Natural light portrait shoot breakdown with Model Erin Lee

natural light portrait shoot breakdown

I’ve had the chance to shoot indoor and outdoor natural light portraits over the years, and indoor shoots are some of my favorite. I love to use large windows and the sun as my key light to light my models and subjects.

How to take portraits with natural light indoors

A simple approach to taking natural light portraits indoors is to place your subject close to a main window or large light source. Set your camera setting to expose for the subject. This will make the background slightly darker, but the model will be well lit from the light coming into the scene. If you can have the subject facing the window so the light is in the front and not behind the model this would be most ideal for the composition.

front view natural light portrait sony a7 sony 85mm f1.4 GMaster
Portrait Settings – Sony a7 | Sony 55mm f1.8 @f2 | 1/400 sec | ISO 100 | Natural light only

Natural light portrait shoot breakdown

The best way to explain how to shoot in natural light is to show you a real-world example portrait shoot and my thought process behind each shot.

In this portrait shoot with Erin, I took advantage of a large window as my main light source for the entire portrait shoot. No reflectors or other external light sources were used.

In this portrait shoot breakdown, I’ll help you learn how to take portraits in natural light and see what you can expect when shooting wide open with your large aperture lenses.

Natural light portrait by window sony a7 sony 55mm f1.8
Portrait Settings – Sony a7 | Sony 55mm f1.8 | @f1.8 | 1/1,000 sec | ISO 100 | Natural light only

Getting started with natural light

A quick note about the studio. I was shooting in a small loft style studio for this portrait shoot. All the walls were white brick and the floors a dark smooth cement. The window was around 10ft by 8ft and was centered in the room.

My model for this shoot was local Dallas model Erin Lee. She reached out to me on Instagram and wanted to do a simple test shoot. We setup a time and date to get the shoot in place and met up on location.

It was bright and sunny the morning of the shoot. The Texas heat was beaming down and there was not a could in sight.

Camera gear for natural light portraits

For this shoot, I used my Sony a7 mirrorless camera with a combination of two prime lenses. First, I used my Sony 85mm f1.4 G Master lens and then switched over to my Sony 55mm f1.8 lens.

Each lens has its own unique look and style, so I tried to get a variety of shots for my portfolio.

I would recommend having a small reflector with you in case you need to bounce the direct light or redirect it to another spot.

You can also use a translucent reflector to help cut out some of the harsh light coming in from your main light source.

natural light model posing portrait sony a7 sony 55mm f1.8
Portrait Settings – Sony a7 | Sony 55mm f1.8 | @f2.0 | 1/2,500 sec | ISO 100 | Natural light only

How I positioned the model

The model was positioned around the window light. I moved all the furniture in the room towards the window and positioned Erin around the props.

I had Erin mostly stationary so I could keep my camera on single shot mode. I didn’t have to change my setting often as the light remained pretty constant in the room during the hour-long shoot.

sony 55mm close up portrait shot
Portrait Settings – Sony a7 | Sony 55mm f1.8 @f2 | 1/160 sec | ISO 100 | Natural light only

Erin was sitting on a small coffee table that was oriented at an angle towards the window. I had her sit and took a quick shot.

I was standing around 3ft away from her while using my Sony 55mm f1.8 lens. I stopped down to f2.0 because of the close distance I was using to shoot.

natural light model posing portrait sony a7 sony 55mm f1.8
Portrait Settings – Sony a7 | Sony 55mm f1.8 | @f1.8 | 1/160 sec | ISO 100 | Natural light only

In this shot, I positioned Erin on an adjacent wall. The light was bouncing all over the room and still provided efficient glow even when the light was not directed at the model.

This gave me a few shots that had even and soft lighting on the model.

Natural light in the sun portrait sony a7 sony 55mm f1.8
Portrait Settings – Sony a7 | Sony 55mm f1.8 | @f2.0 | 1/640 sec | ISO 100 | Natural light only

As you can see from this shot, the direct lighting can create harsh lines and darker shadows. The couch was positioned at an angle towards the large main window.

I love how the light was wrapping around Erin in this composition and giving me straight lined shadows from the window bars.

close up front view natural light portrait sony a7 sony 55mm f1.8
Portrait Settings – Sony a7 | Sony 55mm f1.8 | @f2.0 | 1/400 sec | ISO 100 | Natural light only

Like the previous shot, Erin was positioned against the couch but in an opposite direction. I was able to keep the highlights from clipping  by positioning the couch just out of the direct light from the window.

side view natural light portrait
Portrait Settings – Sony a7 | Sony 55mm f1.8 | @f2.0 | 1/640 sec | ISO 100 | Natural light only

Same pose but different angle. Erin stayed positioned in the same location as I worked around her to get a variety of shots.

studio natural light portrait sony a7 sony 55mm f1.8
Portrait Settings – Sony a7 | Sony 55mm f1.8 | @f2.0 | 1/640 sec | ISO 100 | Natural light only

We did a wardrobe change and I had Erin in a white top with darker pants. The white shirt was slightly more difficult to use as the highlights could easily get blown out in the exposure.

