Learn the Secrets To Shooting And Processing Natural Light Portraits

by Hugh Brownstone1 Comment

Portrait photographer Jessica Drossin is GOOD. Her natural light portraits are amazing.

Her natural light portrait tutorial reminded me that great still photography can be just as much about post-production as film.

Yet it is both ironic (and I am grateful to her for sharing this fact with us) that rather than relying on manual focus for ultimate sharpness, she does the exact opposite – instead using a specific autofocus point on her Canon EOS 5D Mark III.

Makes me feel a little less anxious about my own eyesight.

And reminds us once again that while the gear is important, it’s what you do with the it that counts even more.

How To Shoot, Retouch, and Process Portraits With Natural Light by Jessica Drossin

I believe that the most important thing to consider as a photographer—and particularly a natural light photographer—is the quality of the light you will be shooting in. Understanding how to use light and shadow to your advantage is critical. Finding soft, even light is what I always strive for when I want to create a flattering portrait, as it helps to avoid having my subjects squinting, and it avoids the issue of “contrast-y”, harsh shadows falling on their face. I even prefer the SOOC (Straight Out of Camera) color tones when I’m working in softer light.

Whether you choose to shoot on an overcast afternoon, during the golden hour, the blue hour (if your camera’s ability to deal well with a higher ISO permits) or in open shade, finding flattering light is a must for portraiture work.

The second thing I consider when I shoot is what lens I will be using and what my settings will be. While great shots can be accomplished without an expensive professional camera and/or lens, having these tools help immeasurably because they allow you to carefully craft how you interpret your subject matter, including the depth of field, shutter speed, and how much visual information you wish to include in your shot. I use my Canon 85 mm 1.2 and 70-200 mm 2.8 lenses most often when I am outdoors have have ample space to work with.

Natural Light Portrait Shooting Process

I’m going to show you a few examples of what I’m talking about, demonstrating just how much natural light conditions matter. All these examples are shot at the same spot, using the same lens, at the same f-stop. The big difference (model aside) is the quality of available light.

The photo below is the SOOC jpeg image shot with my Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L lens, shot at 75 mm at f/2.8. This was taken about 45 minutes before sunset:

The Secrets To Shooting And Processing Natural Light Portraits

The model is facing South. A little of the soft Western light is softly shaping the highlights and shadows on her face.

To compare, below is a photo of my son (and unwilling model) standing in the approximate area, but taken at a different time of day—around 3:00 in Los Angeles, on a sunny day, approximately 3.5 hours before the Golden Hour:

The Secrets To Shooting And Processing Natural Light Portraits image 5

This is the SOOC jpeg, shot at the same 2.8 f-stop, but with a slightly different lens distance of 70 mm (instead of 75 mm). Obviously, this is not a perfect example because he is shorter, but hopefully you get a sense of just how much balanced, soft light helped to make this portrait more beautiful before ever doing any post processing.

See more samples and learn about the process in Jessica Drossin's article “The Secrets To Shooting And Processing Natural Light Portraits”

Note: it is our policy to give credit as well as deserved traffic to our news sources – so we don't repost the entire article – sorry, I know you want the juicy bits, but I feel it is only fair that their site get the traffic and besides, you just might make a new friend and find an advertiser that has something you've never seen before

Do you shoot mostly natural light portraits or do you use flash? Sound off in the comments!

(cover photo credit: snap from Jessica Drossin)


  1. I am new to photography and want to learn how to use my SLR camera to  become a pro photographer. Please let me know

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