5 Tips for Capturing those Studio-Quality Holiday Portraits using Natural Light

Photo:  Shamim Nakhai

Let’s talk about using natural light to capture those high-quality portraits. Now that the holidays are here, families are scrambling to get that one large group shot or studio portraits of their kids. There’s been a lot of talk recently about portrait mode on our smart phones. In particular, photographers and tech enthusiasts like to compare Google Pixel’s portrait mode and the new iPhone’s portrait mode. But DSLR cameras are still the best when it comes to taking studio-quality portraits because they are more nuanced. With a DSLR, photographers can make several minor adjustments to their settings that will amplify any portrait and outdo any smartphone technology currently on the market.

Whether you hire a photographer to capture your family photos or you take the photos yourself, consider these five super simple tips to replicate those studio-quality portraits.

1. The background blur that makes your subject pop off the screen:

The thing that makes a portrait a portrait is the bokeh effect, that blurred background that makes the foreground pop. That is essentially all your smartphone technology is doing when it is turned to portrait mode. It is blurring the background in order to draw focus to the subject in front. To replicate that blurred background using a DSLR, open your aperture as wide as it will go. On most cameras, this may be f/2.8- f/5.6. This creates that shallow depth of field. Turn your camera to aperture priority mode so that the user sets the aperture and the DSLR will find the natural settings that compliment the wide-angle.

2. Consider your background:

Even people who don’t necessarily have an eye for photography can usually tell that simple backgrounds with fewer distractions are best when taking portraits. But there are certain backgrounds that can make your portrait even more compelling than the generic grey sponge screen seen in most professional head shots. Especially in the winter when the weather isn’t necessarily predictable, indoor shoots that offer ample natural light are a great place for portraits. When considering your background, look for a space with clean, repetitive lines such as brick walls or wooden floor beams. Because you are going to blur the background, recognizable objects that add splashes of character are also great for portraits. Christmas tress with lights, a popular neon sign from a local establishment or a recognizable outdoor park will help set the
mood for your holiday portraits.

Photo:  Brooke Cagle

3. How to use natural light to your advantage:

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that natural light creates the most natural-looking portraits. The only problem with shooting in natural light is that skin can sometimes offset your camera’s white balance. This can be fixed with Exposure Compensation controls. To lighten faces, dial your Exposure Compensation to +1. You can increase this if faces need to be lightened further. Here are six more adjustments for creating that ideal natural light portrait.

4. The one perfect tool:

If you want to keep the operation simple and streamlined, consider just one tool: the reflector. You can buy a reflector or make one yourself. The reflector allows you to quickly fill in shadows around a subject’s face by bouncing natural light (likely window light) back towards them. Here’s an easy tutorial on how to DIY a reflector.

5. Posing for portraits:

Intuitively you’re aware that poses have a drastic affect on your portraits. Something very simple to consider is having your subject shift their weight. Often something as simple as shifting weight to another foot can dramatically alter the look of your subject. Other minor adjustments that have a major impact on the quality of your photo are shooting down on a subject to minimize neck lines or imperfections, shooting slightly up on a subject to make them appear taller and pulling a foot forward to create an S shape in your subject’s body. Here’s a more detailed list of head tilts and hand adjustments that will help you take the best family portraits.