrait session. I like how the two below turned out!

Matthews NC Photography Portrait Photographer

Matthews NC Photography Portrait Photographer

One last thing …turn of that flash!

All photography captured with my Canon 5D III DSLR, Canon 50mm 1.4 lens, and Canon 85 mm lens.

-Elizabeth A.


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