The Luminous Portrait: Capture The Beauty Of Natural Light For Glowing, Flattering Photographs

Natural light is by far the favorite choice of most amateur, wedding, and portrait photographers, but many stick to conventional approaches, leaving the myriad, gorgeous possibilities of natural light unexplored. In this first book by an award-winning wedding, lifestyle, and portrait photographer, Elizabeth Messina shares her secrets on capturing flattering natural light in any setting. The book (The Luminous Portrait, Amphoto Books, ISBN: 978-0-8174-0012-5, $29.99) is beautifully illustrated with accompanying text that offers an insider’s look into a wide range of subject matter and picture styles. This excerpt is part of an introduction to the many charms of working in natural light.—Editor

Gentle, even light from a nearby window illuminates Ashlyn Pearce’s face as she holds a flower. The light source is at the left of my frame and casts a subtle shadow on the right. I exposed for the darkness within the shadow, which gives the image an overall “light” feeling. Contax 645 with 80mm Zeiss lens, Fuji 400 NPH film, f/4 for 1/60 sec.
All Photos © Elizabeth Messina

Why Natural Light Is Best
Over the years, I’ve been able to master the art of creating luminous portraits by merging the abundant natural light in our world with the light that exists within every human being. Keep in mind that whenever I talk about natural light I’m sharing a personal choice, discussing what works best for me. Ambient light has a softness and an ability to almost caress a subject and make anything and anyone more beautiful. When I’m taking photographs, I’m seeking out the natural beauty in everything around me: the light, the subject, a natural emotion. I always strive to capture something authentic, and to me natural light innately possesses that quality. It resonates with and envelopes its subjects, allowing their natural beauty to emerge, as opposed to bringing lights into a shooting situation to create the feel of what already may exist in an environment. When it comes to making beautiful images, I find it incredibly satisfying to use what is already there.

One suggestion for using natural light during a shoot that may sound very elementary is to make sure any bright light source (i.e., the sun) is behind or to the side of your subject. This way you won’t have issues with your subject squinting or being unable to look at you. And more importantly, when you put the light behind (or to the side of) your subject and expose for the shadow (with her face in shadow, since the sun is behind her), you will get a luminous feel, with an overexposed background and an open, light aesthetic. It’s a very flattering effect and allows you to use sunlight to create almost a halo around your subject. It is also important to make sure there is ambient light on your subject’s face. You can do this whether you are near a window, in open shade, or sometimes by using a reflector.

Variations on the light from an ever-changing sky. My biggest advice about light is this: Get outside and familiarize yourself with the light around you. Go for walks in your neighborhood at different times of day, and observe and photograph. Photograph the sky. I find that shooting the sky adds a sweet element to any photo shoot. I love to include a sky shot for a wedding couple so that they always know what the sky looked like on the day they exchanged vows. For any portrait, shooting the sky is a way to remember the feel of the day, or a specific moment in time. Contax 645 with 80mm Zeiss lens, Fuji 400 NPH film, f/4 for 1/125 sec.

Natural light is especially flattering when you use a wide aperture to create a shallow depth of field. A low f-stop helps create a softer, more luminous image. If you set your camera to f/2 and you focus on someone’s eye, for example, the rest of the image will soften up—the background, even other parts of the face. This shallow depth of field helps accentuate the impact of your image.

You can be a natural-light shooter under any circumstances, even the intense pressure of a magazine shoot. Most of my work, including the magazine covers I shoot, is done in natural light with film. On some jobs I use reflectors and/or scrims to balance out the light, especially if I’m trying to get the clean, clear look of a cover shot (as well as some of the more atmospheric images for which I’ve become known). For example, if I have a subject in front of me and the light is slightly behind her or to the side, I will have an assistant stand next to me with a white reflector to bounce that sunlight back toward the subject. It’s much less intense than if she is facing the sun, so by bouncing it, you still get a little more light on the face but you won’t have that extreme glare that you would have if the sunlight were directly in her face. It’s a more gentle effect, and the bounced light still fills the skin tone with a little more light.

Top Left: Trees within a wooded area in France provided plenty of shade for me to compose this image. Although the models are completely in shade, there was still plenty of abundant light around them. Contax 645 with 80mm Zeiss lens, Ilford 400 XP2 film, f/2 for 1/60 sec. Top RIght: This image was taken on the beach, just as the sun was setting after a full day of working on an editorial assignment. I only had time for a few more shots, so I took the opportunity to create this intimate shot by having the couple hide behind an umbrella. This accomplished two things: First, it created a feeling of intimacy, as though they were sharing a secret, or a kiss, and second (and more important), as the sun went down, its warm last glow was caught in the frame of the umbrella. I love the warmth of this shot, both in the couple’s posture and the hue of the light around them. Contax 645 with 80mm Zeiss lens, Fuji 800 NPZ film, f/2 for 1/60 sec. Above: This portrait was made in a large warehouse in Portland, Oregon. There were two walls full of windows, which provided ample natural light. I focused on the model’s eyes and exposed for the shadows. Contax 645 with 80mm Zeiss lens, Fuji 400 NPH film, f/2 for 1/60 sec.

For groups and couples that I shoot outside, I love to use backlighting or open shade. I avoid dappled lighting, since that can be uneven and more challenging to work with. Flat, softer light is more flattering and ensures that everyone is lit more evenly. My aperture varies a little when I am photographing a group. This is basically the only situation in which I will stop down to f/5.6. I do this with a group of people to ensure that everyone will be in focus. Although I still expose for the shadows within the frame, setting my camera at f/5.6 gives me a more traditional portrait. The majority of my images, however, are created with my aperture at f/2. This setting gives me a very shallow depth of field, which is one important factor in why my images feel luminous and soft. The other critical factor is how I expose for light. It is this combination of f-stop and exposure that defines most of my work.

This couple was practicing the traditional postnuptial carry in a Southern California park. I love how the moment is between them and yet still includes me (conveyed by the way she smiles over her shoulder at me). This fall afternoon was beautiful; the sunlight was diffused by the trees around them, so it wasn’t too harsh. This same image was used as a cover for the lifestyle magazine 805 LIVING. Contax 645 with 80mm Zeiss lens, Fuji 400 NPH film, f/4 for 1/60 sec.

Author Bio
Elizabeth Messina is one of today’s top wedding, lifestyle, and celebrity portrait photographers. She was named one of the top 10 wedding photographers of 2010 by Adorama, one of the top 10 wedding photographers of 2008 by Pop Photo and American PHOTO, and one of the 25 trendsetters of 2008 by Modern Bride. Her images have graced the covers of Us Weekly, Grace Ormonde Wedding Style, and Professional Photographer, and she has been featured in Rangefinder and Professional Photographer. Her blog,, was awarded Best Blog from and Best Wedding Photography Blog by For more on Elizabeth Messina, please visit:

Where To Buy
The Luminous Portrait: Capture the Beauty of Natural Light for Glowing, Flattering Photographs by Elizabeth Messina with Jacqueline Tobin; Foreword by Ulrica Wihlborg.Amphoto Books, ISBN: 978-0-8174-0012-5, available online at and wherever photo books are sold.