I stopped down on my shutter speed to compensate for the lighter look.

side portrait sony a7 sony 55mm f1.8
Portrait Settings – Sony a7 | Sony 55mm f1.8 | @f2.0 | 1/640 sec | ISO 100 | Natural light only

I positioned Erin closer to the edge of the window and further down the wall. This kept her out of the bright light angle from the sun.

The light was bouncing off the large white wall behind me so this made for a softer light on Erin.

Portrait closeup sony a7 sony 55mm f1.8
Portrait Settings – Sony a7 | Sony 55mm f1.8 | @f1.8 | 1/1,000 sec | ISO 100 | Natural light only
natural light mid length portrait shot sony a7 sony 85mm f14 GMaster
Portrait Settings – Sony a7 | Sony 85mm f1.4 G Master | @f1.4 | 1/3,200 sec | ISO 100 | Natural light only

The third look was a white textured sweater. This was the final look and I wanted to give more of a comfy lifestyle look.

I liked the contrast of the white sweater with the darker blue tones of the couch so we started taking photos there.

fun by the window natural light portrait receptor mediated endocytosis
Portrait Settings – Sony a7 | Sony 85mm f1.4 G Master | @f1.4 | 1/3,200 sec | ISO 100 | Natural light only

Eventually we moved back to the window and I tried more of a closer shot with the Sony 85mm f1.4 G Master lens.

I wanted to stay wide open at f1.4 so I had to raise my shutter speed much higher to get an even exposure.

close up sitting portrait natural light
Portrait Settings – Sony a7 | Sony 85mm f1.4 G Master | @f1.4 | 1/3,200 sec | ISO 125 | Natural light only

I noticed the lighting was too bright so I moved Erin away from the window. I positioned her on the coffee table about 6 feet from the window wall.

facing the sun window natural light portrait
Portrait Settings – Sony a7 | Sony 85mm f1.4 G Master | @f1.4 | 1/3,200 sec | ISO 100 | Natural light only

To maintain the lifestyle look, I added the couch back into the composition and had Erin facing the adjacent wall. This allowed the bounding light to give her a soft glow on the front of her body.

standing by the window portrait
Portrait Settings – Sony a7 | Sony 85mm f1.4 G Master | @f1.4 | 1/3,200 sec | ISO 100 | Natural light only

When I had Erin posing back against the window, I tried to expose for the highlights of the scene.

Once I did this, I was able to bring back up the shadows in the composition and retain as much details as possible in the highlights.

leaning by the window natural light portrait
Portrait Settings – Sony a7 | Sony 85mm f1.4 G Master | @f1.4 | 1/3,200 sec | ISO 100 | Natural light only
Lifestyle window light portarit
Portrait Settings – Sony a7 | Sony 55mm f1.8 | @f1.8 | 1/640 sec | ISO 125 | Natural light only

One of my favorite natural light shots, I positioned Erin back on the coffee table and stepped back to get a full body shot.

I shot in horizontal mode and was able to use the Sony 55mm f1.8 to get as much details as possible in the composition.

model posing on the couch sitting in natural light
Portrait Settings – Sony a7 | Sony 85mm f1.4 G Master | @f1.4 | 1/3,200 sec | ISO 100 | Natural light only

A simple natural light portrait shot of Erin. I liked how the natural light created a soft glow on her face and sweater.

I also liked how the opposite side of the face was more in shadow. I was able to raise the details in post-production since I was shooting under exposed by around 2 stops.

Window light portrait sony a7 sony 55mm f1.8
Portrait Settings – Sony a7 | Sony 55mm f1.8 | @f1.8 | 1/3,200 sec | ISO 100 | Natural light only
sitting on the couch lifestyle portrait natural light
Portrait Settings – Sony a7 | Sony 85mm f1.4 G Master | @f1.4 | 1/3,200 sec | ISO 100 | Natural light only
sitting on the couch shot natural light portrait sony a7 sony 85mm f1.4
Portrait Settings – Sony a7 | Sony 85mm f1.4 G Master | @f1.4 | 1/3,200 sec | ISO 100 | Natural light only
sitting portrait sony a7 sony 55mm f1.8
Portrait Settings – Sony a7 | Sony 55mm f1.8 | @f1.8 | 1/640 sec | ISO 125 | Natural light only

sitting pose natural light sony a7 sony 85mm f1.4 GMaster
Portrait Settings – Sony a7 | Sony 85mm f1.4 G Master | @f1.4 | 1/3,200 sec | ISO 125 | Natural light only
soft focus portrait depth of field small
Portrait Settings – Sony a7 | Sony 85mm f1.4 G Master | @f2.0 | 1/3,200 sec | ISO 100 | Natural light only

At first I didn’t like this shot, but it quickly grew on me. The depth of field was so shallow that much of her face and hair was out of focus, except for the wave of hair closest to the camera.

