Natural light headshots photography overview

Photographing natural light headshots can be one of the more challenging styles of professional headshot photography but also the most enjoyable creatively in terms of what can be achieved for pretty much zero cost.

There are a few things to consider consider i.e the direction, luminosity and temperature of the light as well as weather factors like wind and rain and if you’re a busy photographer shooting outside it’s essential to find ways to work with each of these factors.

I started shooting with clients outside around 2006 after people started wanting colour headshots. At the time, I was disappointed with the limited results I was achieving with my lounge room/studio, which was setup for black and white portraits.

I went in search of some places to shoot, starting with the side entrance to my apartment and slowly expanding out of my comfort zone into the surrounding areas of the neighbourhood.

To be honest, it took me a few years to feel like I had a handle on the techniques, but clients were very happy and I kept getting work. This helped me continue to improve and as I got a feel for what worked in terms of the light I started to trust the results more and more. From here, the work started to flood in and I just knew I was onto something really special. Fast forward to today and it is used by many headshot photographers, in truth some do it very well and others not so well.

I thought it might be useful to jot down how I use it as a starting point for anyone looking to explore it for themselves. It should hopefully give you an idea as to where to start and what to look out for, as well as common mistakes to avoid.

I way to clearly remember a demoralising moment while on one of my first forays outside. I was taking shots for a friend outside using natural light when a stranger approached us and told me in no uncertain terms that the light I was using was terrible and I clearly did not know what I was doing. Brutal! Anyway I got through the shoot, persisted, learned and have stayed in the game long enough to build my entire portfolio on shooting using natural light so don’t get discouraged. You have to start somewhere and it takes time to master your craft!

Lens and Aperture selection

As a general rule you will want to start with a dedicated portrait lens with good quality glass and the ability to shoot at wide apertures, i.e. as low as F2.8. I use an 85mm Nikon 1.8d, which retails for about $500 and is huge bang for buck when wanting a great quality low(ish) cost lens.

Although shooting wide open at F1.8 (or even 1.4 or 1.2 if if you have a lens that can do it) is creatively exciting and looks very filmic, a safer bet is to shoot at around F2.8 as this will still allow you to get both eyes sharp, especially if you nail your focus points. It will also give you lovely soft backgrounds and a filmic look through shallow depth of field.

A few pointers on how to use the light:

  • You want directional light for best results
  • Try alleyways, under bridges or somewhere where there are structures present to shape the light.
  • Add some fill via a reflector, small battery powered light or speed light
  • Don’t overdo the lighting as it will dilute the ambient light.

One of the best additions to our kit was a good quality gold/silver reflector from Profoto and it was not cheap but offers a beautiful  quality light and creates nice catchlights. Lastolite also have options available that work well.

Julian Dolman and client

What if it’s rainy and windy? 

This is challenging and you have to be prepared to work with it and not against it. With any luck you have clients who are relaxed enough to persist through the conditions, rather than head back inside to shoot, as the results you can get are breathtaking.

Try to find some cover from really intense wind so you can look after the hair and protect the clients eyes as well. Wait for breaks in the wind and there is usually a cycle, allowing you to find its pattern and work between the gusts. Most importantly keep your client happy and having fun. Tell them you’ve got your best shots in conditions just like the one’s you’re in, crack some jokes and just come across relaxed and in control. If you seem stressed they will likely pick up on it!

Below are a few shots taken in challenging conditions.

Colour grading professional headshots

The temperature of light is always shifting throughout the day and different times of year and getting consistency is the end goal. Trying to understand a little about what is affecting the light is helpful, i.e. the colours around your shoot location, time of the day and the colour of the clothing the client is wearing.

Shooting with a grey card so you can balance things out in post production is a very good place to start.

I usually opt to shoot in 1 set white balance mode all the time (flash or shady setting works best for the look I like), then once I am back in capture one I can finetune as needed.

photo editing

How much should you shoot?

I reckon most photographers will be guilty of overshooting sometimes, I know I am!

When I am on a shoot there’s something special when you know you’ve just taken a great headshot and  one that truly stands out.

Sometimes it presents easily and quickly and other times you have to work harder for it and it means you will take more frames than you usually would, I’d rather shoot more and get the shot than be scared to overshoot.

Sometimes the light might be shifting around and you just want to shoot through it and hope it works out but this can often be a mistake. If you are just shooting something that isn’t working then you more than likely still won’t get a great shot however, if you are onto something that is working taking a bunch of frames can make sure you get a really perfect moment captured.

Taking great headshots doesn’t have to mean taking thousands of frames. It just gets down to observing the conditions and going for it when you like whats happening.

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