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From Sunrise to Sunset: Natural Light Portrait Photography Guide

Natural light portrait photography requires a good understanding of how the light works and how to utilize it to your advantage at different times of the day.

In this blog post, I’ll share my best recommendations and actionable tips for capturing beautiful natural light portraits at sunrise, midday, and sunset.

Additionally, I will share my personal camera settings that are best suited for each of the three daily light situations.

Without further ado, let’s get started!

Shooting Natural Light Portraits at Sunrise

Natural light portrait taken during sunrise

The golden hour of sunrise is one of the best times to capture natural light portraits. 

This is because the light that comes from the sun at sunrise is very soft, diffused, and has warm color tones.

However, natural light portrait photography during sunrise can be tricky because of the very limited time interval and rapidly changing light conditions.

My Lightroom Editing Process

A step-by-step video tutorial (25 minutes) showing how I edit my photos in Lightroom

The Best Camera Settings for Sunrise Portrait Photography

Camera settings

The best camera settings for portrait photography at sunrise will depend on the specific lighting conditions and the look you’re trying to achieve, but here are some general guidelines to get you started:

  • Aperture: Use a wide aperture (low f-stop number) like f/1.8, f/2, or f/2.8 to create a shallow depth of field and blur the background behind your subject. This will help to separate your subject from the background and make them “pop”. However, if you are taking the photo in a beautiful location and you’d like to capture the details of the surrounding, increase your f-stop to about f/5.6 or higher depending on how much of the background you want to include.
  • ISO: Keep your base ISO as low as possible (e.g. 100) to minimize the noise in the image. I recommend setting ISO to 100 and do further exposure adjustments using only your shutter speed and aperture.
  • Shutter speed: I recommend setting your shutter speed at 1/125s or faster to prevent any potential blur in your photos, especially if you are taking photos handheld and your subject is moving.

Pro tip: when shooting manually, don’t try to adjust all three settings (Aperture, Shutter Speed, and ISO) together. Decide on at least one of the settings and just don’t adjust it any further. For instance, set your ISO settings to 100 and keep it constant.

The above camera settings should be used as a starting point. Play around with your camera settings to find what works best for you.

5 Essential Tips for Capturing Beautiful Portraits at Sunrise

1. Plan Ahead of the Photo Shoot

I would highly recommend you search for the shooting locations in advance and make a note of where the sun will be rising from in relation to your desired photo composition.

This will help you choose the best subject position in relation to the sun for optimal lighting of your subject.

PRO TIP: Use Sun Surveyor App to track the sun’s position, path, and shadows. This handy app will also tell you the exact time of the sunrise, sunset, blue hour, and golden hour. This app features a Live View allowing you to overlay the sun’s path to your camera view, which is incredibly useful to quickly figure out the exact direction of the sun during the day.

2. Be Early

Arrive at your chosen location at least 30 minutes before sunrise to set your camera up, prepare your model for the photo shoot and do a few test shots. You don’t want to miss the opportunity of capturing beautiful sunrise portraits just because you forgot something in your car or some other last-minute obstacles.

3. Experiment With Backlighting

Backlighting is a method of positioning your subject in front of the light source (in front of the sun). This way you can achieve a beautiful rim of light around the subject and create a beautiful look in your portraits.

Sunset backlight portrait photography with natural light
Portrait of my son that I took using sun as the backlight

When experimenting with backlighting during sunrise portrait photography, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Correct your exposure – Since the light is coming from behind the subject, there’s a chance that your camera’s exposure meter may underexpose your photo (it may turn out too dark). That is why, when taking portraits using a backlighting technique it is highly advised to use exposure compensation or manually expose the image to achieve the desired effect.
  • Be aware of the lens flare – When shooting directly into the light source (in this case sun), be mindful of the lens flare.

PRO TIP: When you use the sun as a backlight, make sure to position your subject so that the sun is actually in the frame. If you will block the sun with a model’s head, it will create a nice glow in the model’s hair, but the model’s face will be in a complete shadow and you won’t be able to achieve that flattering and dreamy look.

4. Take a Reflector

I would highly recommend you get a collapsable reflector that you can just throw in your backpack and take with you on your photo shoots. Having a reflector can be very handy in situations where there’s just not enough light on your subject’s face.

Reflector for portrait photography

Simply place the reflector on the opposite side of the subject from the sun and experiment with different angles to bounce back the light from the sun onto your subject.

If you are reading this article, chances are that you are shooting portraits without an assistant (like myself), therefore you might be wondering how can you operate a reflector without an assistant.

Good question! Actually, there are ways to operate a reflector without an assistant for portrait photography.

  • You can hold a reflector in one hand and shoot portraits with another hand. There are smaller-sized reflectors that come with a dedicated handle to make it easy for you to hold the reflector while you take photos.
  • You can lean your reflector against some object, such as a tree or rock, wall, or street lamp, and adjust the reflector accordingly.
  • You can purchase a light stand with a mounting bracket for the reflector which will allow you to set it up and adjust its angle without having to hold it in your hand.

