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Natural Light Essentials

Lesson 8 from: Portrait Photography Bootcamp

Lindsay Adler

Natural Light Essentials

Lesson 8 from: Portrait Photography Bootcamp

Lindsay Adler

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Lesson Info

8. Natural Light Essentials

Summary (Generated from Transcript)

In this lesson, Lindsay Adler discusses how to shoot natural light portraits using simple tools such as a shoot-through umbrella and a reflector. She emphasizes the importance of practicing to learn to see the light and recommends walking around with a friend to identify good lighting situations. She demonstrates how to use a shoot-through umbrella to transform harsh direct sunlight into soft box light, and shows how to use natural reflectors, such as the side of a building or a garage door, to create large and soft light sources. Finally, she explains how to find shade and use a reflector to add light and shape to the subject's face, and provides tips on using different types of reflectors.


  1. What are the simple tools that can be used to create beautifully lit natural light portraits?

    A shoot-through umbrella and a reflector.

  2. Why is it important to practice seeing the light?

    It takes time to train your eye to identify good light on a subject's face.

  3. How can a shoot-through umbrella be used to transform harsh direct sunlight into soft box light?

    When the light hits the diffusion material of the umbrella, it spreads out and becomes soft and diffused.

  4. What are some examples of natural reflectors that can be used to create soft and large light sources?

    The side of a building, a garage door, or any large neutral-colored surface hit by the sun.

  5. What is the recommended placement of a reflector when it is used as the main source of light on the face?

    It should be placed even with or above the face to create flattering and directional light.

  6. What is the difference between using a silver reflector and a white reflector?

    A silver reflector catches and throws more light, while a white reflector is softer and more flattering on the skin.

Next Lesson: Speedlights

Lesson Info

Natural Light Essentials

I love to shoot portraits in natural light. And I love the fact that if I learn to see the light, I don't actually need to take a lot of gear with me. In fact, I can create beautiful portraits with just myself and my subject; I don't need anything more. But I need to learn to identify, to see the light. What I'd like to talk about in this section is how to shoot natural light portraits very simply. We're going to use a shoot-through umbrella, a reflector, and then just the environment. And with just those very simple tools, I can create really beautifully lit portraits. But the most important thing I can tell you is to practice, practice to learn to see the light on your subject's face. And this was not something that was instant for me by any means. I didn't right away be able to tell what good light was. It's something you have to train your eye to see. And so what I recommend that you do is walk around with a friend, a significant other. And as you walk around, check. When you see g...

