7 tips for shooting head-shots using natural light

By June 22, 2015 June 22nd, 2020 No Comments

Most DSLR users, especially who are just starting out wouldn’t have the extra cash to invest in great lights. Thus, more out of forced necessity, they would need to have to learn how to shoot great images using nothing but their camera and natural light. Obviously, when I write it this way it may seem that pros would only shoot with artificial light, because they can afford to buy fancy lights. But that is not always the case. There are plenty of professional photographers who shoot mainly with natural light. In any case, a vast majority of your photography is done outdoors. Whether it is natural light portraits, landscape, flower photography, it is helpful to understand the basics of shooting with natural light for improving your overall photography skills. In this article we shall focus primarily on the subject of shooting natural light head-shots.

1. Understanding the nature of light

The first thing that you should know, starting out as a natural light photographer, is the nature of light itself. Natural light can be as inclement as the weather itself. It keeps changing, playing havoc with your white balance and exposure settings and you really can’t do much about it, except may be work around it. Morning light is a bit softer. Mid-day light is harsh. Again, if you plan to shoot sometime in the late afternoon, depending on the latitude you are shooting at, expect a warm yellowish light. This time of the day is also known as golden hour because of the tone of the light. Knowing the nature of light will allow you to plan the timing of the shoot accordingly. Nevertheless, natural light photography is a challenge and like every other obstacle in photography it requires a unique approach.

2. Being prepared

Since you can’t pack such as speedlights or strobes are out of the list straightaway. The first thing that you need is a diffuser. A diffuser will reduce the intensity of the light and create a softer light source ideal for head-shot and portrait type photography. The reason why you should prefer a softer light source against more harsher light is because harsh light will create intense shadows around the eyes, below the nose (depending on the time of the day you shooting and the angle of the Sun from the horizon), around the neckline and also enhance any imperfections of the skin. Softer light is conducive to professional head-shots, skin imperfections are cancelled out and so are deep shadows.
The next thing that you need is a reasonably fast lens. The 70-200mm is a great portrait lens. Some photographers prefer the 135mm while others prefer the 105mm. Pick whatever gives you the best results. Using a 70-200mm lens allows you to cover the essential length range for portraits and head-shots. You really don’t need a fancy lens such as an f/1.8 or even an f/1.4. Even at f/2.8 you will get great Bokeh for your head-shots. Having said that, the Nikkor 135mm f/2 DC is a personal favourite. It’s built like a tank and creates beautiful images. A comparable lens is the 105mm f/2 DC, also from Nikon.

3. Pose and mood

There are some things that are beyond the concepts of technology, lighting or post-processing. The right pose and the right mood are both important to making good head-shot photos. Knowing the purpose of the images beforehand will allow you to finalise the pose and then convey that to the model at the time of the shoot. Often your model will be your client (professional head-shots) and in those cases you need to sit down before the shoot and understand what the client wants to convey through the images. Needless to say, head-shots for the directors of a multinational business wouldn’t necessarily justify applying the same pose and mood which you would use when shooting head-shots of an up and coming band.

Either way a head-shot wouldn’t allow your model to do too much with their body. Invariably, the focus should be the eyes of the subject. This is all they can use. To some extent the angle at which they look at the camera and their look is all the creative freedom that you have at your disposal. May be the use of the background is yet another aspect that you could. We shall discuss it shortly.

4. Talk to your model

Not all your models will be professional. Some of them will be complete newbies. Eg. your clients needing professional head-shots for their businesses will have little clue as to what is a good pose. This is where you need to bring your experience into play and guide them through. A nervous model will usually result in unnatural poses and lifeless eyes. Both are unacceptable. Often professional photographers speak to their models before and during a shoot to make them feel more comfortable in front of the camera. You could discuss about anything that takes the attention of the model away from the shoot and brings out their natural self. Usually when you do this the next few shots turn out better than the first ones.

5. The camera settings

The all important thing about camera settings. Shooting outdoors at different times of the day requires different camera settings. Take a test shot at the very beginning to check the metered exposure values. If you are not using any artificial light, balancing the exposure to have both the subject and the background to be properly lit can be an issue. Invariably, either your background will be brighter or your subject. To counter this problem you could use auto-exposure balancing technique to take two exposures of the scene. One of the exposures would be metered for the subject and the other one for the background. Later, the two exposures can be combined in Photoshop to create a single image. The other option is to use a reflector to throw some light back on to the subject’s face while metering for the background.

There is no standard camera settings. Aperture can be anywhere between f/2.8 to f/5.6, depending on the light and whether or not you wish to use the background. ISO number should be ideally between 100 and 200. Shutter speed depends on the ISO and aperture value and should be between 200 and 400. Again, these are only indicative. You are free to experiment and use whatever settings you feel works for you.

6. Get the catchlight

Essentially, catchlight is the reflection of the main light source in the image on the eyes of the model. Shooting in natural light means the sun is the primary source of the catchlight. But that means your model has to look straight towards the sun, that’s unacceptable. Instead use a reflector to work as the catchlight and at the same time throw some light back on to the scene.

7. Background

Using the background allows you to create a sense of space in the photo. It also allows you to show a client’s work environment, which is a requirement at times. Alternatively, if the background is distracting you can eliminate it by using a small f-stop to blur it out.

Rajib Mukherjee – Shoot The Frame

Photographer – Glynn Lavender

Shoot The Frame

Author Shoot The Frame

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