5. Use Your Lens Hood

A lens hood is an attachment that attaches to the front of your lens and its purpose is to block unwanted light from entering the lens. Lens hoods can be particularly useful in reducing lens flair (unwanted artifacts, such as circles and streaks in your photos). Lens hoods normally come with the lens, so you don’t need to buy them separately. 

Shooting with lens hood on camera lens

Shooting Natural Light Portraits at Midday

Shooting natural light portraits at midday can be tricky. This is because of the harsh and direct sunlight that creates harsh shadows and causes squinting in your subject’s eyes.

Below are the best camera settings and three actionable tips to help you capture stunning natural light portraits during midday.

The Best Camera Settings for Midday Portrait Photography

The best camera settings for portrait photography at midday depend on the lighting conditions and the style of the photo that you are trying to achieve.

Below are some general guidelines to give you a better understanding of the camera settings for midday portrait photography.

  • Aperture: If you’d like to blur out the background behind your subject, use a wide aperture (low f-stop number), such as f/2 or f/2.8. However, if the background behind your subject is interesting and you’d like to capture it, increase your aperture (f-stop number) to f/5.6 or higher. Sidenote: if you want to use a wide aperture (low f-stop number, such as f/2.0), then you’ll need to use a very high shutter speed to control the exposure of your shot. Don’t be afraid to use high shutter speeds, such as 1/1600s or even higher to kill off an excessive amount of light entering your camera. When it comes to portrait photography, I typically set my ISO and Aperture levels and adjust the exposure by controlling the shutter speed.
  • ISO: Keep your base ISO as low as possible (e.g. 100) to minimize the noise in the image. I recommend setting your ISO to 100 (or whatever your camera’s base ISO is) and leaving it untouched for the entire photo shoot. By doing it this way, you’ll have to think about fewer things when setting the exposure of your camera.
  • Shutter speed: Depending on the lighting conditions and your chosen Aperture settings, you may need to use a much higher shutter speed during the midday than you would normally use. For example, if you’ve decided to use a wide Aperture (low f-stop number, such as f/2.0), and your ISO is set to 100, and the lighting conditions are bright, you’ll most likely need to bump up your shutter speed to something like 1/2500s or even higher. Below is an image that I took in Spain during the midday with a lot of harsh light and I used a shutter speed of 1/2000s to take this photo.
Portrait of my wife Alina that I took during midday with a lot of harsh light
Portrait of my wife Alina that I took during midday. Camera settings: ISO 250, f/5.6, 1/2000s

Note: The above camera settings should be used as a starting point. Play around with your camera settings to find the sweet spot.

3 Essential Tips for Capturing Beautiful Portraits During Midday

1. Look for a Shade

At midday, when the sun is extremely harsh, you can search for shaded areas, such as shade of a building, or shade under a tree

Portrait photography during midday taken in shadow from the bushes
I shot both of these portraits in the shade of some shrubbery during peak daylight hours

The light in the shaded area will be softer and much more diffused, which in turn will eliminate harsh shadows on your model’s face and will allow you to create a much more natural-looking portrait. 

2. Use Reflector & Diffuser

As mentioned previously, I highly recommend you get a collapsable reflector that you can carry with you and use to bounce back the light onto your model’s face to fill in the shadows.

White reflectors are great for creating a natural-looking fill light, while gold reflectors can add a warm tone to the image. Remember, you don’t need to buy white, gold, and silver reflector separately, you can get 3-in-1 or even 5-in-1 reflectors that will have all of these reflective surfaces.

The reflector should be close enough to the subject to provide sufficient fill light, but not too close that it creates undesired reflections or hotspots in the image.

PRO TIP: If your model is wearing sunglasses and you are using a reflector, make sure that your reflector is positioned in a way so that it won’t be visible in your model’s sunglasses. However, even if you’ve taken a shot and you can see the reflection of your reflector in your model’s sunglasses, you can always use a spot-healing tool in Photoshop to remove it.

Try to experiment with different positions and angles with reflector to find optimal lighting for your subject. Remember, to move your reflector up and down as it can change the way the light falls on your subject’s face quite significantly. 

When the sunlight is too harsh and the subject has intense squinting eyes try using a translucent reflector. This will diffuse the light while keeping the skin tones looking natural and avoiding eyes squinting.

3. Position the Subject Correctly

During midday, when the sun is high in the sky, the light falls directly on the subject’s face creating a lot of contrast, and intense shadows. 

Portrait taken during middy with a lot of harsh shadows
Notice the hard shadows around the eyes

By positioning the subject in such a way that they are not facing the sun directly, you can reduce harsh shadows on your subject’s face and avoid squinting in the eyes. 

This can be achieved by having the subject face towards the shade or by having them face at an angle towards the light, so the light is coming in from the side rather than directly on their face.

PRO TIP: If you need to shoot your subject during midday facing the harsh light from the sun, ask them to close their eyes and open them on the count of 1, 2 and 3 to get a portrait photo without squinting in the eyes. Another way of avoiding squinting in the eyes is to ask your model to look down while shooting in direct sunlight.

