NATURAL LIGHT – subtractive techniques


Welcome to this week’s portrait tips and techniques. This week’s blog post is about subtractive lighting which has been requested by some followers of this blog. As there are so many photographers wanting to photograph with natural light outdoors, I thought a post on subtractive lighting very appropriate. It is by far my most popular technique for natural lighting outdoors using windows, doorways and buildings.

Many photographers think natural light is a safe and easy way to shoot outdoors, but in actual fact to do it properly, requires nearly as much skill as using studio lights. A photographer with studio lighting skills is going to have a definite advantage in understanding good lighting outdoors, as they understand shaping the face with light.

Those readers who have my eBook BLACK & WHITE – Natural Light Portraiturewill also have an understanding of facial angles, short and broad lighting plus how to find subtractive lighting locations.

So what is subtractive light? Let’s put the face into 3 positions, 2 sides and a top. Now place the subject in a position where soft diffused light strikes one side of a face and the other side and top are placed into a position where the light is blocked.

Here’s an example we should all have at our disposal. Open up a garage door and stand your subject about .5 to 1 metre inside the garage facing out to the street (opposite side to the sun – open sky not direct sun). The soft, diffused open sky is lighting your subject, but because they are facing this light, the subject is evenly lit, this is called flat lighting (not flattering at all). Because the subject is under the roof line, you have subtracted (blocked) the light from the top, but not from one side. NB: Subtracting light from the top, eliminates dark eye sockets.

To create some modelling to the face, turn your subject’s face to one side. Now you will have created a shadow on one side, this shadow is caused by the subtraction of light or lack of light on the garage side of the face. So now you have one side with soft light, one side in shadow and light subtracted from the top.

The camera angle would be somewhere around parallel to the garage or a slight angle out from the garage. Of course posing plays a big part in the final appearance, but this post is about getting you to think more about light shaping on the face and helping you to understand how to create it. Also the depth of the shadows can be controlled with reflectors.

The garage doorway is just an example. I use shop awnings, under bridges etc.

The eBook covers this in more detail with photo examples and diagrams.

The following image is an old shed I used for subtractive lighting portraiture for many years. The old white car wasn’t always there and for many years I was able to photograph larger groups in that position. One day it appeared and I had to work around it, so it was a small challenge.

The reflectance from the white car was a problem. If the car had been another couple of metres inside, it would have made a good reflector. As it couldn’t be moved, and was giving too much reflectance, I needed to throw something dark over the tailgate area to reduce or subtract this reflectance.

TIPS – always carry black, neutral gray and white sheets with you (single bed size is a minimum)

black will subtract the most light for deeper shadows and gray will create softer shadows


On my first visit with the car there, I only had a brown blanket. As it was a black and white session colour reflectance wasn’t an issue so I threw the blanket over the tailgate. The image below was from this particular session.


Note the little girl is sitting on an old chair approximately .5 metre inside the roof line, therefore removing the down light. She is angled across the doorway creating a subtraction of light from her left hand side. The camera angle is slightly away from the shed as shown above. A white reflector was placed on the ground, pointing up to enhance the dark coloured eyes.

The following two images are from the same doorway when the car wasn’t there. The images are similar in light and shade although they were taken 5 years apart. So the message is you can make outdoor natural light portraiture look more dramatic by using these simple subtractive lighting techniques.

By learning these lighting techniques, your work will take on a distinctive professional look, but it does take practice and refining.  If you want to learn more on natural light portraiture, my eBook BLACK &WHITE – Natural Light Portraiture has helped many photographers on all levels to understand the craftsmanship approach to natural light portraiture.

The eBook is laid out in easy-to-follow chapters on the important subjects of natural light portraits. There are many example photos and easy explained diagrams on the essentials to help you understand and take you to another level. The tips and techniques are suitable for colour portrait photography also.

Until next week, happy shooting


portrait tips and techniques

10 Responses to “NATURAL LIGHT – subtractive techniques”

  1. Gaye Edwards Says:

    Thank you so much. Your willingness to share your considerable experience is much appreciated. Beautiful images, full of character and appeal.

  2. sonia Says:

    thank you Wayne … I am realising more and more each time I do a shoot … almost like one learns from ones mistakes regardless the advice 🙂

  3. Hayley Says:

    Thanks for your sharing in these blog posts Wayne…I am looking forward to them each time now. Loving your book…full of great info and tips!

  4. Photography Backdrops Says:

    Very detailed article! Lighting is so important. Thanks for taking the time to write this!

  5. charles Brown Says:

    Got your book in a portrait bundle.
    I read the first book and was not happy (want my money back),
    read yours next and it was in itself worth the price of the three books. I’m a happy camper (smile) thanks!!

  6. Robert Says:

    Wow…I thank you so much for these tips…you’ve got a lot of good information packed into this site!

    thanks for providing it.

  7. Charlotte Says:

    Thanks so much for your tips, which have been so helpful. Seeing the diagrams of the set up make so much difference in getting the info to stay in! Your photographs are beautiful.

  8. Hennie Says:


  9. Portrait Tips and Techniques » Blog Archive » PHOTOGRAPHY TIPS FOR HOME STUDIES Says:

    […] location was a fenced area surrounding some small trees, this provided some subtractive lighting technique opportunity. This is where I photographed the boys with their […]

  10. Peter Says:

    Awesome, just learnt Alot

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