ood light on the face, say oh okay, now why is that good light there? What are the lighting situations that I'm in? And of course practice. Practice with a reflector, practice with a diffuser. But I wanna show you my favorite ways of lighting a portrait on location simply: not alotta gear, not a lot of complication. Now, my first suggestion to you is to shoot later in the day or earlier in the day, when the sun's lower in the sky. It is not ideal to be shooting near high noon like we are right now, but I don't want you to think that you can't make beautiful portraits midday. Because in fact, you absolutely can. So right now let me just show you what the light looks like on my face shooting at nearish to noon. Alright, so if I look over here, this is direct sunlight on my face. Direct sunlight doesn't work for portraits for many reasons. You're going to have bright highlights on the forehead and dark shadows in the eyes. It's really contrasty. And also, it's really bright. So, I mean, my eye is watering right now. And your subjects are going to squint, it's not going to be flattering. But I have a really simple and really inexpensive way to turn this direct sunlight into gorgeous soft box light, and it's with an inexpensive tool. So let me see that tool real quick. Thank you very much! The tool that I have here is a shoot-through umbrella, and you might already own one of these. This one in particular is made by Westcott. It's a seven foot shoot-through umbrella. It pops open really wide, and it casts large, beautiful diffused light on the face. It is basically taking that sun and turning it into a soft box. Because right now, I told you in previous lighting discussions, the smaller the light source is relative to the subject, the harsher the light. Well, guess what? That sun is really far away, really small relative to me, and look how harsh this light is. But when I pop open my shoot-through umbrella, the light hits this diffusion material, it spreads out, and it becomes just like a soft box. I get beautiful, soft, and wrapping light. So, I wanna show you exactly what that looks like. But also, this umbrella right here, which gives me a lot of coverage, costs less than a hundred dollars. So this is a nice starting way to get beautiful portrait light on location without a huge investment. So let's take a look at that diffused light. Would you come up here for a second, and I'm gonna take a picture of the bad light on her face first. Oh dear, yeah. I'm gonna bring you down just a little bit. (beeping) Oh, wow. (snapping) Kinda like. (muttering) You get that a lot from me, these classes here. Wow, okay, one more. So what I see (beeping) (snapping) is she has no catch lights in her eyes, horrible highlights on her face, dark shadows. You are pretty, but it's not. (chuckling) So let's improve that. Would you do me a favor and bring this diffusion over? Thank you. Go on and bring it in just a little closer. Great! Oh my gosh, the light is completely different. Now there's not a big difference between the highlights and shadows. Now it's a really soft gradient of light. And it's just glowing light on her face, and I can see catch lights. So now if I take a picture of her, (beeping) (snapping) now that light is very, very soft and forgiving. But a couple of recommendations for if you're shooting this light. One of the things is that this is now your light source, right. The light source is not the sun, it's not anything else around. So if I face her away, if she turns away, she's facing away from the light. So if I want the light to be flatter, can you turn in this direction, now there'll be fewer shadows. It'll be more even light. Another recommendation, as well, is the further away you have that umbrella, the light doesn't wrap around as much. It's not as soft. It's becoming a smaller light source. So if you want it to wrap and be softer, you bring that umbrella in really close. Which is why I like this umbrella, because it is so large. Therefore the light source is going to be soft and wrapping. If you have a really small shoot-through umbrella, you won't have quite as much soft, wrapping light. So we just gonna take a couple portraits here. And recommendation is watch your backgrounds. Because right now the direct sunlight is still hitting the fence behind her in the weaves, so I wanna try to frame up in a way that I'm not going to have a really distracting background. Because otherwise I'll have beautiful light on her face but I won't be able to stop looking at the background behind her. So let's improve this. (clattering) (beeping) (snapping) (beeping) Good. (snapping) (beeping) (snapping) And is it possible to lower this down just a little bit this way? If you can, cool! Great, and bring it in nice and close. We're gonna, like, get really best friends. Okay. Good (gasping) Sorry. Nice. No, you're fine. (beeping) (snapping) That's just bright. (chuckling) Yeah, it's really bright glowing light. Good. (beeping) (snapping) Okay, relax. Beautiful! Good. And I'm gonna do a couple serious if you don't mind. Yeah! And you can close your eyes. (beeping) Ready, one, two, and three. (snapping) (beeping) One, two, and three. (snapping) Close your eyes one more time. One, two, and three. (beeping) (snapping) Okay, now can you, just stay right there. Just let me show what it looks like with direct sunlight one more time. Close your eyes! Crappy sunlight, and go! (beeping) (snapping) Alright, there it is absolutely night and day between these two photographs. Okay, now this is nice. But as you can see, I kind of need an assistant. I could have her hold it, that would work. I could put it on a stand. But if it's windy, it's going to become a sail. Let's keep it even more simple than this. Let's get rid of everything, okay! Thank you. So let's see what I can do to improve this middle of the day harsh sunlight without any reflectors, without any diffusers, without anything. What I'm going to do is I'm going to scout my environment. I am going to look for a large natural reflector. What that means is I'm looking for a large neutral surface hit by the sun. This could be a moving van, a large white moving van. I'm looking for the sun to hit that. Or this could be the side of a house or a side of a building, or it could be a concrete side of a garage. It could be anything, but it needs to be large, neutral color, and hit by the sun. Because what happens is that sun is so far away in contrasting, when it hits that neutral surface, it spreads out, it bounces the light, and it gives you a much larger reflector than you could ever carry with you. So not only will I have extremely large light, the larger the light source is relative to the subject, the softer the light, which means I'm gonna have really large, really soft glowing light, and I don't need to carry a thing. All I need to do is walk around and look for that surface. But be careful. If you find a side of a building that's painted blue, your subject will now be Smurf color. (chuckling) And if you