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The great thing about natural light is that it’s free, and it’s everywhere. Creating beautiful natural light portraits is simply about training your eye to see that light, and learning how to control it while telling an intimate story about your subject.

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Natural light can either be soft and diffused (think of the open shade under an awning), or harsh and direct (think of standing at high noon under the direct sun while squinting). Each one gives your portrait a different feel, so choose wisely. Diffused light is always more flattering because it does not create deep shadows- and can be created and manipulated with a very simple reflector/diffuser tool.

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Here’s how to make your own:

  • Tape a piece of tin foil to one side of large piece of white foam core- the shiny side is for a more intense reflection, the white side for a softer once.
  • Practice standing a few feet from your subject and facing your piece of foam core toward them- you’ll see it bounce a soft yet bright amount of light in whatever direction you choose. This works best when done within a shadowy area, and will create a ‘fill light’ which can highlight your subject’s face or body. Think of natural light like a stream of water: you can deflect and shape its direction by simply moving your reflector around.
  • Now turn your piece of foam core into a diffuser to block light (instead of bounce/reflect it). Hold your foam core high above your head and see where the shadow falls. This works best when you are out in the direct sun- the closer the diffuser is to your subject, the smaller the shadow area and vice versa. This technique works great when you want to create a soft portrait of a face yet also capture a bright outdoor scene.

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Now that you’ve got the hang of your reflector/diffuser panel, the last thing to consider is your exposure which should always be based off of the most important part of your portrait. Normally, that is the subject’s face but as the artist you must decide what to expose for. In a large patch of complete open shade exposing for the face is fairly easy because the light is the same. But in more direct light the best way to get a correct exposure off of the subject’s face is to use a spot or incident meter.

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If you don’t have one of those and want to use your in-camera meter simply bring your camera up to your subject’s face (give them a warning first as you’ll be getting very close) and fill the entire frame of your viewfinder with whatever part of their body you want to expose for. For example: there is soft open shade on your subject’s face but bright harsh light within the natural scene. Take a light reading off of your subject’s face by bringing the lens almost up to their skin, reading your in-camera meter, and locking into that exposure. If your camera cannot lock in an exposure, just write it down. Then step back, frame your portrait including environment etc, dial in the exposure you just wrote down, and create the image. The result is a properly exposed portrait where your subject’s face is the center of attention and the environment enhances and tells a story.

 

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