4 Tips for Shooting Better Natural Light Portraits

_DSF0389Photographing portraits with off camera flash is awesome. Even with a single flash and a small soft box, you can bend, shape and wrangle the light in any number of ways to accentuate your subject matter and get some very cool results.

However, there’s something to be said for going fast and light with minimal gear. You can move more much more quickly and grab moments that you’d otherwise miss if you had to worry about trying to set up your equipment, do test shots, and fiddle the buttons on your flash.

The reality is that we often find ourselves out in the world with only a camera around our necks and no flash gear. It’s important to know how to create compelling portraits using natural light so that you don’t have to rely on a flash in order to get great shots of people. Here are three very simple tips that you can try the next time you’re out.

1. Shoot at Sunset

Portrait of Megan ChelfThis is an easy one. Nothing is going to make your portraits look more compelling than if you shoot in great light. As viewers, we’re so drawn to the magical warm glow of sunset light. Of course, you can get great shots at sunrise too, but you may have a harder time getting you models to meet you at 6:00 AM than at 6:00 PM.

Also, vary the angle at which the sun lights up your subject. At the very least, it should be hitting them from side, but experiment and try to move it further around to the back, until it’s creating a halo effect. In this case, it becomes more accent than direct illumination, and depending on your ambient light, you may be able to get by without any fill on your model’s face. If it’s not working, then rotate your subject just enough to bring it back.

portrait of an Alaska snow biker

2. Shoot in Overcast Light

_DSF0389Normally, midday is a terrible time for trying to create good portraits. If the sun is directly overhead, you’ll be faced with strong shadows and unflattering light. However, if you’ve got full cloud cover, you don’t have all those shadows do deal with, and you won’t be fighting squinting models, hot spots and blown out highlights on foreheads and noses.

Overcast light is soft and dreamy and it’s perfect for shooting close up. A couple things to keep in mind, though. Heavy clouds can make the ambient light considerably darker, so you’ll probably want to break out your fast glass. I shot this photo at 1/1,000 @ f/1.8 with my Fuji XF 56mm f/1.2 lens which is has an ideal focal length for shooting portraits with delicious out of focus backgrounds. The full frame equivalent for a lens like this would be an 85mm, although I also love the 100-105mm range.

Also, remember that overcast light has a blue cast, so you’ll want to adjust the white balance a little bit in post to warm up any shots you capture under the clouds.

3. Search Out Dramatic Light

Portrait of Jim Kohl

As photographers, we’re always searching for the most dramatic light. That’s pretty much our job, right? Often times, we find it at Magic Hour, but that’s not the only place it lives. If you look hard enough, you can find dramatic light in the most unexpected places, like inside a dark roadside bar next to a window, like in this shot above.

Of course, you may not always know where to look, so that’s why you should always have a camera with you. That’s when compact cameras are great. They’re easy to carry, and they offer way more features than your mobile phone. I shot this with my Fuji X10, which I had slung around my neck in case an opportunity like this presented itself.

4. Don’t Be Afraid to Add Some Style

MBK-AK-01368Sometimes it helps to add a little bit of style. If I’ve got a good subject but I don’t have great light, I’ll shoot in one of the film simulation modes like black and white, or even set up one of the other creative modes like miniature, toy camera or sepia. I don’t see this as cheating, I see it as using some of the tools that the camera gives you in order to pull off a compelling shot.

Remember, photographs are art, and you can make your art look any way you want to. Nobody says it has to be a certain way, or that you have to follow specific rules, and if they do tell you that, you probably shouldn’t listen to them. You don’t even have to listen to me.

In the end, do what makes you happy with your photography and make images that excite YOU the most. If that means using fun modes, then no one has any business judging you. If you’ve got any tips for shooting better portraits, feel free to share them in the comment section.

Chet Harris and his Maule

Fuji X Camera Survives 3 Months Out in the Elements, and a Bear Attack!


This camera survived 3 months of rain, snow and hail… and a bear attack!

One of my readers just shared an amazing story with me that I had to pass along. Back in early July, Claire was hiking in Colorado and lost her Fuji X20 somewhere on the trail. She didn’t elaborate on how this happened, but being someone who occasionally sets things down, gets distracted and then forgets them, I can relate. I lost a Nikon 50mm lens this way one time.