find a side of a building that's been painted a little bit green, they'll going to look sickly. So I walked around this space, and I actually don't need to move at all. Because right here I have a house that is painted or has a kind of neutral grey siding. And that bright sunlight is hitting the house, and it's spreading out, and it is a huge natural reflector. So all I need to do is place my subject so that is the light hitting her face. So I'm gonna get her out of this awful sun. I'm gonna stand you over here for me. Right there is great. Perfect! So now the light source on her face is nothing but the light bouncing off of this building as well as a little light bouncing off of the fence here. I've put Caitlyn in the shade but across from that building. So the building is right behind me here. And so what that's going to do, it's going to give me that soft, beautiful light on her face. And what's nice is she's actually down the hill a little bit from me, so her eyes are going to be closer to the camera, I'm going to focus on those, and it's going to give me beautiful, soft, even-glowing light. (beeping) (snapping) Okay, and relax your forehead just a little. And now you can be happier. Good. Great! And I'm thinking about this just like I were in the studio. I can have a light flat to her. Flat light doesn't have dimension. And if I want to carve out and include more shadows, I can actually turn her away from the light source. It just doesn't happen to be a soft box, it's a fake soft box, it's a natural reflector. So if I turn her away from that light, now I'll have more shadow on this side of her face, because that is the light source. So now you'll see just a little more sculpting, (beeping) just a little bit (snapping) more dimension. You can turn your chin back just a tiny bit, great. (beeping) (snapping) (beeping) (snap) Perfect. And so now the light is just not quite as flat. There's not a right or wrong answer, but either way, it is super soft, it's really flattering. And you know what I love this light for? Groups. I love this light for groups, because it's really difficult to evenly light a group on location, or even in the studio. But when you have a gigantic light source that's equidistant from everybody, everybody's going to have this nice, even light. So that looks beautiful. I'm gonna take a couple shots and then we'll switch it up! (beeping) (snapping) And smile! (beeping) (snapping) Beautiful. And this is just one of many ways. But I don't have to do anything, I just show up, look for the natural reflectors. Another environment that looks beautiful for natural light without having to have a reflector, or diffuser, or anything, is garage doors. In the middle of the day, if you have a garage, or maybe a porch, with an overhang, this is something called covered shade. There's two types of shade. One type of shade is going to be, say, the shade cast by the side of a building. The building casts a shadow, but there's nothing above the person's head. It's just open sky. This shade is okay, but it tends to put a little bit of shadows in the eyes, and it's usually not as flattering. But covered shade often looks a bit better. Because there's something above the subject's head, what it does is it makes sure that the light source is coming from the front instead of directly overhead, and then the eyes have a little more sparkle to them. And so look for porches, or parking garages, or some sort of overhang, or just a garage in general, like this is. This an entrance to a garage. So what I'm going to do is I'm going to place my subject in the shade, and this is sometimes referred to as lighting on the edge. If she takes one more step forward, she's in the sun. Okay, so I actually wanna back her up so she's in the shade. But now we have this gigantic light source. It is everything behind us, so it's beautiful. But I want to give you a caution. This works on an overcast day. You'll still have a good direction of light and everything. But on a sunny day, watch out what's underneath my feet. Underneath my feet, in this case, is a sidewalk or driveway that is catching alotta light and bouncing towards her. That is actually my main light source. The sun is hitting that and it is a natural reflector. And I said natural reflectors are great, except if they give you an undesirable direction of light. In this case, the light is bouncing, and the closest thing that it's hitting on her face is her chin underneath her nose and underneath her cheek. So it is bottom light, it's monster light. But you still look pretty. Anyway, so this bottom light that I have here, it's going to make her face look wider. It's going to draw attention to where I don't want it to be. I'm gonna take a quick shot of that, and then I'm gonna fix the lighting setup. (beeping) (snapping) And I love that she has beautiful catch lights in her eyes. That looks great, but is way too much from underneath her chin. Let me take one more. (beeping) (snapping) So what I'm going to do is I'm going to even this out by backing her up. The further away I get this light, instead of being underneath, the light source kind of moves away, and it will start to bounce into her face. So can you back up maybe five feet? And try right there. So I still have a little bit of light from below, but it starts to flatten out. Now it's not heavily underneath her chin. So let me, I'm gonna do, I'm gonna do two more feet back. And what I'm looking for, right there! So what I'm looking for is I'm trying to figure out what's the brightest part of her face. When she stands, take a couple more feet up. When she stands here, I'm seeing highlights underneath her clavicles. So I know the light is still heavily bottom lit. And when I do this, I still see alotta that shadow. So I'm just trying to look for when the light flattens out, and this comes with practice, but it evens out a lot there. Now, the light isn't as bright, so I might have to open up a little bit, bump up my ISO. But now it's going to be absolutely beautiful, (snapping) gorgeous catch lights. (beeping) (snapping) And the catch lights that I see that are really broad and wide, they're actually from the sidewalk just filling in. But it's not right underneath her chin, so it's beautiful direction. (beeping) We'll take a few more and we're great. (snapping) And can you give me a smile. And now a soft smile, perfect. Great, beautiful! Alright, so let's go into the park, and let's take a look at what I can do. Because often you're going to be shooting a portrait in a park if you don't have your own studio space or if you shoot a lot of natural light. So let's head that direction. A very simple and beautiful way to illuminate your subject's face is to find shade and add a reflector. That is one of the most essential, one of the most basic ways, that you can create a really beautiful portrait when you go out on location. So it starts by going around, and scouting your environment, and seeing A, where you can find shade, which most often would be