Shooting Natural Light Portraits at Sunset

Taking beautiful natural light portraits at sunset can be a great way to create stunning portraits with warm, golden tones. 

Natural light portrait photography at Sunset

Below are the best camera settings and three actionable tips to help you capture stunning natural light portraits during sunset.

The Best Camera Settings for Capturing Portraits During Sunset

The best camera settings for natural light portrait photography during sunset depend on the lighting conditions and the style of the photo that you are trying to achieve. 

Here are some general guidelines to give you a better understanding of the camera settings for sunset portrait photography.

  • Aperture: The first thing you need to decide is whether you’d like to blur out the background behind your subject, or not. If you’re looking to make your subject stand out from the background, then you’ll need to use a wide Aperture (lower f-stop number, such as f/1.8 or f/2.0). However, if you’d like to show the details of the background behind your subject, you’ll need to use a narrower Apperture (higher f-stop number, such as f/5.6 or higher). You must also take into consideration that if you are planning to use a higher Apperture number, you will most likely need to increase your ISO number, which in turn could add noise to your photo (more on that later). Personally, I tend to use a wider Aperture (lower f-stop number, e.g. f/2.0) when I shoot natural light portraits during sunset.
  • ISO: Your ISO settings will depend on your chosen Aperture settings. Let me explain, say you want to have a portrait with a blurred background behind your subject. This means that you’ll need to use a wide Apperture (low f-stop number, such as f/2.0). This also means that a lot of light will be entering your camera sensor, which in turn means that you can use a lower number for your ISO settings, such as ISO 100. On the other hand, if you’d like to show the details of the background behind your subject, you’ll need to increase your Aperture (f-stop number) to around f/5.6 or higher. With a higher Aperture, less light will be entering your camera’s sensor, meaning that you’ll need to bump up your ISO to expose your photo properly.
  • Shutter Speed: I recommend setting your shutter speed to around 1/125s during sunset portrait photography. If you are shooting handheld (without a tripod) or if your subject is moving, avoid setting your shutter speed below 1/100s because a lower shutter speed may lead to blurred and unfocused photos.

Please note, the above camera settings for portrait photography at sunset should be used only as a reference and not as strict rules. The best way to figure out the best camera settings for your photos is to experiment with different combinations and see what works best for you.

3 Tips for Capturing Beautiful Portraits During Sunset

1. Use the Warm, Golden Light to Your Advantage

The warm, golden tones of the setting sun can create a soft and flattering light for your portrait photos.

Position the subject so that the sun is behind them or to the side, creating a rim light or backlight effect. This will cast a golden glow on the subject’s skin and add a beautiful, natural-looking light to the image.

Natural light portraits with sun at the back

2. Experiment With Poses and Angles

I can’t stress enough how important it is to move around and take portrait photos from different distances and different angles.

Don’t just stand in one place and use your zoom lens to zoom in and zoom out, try to physically move and talk to your subject to find an optimal position with the best lighting on your subject’s face.

Sidenote: I am currently using FUJIFILM x100v which has a fixed 35mm lens. This means that if I want to zoom in or zoom out, I need to physically move. Some people perceive it as a disadvantage, however, I find that it is actually a huge advantage as it forces me to move around and experiment with my photo compositions.

3. Pay Attention to the Color Temperature

The color of the light changes significantly at sunset so it’s important to adjust your white balance accordingly – usually towards the warmer end of the spectrum. This will help you to capture the true colors of the scene and ensure that your whites look natural in the final image.

To Sum Up

Natural light portrait photography is a great way to capture beautiful portraits without the need for complicated lighting setups.

By understanding and experimenting with the quality of natural light at different times of day, you can create stunning portraits.

From soft, golden tones of sunset to dramatic shadows cast by the midday sun – make sure you use these tips to capture the perfect portrait shot!

As always, if you have any questions, or you feel like I’ve missed something in this post, feel free to email me at: hi [at] ohmycamera.com.

P.S. Don’t forget to subscribe to my email newsletter where I share photography tips, photography gear reviews, photography tutorials, and more.

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Aleksandrs Karevs OHMYCAMERA Founder & Author

Hi, my name is Aleksandr and I am a full-stack digital marketer from Riga, Latvia. In 2018 I became obsessed with photography and decided to create this blog to share my knowledge about both photography and marketing. In my free time, I enjoy taking photos with my everyday companion – FUJIFILM X100V.

Aleksandrs Karevs OHMYCAMERA Founder & Author

Hi, my name is Aleksandr and I am a full-stack digital marketer from Riga, Latvia. In 2018 I became obsessed with photography and decided to create this blog to share my knowledge about both photography and marketing. In my free time, I enjoy taking photos with my everyday companion – FUJIFILM X100V.

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Disclosure: OHMYCAMERA.com is a participant in several affiliate programs and may be compensated for referring traffic and business to companies from affiliate programs at no additional cost to you.