Hours of searching failed to locate the camera, and so she sadly wrote it off as gone forever. You can imagine what a bummer this would be.

Well, this past weekend, Claire found herself on the trail again and, low and behold, there it was! It definitely looked a little beat up; it had animal bite marks on it (probably bear) and it had endured rain, hail, and even snow over 3 months it was near the trail.

And guess what? It still works! The LCD screen was fogged, and the battery was dead, but it recharged and everything on the camera works just fine. Bringing the camera inside and leaving the SD card door open for awhile made the fog go away.

I’ve used my X20 in a variety of extreme conditions, and although it’s not touted as being weather sealed, it’s a tough little camera indeed. I’ve gotten mine pretty wet and I’ve certainly banged it around enough, but that’s kids play compared to leaving it outside in the elements for an entire season…

…Or having it chewed on by a bear! Here’s the story in her own words.


“I found the x20 close to the tree pictured in the two trail cam photos. This trail is a bear superhighway, with at least 30 bears passing the spot where the camera was lying over the course of the summer (and maybe 3 people all summer long).”

“I suspect that the bite marks happened when a bear tried to carry it. Bears are fascinated with anything that has human scent. In one of the trail cam photos, the bear is just about to give the trail camera a very close inspection, including licking and sniffing. My best guess is that the x20 got similar bear treatment.”

“The 2nd bear photo is of a bear marking the tree that my trail camera is aimed at. That tree is the reason for all the bear traffic in the area. It was the tail end of bear mating season when that poor tree gets marked a couple of times per day.”


In my mind, this is an amazing testament to just how well the Fuji X cameras are built. I’ve long thought that the X10/20/30 series are the best all around compact cameras, especially for the price. If you’ve ever worried that they’re not tough enough for use in the outdoors, let this dispel any such notion. Clearly they’re quite weatherproof. Thanks so much for sharing, Claire!!

The Fuij X30 has now replaced the X20, but it’s built on a very similar chassis and has all the features of the X20, plus a few more. The optical viewfinder has been replaced with a newly designed EVF, battery life has been improved, it has a tilt screen and WiFi that enables you to remotely shoot and share images from your smartphone or tablet.

Check out Claire’s blog, romp-roll-rockies.blogspot.com and see more of her photos, as well as more wild animal trail shots! They’re way cool! Bears, mountain lions, etc…

Another one of my followers just bought an X30 and loves it. Check out what William Snyder did with it on his first day with the camera.

What Kind of Alaska Photo Workshop Would Interest You?

Learn Photography Online with the Pros

Kichatna Spires, Alaska

I’m starting to put together my Alaska Photo Treks photography workshop schedule for 2015 and wanted to get your input. There are so many amazing things to photograph up here, and I figure if you’re going to consider coming all the way up to Alaska to learn photography from me, it only makes sense to build workshops around the subjects YOU want to shoot.

With this in mind, I’ve created a poll so that you can let me know what kind of instructional photo experience you feel would be ideal. I want you to tell me what kind of workshop or photo tour would interest you the most- Brown bears? Landscapes and glaciers? Aerial photography? Action/Adventure? In-depth in one location or a mix of settings over the course of a few days?

If an Alaska photo workshop or photo tour with me is something you’d seriously consider for next year, then please take the time to answer this poll, keeping in mind the realities of your budget and your time frame. I want this to be an accurate poll, not just a wish list, so give me honest answers. You can choose more than one option if there are areas of multiple interest, but again, think about the type of trip that would MOST likely get you up here. In essence, what are your dream Alaska shots? What do you REALLY want to learn from me?

I’ve already got some awesome ideas for remote locations and awe inspiring subject matter for next year’s trips, but I’ll definitely use this info so that I can dial them to your preferences. I’d love to see you join me on one of them, so thanks in advance for your input.

What Type of Alaska Photography Workshop Would Interest You The Most?

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Also, if you sign up for my newsletter over there on the top of the sidebar, you’ll be the first to know when my workshop schedule is finalized, and you’ll have first crack at signing up before the schedule goes public.


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