perhaps the shade of a tree. The next thing that I wanna watch out for is my background. I'm gonna try to angle in a way that I don't have a lot of sunlight or bright distractions. So where I'm actually shooting from is just a little bit from this side to put the green of the trees behind her. And so it's going to simplify my background. I'm gonna shoot with a wide aperture and I'm gonna be focused on her. But let's take a look at what the light looks like right now, with nothing added. (beeping) (snapping) Beautiful. So she's got a little bit of a highlight on her hair. And the light actually isn't too terrible, because I have a lot of bounce underneath from the floor here in the tree area, in the covered area. But I want a little bit more contrast, a little bit more direction of light, so I'm going to add a reflector. And alotta times you won't have this feel. It's going to be pretty dimly lit. So let's add a reflector in, and I'm gonna show you that. What I usually see portrait photographers do, will you add that in for me? By the way, this is a silver and white reflector: silver on one side, white on the other. Now, many portrait photographers, I will see them say "okay, I want "a little more light bounced into the eyes." So they put the reflector underneath the subject's chin, and this creates horrendous under-light, monster light. So what you'll see is bright highlights under her chin, bright highlights under her nose. So here's the rule of thumb that I want you to remember: if the reflector is not just a tiny bit of fill, but if it is the main source of light on the face, you want that reflector to be either equal to the face or above the face. Because think of it this way: if you're shooting in the studio, how often do you actually have the light source low? You don't have the light source from underneath. If it's the main source of light on the face, it's usually equal to the face or a little bit higher. The rules of lighting apply, whether it's natural light, studio light, speed lights. So here with our reflector, even or above the subject's face, because that is going to give depth to her face. It carves out her cheekbones, it defines her jawline, and it's going to be much more of a flattering portrait. So let's look at from underneath, equal to, and above, and you're going to see why I recommend that higher angle. Alright! Alright, ready, one, (beeping) two, and three. (snapping) (beeping) One, two, and three. (snapping) And you can tell she's struggling with that, and also it's just not flattering. So if you can bring that light up to the side. Looking at the light from underneath her chin, it's not flattering, it's not a good direction of light. So we've raised the reflector up just a little bit. And now it's even with her face. It's going to cast the shadows across. But the rules of lighting apply no matter where you are. So being off to the side, she's actually just about split light here. She doesn't really have much light on the right-hand side of her face. So if I wanted to flatten it out a little bit, can I bring you over this way just a little bit? (humming) No, keep it down. Just bring towards me, good. So I'm gonna try to wrap the light around a little bit more by moving the light more front and center. So let's take a shot. Ready, one, two, and three. (snapping) (beeping) (snapping) So as I look at that, the light's not bad. It's better, and there's a lot more pop. But I know for a fact that I can carve out her face if I raise that light up more, so raise it up from above! Perfect! And take a little, just a little step back for me, just this way. Good! And the light a little bit lower. Keep goin', right there! Ready?! One, two, (beeping) and three. (snapping) Good, and smile. One, two, three. And so in this photo, I have drastically improved quality of light and direction of light on her face. Good! And just a little lower for me. Let's see, right, gonna catch it a little bit more. Good, a little less. And let me tell you about that real quick. Good. (beeping) (snapping) As I was directing her to move the reflector, what I'm looking for is I don't wanna catch all of the light and bounce it on her face, because it's too contrasty and it's too bright. I'm catching all of that sunlight with a bright silver reflector, and it's not going to be flattering. Instead, I have her change the angle of the reflector a little bit, side to side and up and down, and this is called feathering. So I'm catching the edge of the light, which will have a little less contrast and a little less intensity, so we can make it a little bit more subtle. If I want to add more shape, more direction, I'm gonna step you off to the side a little bit, and now I can move the light source off to the side and see a little more shadow on this side of her face. Good. And a little bit lower for me. Ready one, (beeping) two, and three. (snapping) Good! (beeping) And smile! (snapping) Perfect! So now I have improved quality of light and direction of light on her face. We've been using silver because I can capture alotta light and bounce it back in. But we can also use white. The difference is going to be that silver catches more light and throws it further, so it's going to be brighter. It also is more contrasty, though. Shadows'll be darker, highlights will be brighter. It can be unflattering on the skin, like on a bright, sunny day where someone has a sweaty forehead, so instead, I might prefer to go with white. White's going to be softer. It's going to be a little bit more flattering on the skin. But it doesn't catch as much light or throw it. So I usually have to be closer with white. And I usually have to shoot white at more of a mid-length or close-up shot for the portrait I'm taking, whereas silver I can back up and shoot full length or I can get a lot more distance. So white is much softer, and I prefer white for this portrait. (beeping) (snapping) Perfect, and there ya go. Great, perfect! So to summarize that, what you wanna do is you wanna try to find some shade. And when you find that shade, make sure that you're near some place where you can capture light. If there's no light, you're not going to be able to reflect much. And if you're using a reflector as the main source of the light on the face as you are here, get that reflector even to or above the face, but be careful to feather so that you're not having too contrasty of your light. And select silver if you need to throw more light, white if you want it to be a little bit more gentle. So in general, go to a location, analyze the scene. What do you have available to you. If you don't have a reflector or diffuser, no problem if you can find a large natural reflector, light hitting a neutral light source and bouncing off. If not, what else do you have? Direct sunlight, you can pop open a shoot-through umbrella, or find shade, find some sun, and kick some light back in with a reflector. Those are all really simple ways that each and every one of them will give you beautiful portrait light.

