Natural vs. Artificial Lighting for Portraits

There are basically two kinds of lighting to consider for portraiture: natural and artificial. Considering the pros and cons, as well as requirements for different situations, will help you decide which kind to use.

natural light portrait

Photo captured by Keith Willette (Click Image to See More From Keith Willette)

Natural Lighting

Natural lighting, whether used outdoors or indoors through a window, is perhaps the easiest for beginners. Simply take your subject outside during the last couple of hours before sunset for a stunning quality that is unmatched by that of strobes. Or if you are inside, put your subject near a window during mid-morning. You’d be amazed at the beautiful results you can achieve using only natural light.

Going outside for a portrait session works great for babies and children. Just let them run around as you follow them with your camera. They will just think you are there to play and you’ll get expressions and compositions that would be hard to duplicate in a studio. You can also photograph children in their home, perhaps in their own room. This is ideal, because they will be relaxed and you’ll get lots of shots that show the child’s personality much easier than in a studio setting.

Bridal portraits are a great occasion for natural, outdoor light. The soft light from the last hour before sunset will flatter the bride’s skin tones. This is the perfect time to use halo or rim lighting, with the sunlight coming through the edges of the bride’s hair.

The disadvantages of using natural light is that you are at the mercy of the weather and are limited to only a few hours of the day to do portraits. The upside to this, though, is that you can charge more for this type of specialized service.

Artificial Lighting

Artificial lighting is a little more involved, and it will take some time to learn how to set it up and use it, but once you do learn, you can get some beautiful effects. Strobes are the standard type of lights to use for portraits, since continuous lights are too bright and hot for subjects, making it much harder to get great expressions from your subjects.

The great thing about using strobes is you can do a session no matter what the weather. Simply set up the lights indoors, day or night, and the lighting is exactly the same. You’ll have much more control over this type of lighting too. You can decide whether you want more or less light, a softer or more contrasty effect, and simply adjust it to fit your needs. Time is also not a problem with strobes, since the light stays the same no matter what time of day it is. You won’t be forced to wait for the perfect light, only to have it last but a few precious minutes.

Portraits of individuals, especially adults and older children are perfect for this type of lighting, since they are easy to instruct on where and how to pose. Family portraits also work well with strobes.

The disadvantages of artificial lighting are evident when you are photographing a young child who refuses to sit still. As often is the case, they have no desire to stay put while you capture their image for future generations and would much rather be playing with your equipment than sitting in front of it. This is why outdoor sessions are usually much easier with children and babies. Some photographers also do not like the quality of light strobes produce, preferring the softness of natural light. There can also be a lack of spontaneity because the subject must stay in the area where the lights are set up.

artificial light portrait

“in the gallery” captured by Jason Lavengood (Click Image to See More From Jason Lavengood)

Both natural and artificial lighting have their pros and cons, and which type you use will depend on the circumstances of each particular session. I suggest you try both types, experimenting with different techniques and various ages of people to photograph. Eventually, you’ll get a feel for what kind of lighting works best for you and your subjects.

About the Author
Angela Griffin is the founder of, and author of the course Marketing Magic for Children’s Portrait Photography. Angela invites you to stop by for free information on starting your own business, marketing it for success and lots of other resources for portrait photographers.

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2 responses to “Natural vs. Artificial Lighting for Portraits”

  1. if you are using natural light, you can often get a colour cast due the light colour temperature, so always do a custom white balance, I also do this if I shoot outside with strobe.

  2. Liam says:

    I always carry a diffuser (3x6foot) with me when shooting outdoors to soften direct sunlight.

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