We’ve teamed up with Adorama to bring you a series of photography tutorials called “Master Your Craft” to be featured on their YouTube Channel. Subscribe to see more of our videos on their channel that cover photography, lighting, posing, and editing education to help you hone your skills and master your craft. To watch the entire series, check out our playlist!

Video: 5 Tips for Creating Authentic Natural Light Family Portraits

Although we typically equate dramatic and dynamic portraits with flash photography, we can achieve similar results using natural light. A lack of flash does not mean we’re left to choose between shooting either silhouettes or bright and airy images. While those types of photos have their place, we have other options for shooting with natural light. In this article/video, I’m going to share five tips for creating authentic natural light family portraits.

Tip #1: It’s All About the Light

Isn’t most (if not all) of photography about the light? You’d be amazed at how big of a difference a little movement can make when it comes to placing and lighting your subjects. When scouting the location for this shoot, I found pockets of light mixed among large shaded areas under the trees, and I knew that if I placed my subjects in those pockets, then I could get just the right amount of light on them. Because of the contrast in light and dark areas, natural light can almost appear to have been created using strobes.

natural light family portraits light vs shade first shot
All Images: 50mm, 1/2500, f/1.2, ISO 800

In the images above, you can see the difference a slight change in lighting can make, even when using natural light. In the first shot, I placed the mother and daughter into the scene and took a test shot. In case it matters to you, I used the Canon EOS-R paired with an RF 50mm f/1.2 lens. While the test shot is okay, the problem I have with it is how the subjects blend into the background because they are the same brightness as the environment around them. I then moved them forward no more than five feet, into a patch of sunlight, and the difference is clear. I made no adjustments to the exposure.

One thing you’ll notice in the middle “after” image,  however, is that the light direction from the sun is almost falling straight down, from top to bottom, which creates a “raccoon eyes” effect with the resulting shadows. To fix this, simply move your subjects back just a bit so that they are not fully in the sunlight.

I always look for light first and then use the best lit areas as an anchor for then deciding how to position and pose my subjects.

Tip #2: Use the Background for Framing

natural light family portraits background as a frame

Look for areas in the background that you can use to frame your subjects. The opening through the trees in this location created a bright, circular area behind my subjects to that allowed me to frame them with the leaves while also keeping them in the brightest area of the image. Here are a few more examples.

natural light family portraits framing with background

natural light family portraits framing with background wide

In the wide angle image above, the opening in the background frames the subjects in the brightest part of the image while other elements (tree branches, trunks, etc.) also lead our attention to the mother and daughter.

[Related Reading: Dramatic Portraits with Just Natural Light]

Tip #3: Direct the Action

natural light family portraits cue the action 01

You’ve scouted and found the best lighting in the scene and you’ve positioned your subjects. Now, it’s time to direct your subjects into a pose and cue the action. In the scene above, I directed dad to pretend to give a flower to his daughter. I also told the daughter to pretend she’s a Disney princess, accepting the flower from a prince. After that, I asked them both to grab flowers (which were just twigs on the ground) and go into a sword fight, at which point mom said, “Yes! This is actually what they would be doing!” As a result, what you see unfold is a series of natural, authentic images because we’ve placed them into action that was natural for them. If you don’t already know the family, you can usually come up with some good ideas after talking with them for a bit. You might even ask them what they would do there if they weren’t there for a shoot.

natural light family portraits cue the action 02

Tip #4: Shoot from Various Angles

We sometimes get lost in the moment and shoot away from a single angle when should be capturing the action from various angles. The reason for this comes down to one word: storytelling. In the sword fighting scene below (see tip #5), we’ve told the story from each subject’s perspective by shooting over his or her shoulder. This leads to step five.

Tip #5: Think Wide, Medium, and Tight

natural family portraits wide medium tight angles storytelling

In addition to shooting from various angles, which involves more of the direction in which you’re shooting, remember to also shoot from different distances (or focal lengths), including wide, medium, and tight (or closeup) angles. The wider shots include more of the environment and give context to the action while the medium and tight shots show more details in the expressions and get us into the action. The variety of angles will help the images tell a complete story that will look great together on your blog, in an album, or on the walls of your client’s home.

[Related Reading: Lightroom Dodge and Burn Preset for Dramatic Natural Light Portraits]


I hope you enjoyed this article/video on creating natural light family portraits. When we place our subjects with intention in available light, use the background to frame them, cue meaningful action, and shoot from a variety of angles for storytelling purposes, we can create dynamic portraits that look as though they were captured using flash. More importantly, we can create family portraits that our clients will love.

Be sure to catch our next episode of Mastering Your Craft on Adorama’s YouTube channel next week! If you want to catch up on all the episodes, make sure you check out our playlist!