Class Materials

Bonus Materials with Purchase

Lighting on Location
Gear Guide

Ratings and Reviews


One of my favorite courses thus far on Creative Live, and definitely well worth the purchase price. Lindsay effectively demystifies many of the critical stumbling blocks to achieving a practical understanding of many critical elements of portrait photography. I would rate this course as being perfect for the advanced photographer - a couple of the concepts might be beyond that of a casual/intermediate photographer, but even they would probably gain a great deal from this course. Her discussion on equipment, in particular was superbly done, and allows one to move forward in beginning to make the right choices to achieve whatever effect one is after in terms of capturing the subject. Finally, the great thing about this course, and the thing which makes it such a great value, is the overall scope of what is being taught. Lindsay covers almost everything imaginable, and does it all in a manner which is enjoyable, and makes the time fly by. There were many, many times during the various days of this course during which Lindsay would share some particularly great tip or technique, and I would think "Insert bookmark here." I don't dole out praise easily (actually left a fairly scathing review on another course here recently) but this course has won me over. Highly, HIGHLY recommended. I'm definitely going to check out her other courses as well.

a Creativelive Student

This is Lindsay's best course to date and believe me, she has given us some good ones already on Creative Live. She hit this one out of the park! She was very well prepared and organized. I could tell that Lindsay put a lot of work into preparation for the class because she just kept giving us great information non stop. There was no down time or wasted moments. All future instructors on Creative Live should be encouraged to watch this course just to see what good instruction looks like. Lindsay has evolved over the past few years and just keeps getting better as time passes. Thank you Lindsay and thank you Creative Live for a job well done! Craig Banton


This class is one of the best investments I have made in my photography business. Lindsay is an excellent teacher. She is a seasoned, yet humble, professional. Unlike some other instructors I have seen on creative live, there isn’t a lot of fluff in her teaching. She sticks to the topics, gets all the information in, but still manages to engage and relate to the audience with real life examples of her own experiences in photography. I have been a professional photographer for several years, but have mostly stuck to natural light. This course gave me the confidence to tackle more advanced lighting setups and expand my capabilities as a photographer. I really appreciate that she doesn’t bash flat lighting, like other lighting videos I have tried to watch. Most portrait clients do not want photographs with dramatic lighting, they want to look their best, and I’m glad that she acknowledges this. This class gives you the information you need to create whatever photos you want to create.

Student Work