Aug 262014

Natural Light Portraits

Anytime, anywhere

New York City, USA


Natural Light 1 © Adam Marelli

Natural Light 1 © Adam Marelli


Every morning, from the Scottish Highlands to the Cape of Good Hope, we are gifted with natural light from the sun.  From pole to pole, sunlight has a million faces.  It changes temperature and intensity like a moody king.  It is, without question, the cornerstone of photography and something that is best appreciated in tiny sips, rather than big gulps.

"The Light Inside" 1999.  Houston, Texas. ©  James Turrell

“The Light Inside” 1999. Houston, Texas. © James Turrell

Types of Light

American artist James Turrell is one of the few artists in history who works almost exclusively in light.  For almost forty years he has experimented, modeled, and shaped light for his installations.  While Turrell is not a photographer per se, he does have a tremendous command of the medium of light and offers photographers sound advice.

In a recent interview with the curator of his retrospective at the Guggenheim, Turrell says something that most people never consider.  There is no such thing as artificial light.  All light is the result of  something burning and giving off a temperature, an intensity and a level of measurable lumens.  From an LED diode to the sun…it’s all light.

"The Fighting Temeraire" by JMW Turner

“The Fighting Temeraire” by JMW Turner

This unifying view of light will help photographers uncover some of the mysteries that lie in the subject called “Natural Light.”  When we talk about natural light, it usually means that the light is not the product of something we plug in or can carry around.  It is the omnipresent glow that we refer to as daylight.  So why is a light that is available everyday, all over the world, so difficult to figure out?

"Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains" by Albert Bierstadt

“Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains” by Albert Bierstadt

Shadow Play

Last week, I was hosting a private One on One workshop for three days in New York City.  On our last day, I arranged for a model shoot.  While most people think model shoots are strictly for fashion photographers, keep in mind that almost every artist in the last 2,000 years tried their hand at portraiture.  It is a useful practice, even for the abstract artist.  Portraiture requires us to be sensitive to two things at the same time…the first is light and the second is our subject.  The better we get at juggling the two, the easier it becomes to spot good light on the street anywhere in the world.

Natural Light 2 © Adam Marelli

Natural Light 2 © Adam Marelli


  1. If you are not sure about your lighting, look at the shadows.  If the shadows are harsh, with strong lines and look more like black cardboard cutouts, the light is probably not good.
  2. If you want to see what great light looks like, the kind that fascinated Rembrandt, Vermeer, Turner, and Bierstadt…get up early in the morning, grab yourself a cup of coffee or tea and pick an object in front of you.  Watch the sun come up and wrap itself around that object.  You will be seeing light, and the delicate way it crawls across the surface of the earth.
  3. For shooting in the middle of the day, find an overhang…the light that comes in just under a roof ledge is perfect for portraits.
Natural Light 3 © Adam Marelli

Natural Light 3 © Adam Marelli


Photography is a fun member of the art family.  It is the only one where the tools get so much attention.  And while I like my camera as much as the next photographer, it’s worth remembering that without light, a camera is nothing more than a paperweight with a bunch of buttons.  So when the sun creeps up tomorrow morning, remember to look first and shoot second because without that big ol’lantern in the sky we would all be out of business.

Best-Adam Marelli 

Natural Light © Adam Marelli

Natural Light © Adam Marelli


  4 Responses to “Natural Light Portraits”

  1. Very nice article, but what about shooting before sunset, is it good as sunrise?

    • Emad,

      Sunrise and sunset each have their own quality. They are similar, but have a slightly different feel. Sunset tends to work better for portraits because waking up a model at 4:00am never goes well. They always look tired.


  2. would very much look forward to more insights in your articles on composition, color, texture, shapes and lighting from the perspective of famous paintings and street photographers as you have previously written before.

  3. great article, lighting is the element that can change a picture dramatically. We are spoiled these days with different tools to create exactly the light we want but I still prefer to use natural light.

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