Portraits 6 – Sunlight as Your Main Light

Vassanta, Lake Michigan
Vassanta, Sunset at Lake Michigan.

If you want to improve your portrait photography it is really best if you start with the prior articles in this series before you tackle direct sunlight. Having said that, sometimes the sun works really well as the main light for portraits. Technically speaking, this image is not a “traditional” portrait, but it is one of my favorite images of Vassanta.


Sunlight as your main portrait light usually works best early of late in the day. That is because the sunlight is more diffused due to passing through a lot more of earth’s atmosphere, and the sunlight is a lot warmer. This photo of Terran was created late in the afternoon with the sun very low in the sky.

Beth, Lake LaShane.

When the sun is low in the sky it also works well for sunset water portraits. For both Beth and I this is one of our favorite images from this photo shoot.

Sarah Ellis - Window Blind Shadows Portrait
Sarah Ellis – Window Blind Shadows.

Sunlight also works well for light and shadow portraits. I created this image of Sarah Ellis with her laying down and the sunlight streaming through a window. I used window blinds to create the shadows.

Anoush Anou.

In rare instances you can use sunlight as a spotlight. It was just a happy accident that a bit of sunlight popped between the leaves while Anoush and I were shooting in this forest.

Jen in Colorado aspen leaves.

Don’t be discouraged if you don’t find many opportunities to use sunlight as your main portrait light. In my experience that does not happen very often. In a folder with 1,300 of my favorite portraits I found about a dozen that use direct sunlight as the primary light source. That is about 1% of my portraits.

There is a processing disadvantage. Because sunlight amplifies every flaw in human skin, it take a lot more time to retouch photos shot in direct sunlight.

But don’t be afraid to try sunlight as your primary light source, especially early or late in the day, or when you have interesting combinations of sunlight and shadow.


Portraits 1 – Introduction

Portraits 2 – Sunlight Can Be Really Bad Portrait Light

Portraits 3 – Shoot On Cloudy Bright Days

Portraits 4 – On Sunny Days Use Open Shade

Portraits 5 – On Sunny Days Use the Sun as Backlight

Portraits 6 – Sunlight as Your Main Light (this article)