This is an issue you will run into when shooting with wider apertures and standing very close to models.

Be sure to check your shots after the set to make sure your photos are in focus.

soft glow portarit window light natural light
Portrait Settings – Sony a7 | Sony 85mm f1.4 G Master | @f1.4 | 1/3,200 sec | ISO 100 | Natural light only
soft lifestyle model portrait test shoot sony a7 sony 85mm f1.4 GMaster
Portrait Settings – Sony a7 | Sony 85mm f1.4 G Master | @f1.4 | 1/3,200 sec | ISO 125 | Natural light only
soft window light portrait sony a7 sony 55mm f1.8
Portrait Settings – Sony a7 | Sony 55mm f1.8 | @f1.8 | 1/640 sec | ISO 125 | Natural light only
soft Natural light portrait sony a7 sony 55mm f1.8
Portrait Settings – Sony a7 | Sony 55mm f1.8 | @f1.8 | 1/200 sec | ISO 100 | Natural light only

For the final fourth look, Erin wanted a more fashion lifestyle look so she switched her top and bottoms and added a jacket and a few other small accessories.

By the fourth look, Erin was having a great time and she became more and more comfortable in front of the camera.

This is always great to see when shooting with new models. You want to make them feel comfortable so they are more confident in front of the camera.

Funky glasses blat hat sony a7 sony 55mm f1.8
Portrait Settings – Sony a7 | Sony 55mm f1.8 | @f1.8 | 1/125 sec | ISO 125 | Natural light only

The hat and glasses were Erin’s personal belongings, but these added big details to the image. The front of the glasses had a polarized look so this added a more dynamic color to the shots.

Wall portrait sony a7 sony 55mm f1.8
Portrait Settings – Sony a7 | Sony 55mm f1.8 | @f1.8 | 1/125 sec | ISO 125 | Natural light only
Groovy glasses portrait sony a7 sony 55mm f1.8
Portrait Settings – Sony a7 | Sony 55mm f1.8 | @f1.8 | 1/200 sec | ISO 100 | Natural light only
lifestyle portrait sony a7 sony 55mm f1.8
Portrait Settings – Sony a7 | Sony 55mm f1.8 | @f1.8 | 1/200 sec | ISO 100 | Natural light only
Natural light lifestyle portrait sony a7 sony 55mm f1.8.jpg
Portrait Settings – Sony a7 | Sony 55mm f1.8 | @f1.8 | 1/200 sec | ISO 100 | Natural light only

We finished the set with some sitting poses and I finished with the shoot with the Sony 55mm f1.8. This lens is small and light weight so it made it easy for me to use and move around the studio with no problems at all.

If you want to learn more about my entire photography workflow, you can read it in detail here. 

soft natural light portrait on the couch
Portrait Settings – Sony a7 | Sony 85mm f1.4 G Master | @f1.4 | 1/3,200 sec | ISO 100 | Natural light only

Quick benefits of shooting natural light photos

There are a few quick benefits of shooting photos in natural light that I want to touch on.

  • Gives your photos a very natural and soft look
  • Using the sun is FREE and great for beginners
  • You don’t have to carry much gear

Drawbacks to shooting natural light

Just like with any lighting there are some drawbacks to shooting natural light.

  • Color temperature can change as the sun goes down
  • You have limited time with the sun before sunset
  • The light intensity can change based on weather (clouds can effect light)
  • If can be difficult to shoot in harsh light

There are both good and bad qualities of shooting natural light, but this is the same with all lighting types. Your goal should be to learn to shape or redirect the light to your advantage.

on the couch sitting natural light portrait
Portrait Settings – Sony a7 | Sony 85mm f1.4 G Master | @f1.4 | 1/3,200 sec | ISO 100 | Natural light only

What did I learn from this shoot

This natural light photo shoot was fun and gave me a chance to experiment with the available light in studio. I saw it as an opportunity to problem solve and get the best shots possible.

I also grew more fond of the Sony 55mm f1.8. This lens is tac sharp and small and light weight. It was perfect for this particular shoot concept.

Conclusion to taking portraits with natural light

Natural light vs flash photography will always be a big question for many beginner photographer. My goal in this article is to show you the type of photos you can get from shooting with available light and a little creativity.

Get out and shoot and you will learn what style is best for you. Just remember that every scenario will be different so you will want to study the light available to you and be flexible with your model and compositions.

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