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How I Got the Photo - Natural Light Portrait

edited photo of high school senior natural light portrait during golden hour in field of grass

Here is one of my favorite photos that I've taken as a professional photographer. The expression, the light, the setting, all of it.

The Set-Up

We were at the end of our session, making our way back to the parking lot to part ways. We had begun the session near this same location about an hour earlier. At the time, the sun was above the horizon, casting stronger shadows and harsher light. Fast-forward an hour and the sun was just barely dipping below the horizon. Talk about a difference in color, mood, and quality of light!

There's nothing too fancy about the setting. Columbus, Ohio has several free parks with huge expanses of grass, trees, and wild flowers. The late-October fall foliage gave us beautiful tall grass mixed with browns, oranges, and some remaining green. She's actually standing at the edge of a road in a small patch of grass between the meadow and the road.

My goal for golden hour is always to put my subject's back to the sun--the beautiful halo of light the glows in her hair and on her shoulders is always eye-catching. The softness in the light and shadows is thanks to the angle of the sun and the treeline--the sun is just dipping below the treeline behind her, so we're at maximum golden-softness.

Depending on the season, this quality of light doesn't last for long. We had maybe ten minutes of the light you see here.

As for the pose, her look is the result of our time together prior to the shot. We walked the park, trying out different poses and expressions to see what she liked best. At the beginning of the session, her hair was actually laying the opposite direction, but it looked a little flat. Early on, we tried flipping it like you see here--what volume and character!

And how about her smile? It's a little sly, a little playful. After an hour together, we had bonded enough to joke and play. For this shot, I had brought up a story from earlier, something her mother had mentioned, and it provided the perfect eyebrow lift and smile. We had also been playing with different smiles, and this "no-teeth" smirk really worked for her.

The attitude of the smile, the boldness of her hair, and that stare. Everything came together for this photo thanks to our work earlier in the session and our timing with the evening light.

Don't be afraid to change your model's look. You never know if something better will result from your experimentation. And watch your light! Perfect light can be fleeting. Balance your work with your model and your attention to what gift nature is giving you.

The Processing

RAW photo of high school senior natural light portrait during golden hour in field of grass

Above you'll see the RAW file. My settings were f/4.5, 1/200, ISO 640 with my Canon 6D and Canon 100mm f/2.8 Macro IS L lens. Compare that to the image at the beginning and you'll notice several important edits I made with Lightroom and Photoshop.

In Lightroom, I cropped the image closer, added contrast, increased the exposure 0.6 to make her skin brighter, and applied a local exposure adjustment to her face to bring it up that much more. I used a radial filter to create a custom vignette around my model. I used Photoshop to delete a few stray hairs--backlighting really brings out every last hair. Back in Lightroom, I used the opacity feature of the Spot Removal Tool to tone done the darkness under her eyes. I brought the opacity down some so that the Spot Removal Tool didn't completely delete the lines in her skin, but it would correct the shadows a bit.

Lastly, I added fake catchlights with contrast, saturation, and an exposure boost. With another photo like this, I would use a reflector or flash to create catchlights. The catchlights add life to a person's eyes, so I had to fake them in post. I've become a little obsessive with catchlights since creating this image, so do what you can to create natural, bright catchlights.

To Sum It Up

To really take advantage of golden hour's beautiful light, you have to be well-timed. Be ready to click the shutter at that perfect moment. Too early, and you might still have harshness, too late and you've lost your light. Like I said, I had ten minutes or so with this quality of light.

For a headshot, you don't need a picturesque setting from head to toe, so don't hesitate to stand on the side of a road or on a paved path. As long you position yourself and your model appropriately and use a long lens (my 100mm is perfect for headshots like this!), you'll get good results.

Make sure you find a way to create catchlights if they don't naturally occur. My model was staring into darker trees, so nothing was reflecting back into her eyes. I should've used a reflector or even a speedlight's bounce card.

With these tips and techniques in mind, you'll create amazing natural light portraits just like this one.


Aaron Taylor is a stay-at-home-dad and professional portrait and product photographer. Aaron is forever blessed to be in love and married to his best friend and partner in parenting. Most of his time is spent chasing his curious, energetic kids, a three-year-old son and one-year-old daughter. Aaron lives in Columbus, Ohio. Before moving to Columbus in the summer of 2016, Aaron was a high school English and Drama teacher in Montgomery County, Maryland. He spent ten years in the classroom and earned National Board Certification in English Language Arts. Give him his family, a good cup of coffee, and a homemade cookie or three, and all is right in Aaron’s world.

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