A Journey From Novice to Natural Light Portrait Photographer

I’m here to share my photography journey that started few years ago as a novice, to where I stand today. As am amateur or hobby photographer, you may relate.

The journey from novice to advanced photographer

About two years ago, I bought an entry level DSLR, to use it as an expensive point and shoot camera. The camera decided the fate of most of my pictures. On innumerable occasions, the pictures were blurry, under or overexposed, and were of poor quality.

The urge to work on my photography skills blossomed, when I was blessed with a little girl. An utmost desire to take only the best pictures of my angel, had taken roots in me. As you may also do, I started searching the internet fervently, for ways to capture the best shots.

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This is the kind of natural light photography I do now, but that’s not where I started. Read on to find out how I got here, and you can too.

I realized, other than going through basic photography tutorials on YouTube, the thing that helped me the most was Flickr’s discussion groups. It has large community of knowledgeable professionals, and semi-professionals, who love to take a look at your picture and provide valuable feedback. Positive suggestions and encouragement I received on the forums, helped me to experiment further, and escape out of automatic mode. If you are in the same mode as I was two years ago, I strongly recommend getting feedback for your photos, through the online forums.

Moving out of auto mode and kit lens limitations

The very first step towards improvement for me, was shifting to Aperture Priority (Av/A) mode. Initially, pictures were blurry even in Av mode, but I could see that inside my home, my kit lens at f/4.5, ISO 6400, was still unable to shoot faster than 1/30th of a second. Such a slow shutter speed caused the motion blur. Shooting outdoors normally helped me to avoid blurry pictures, but I was not sure why my images didn’t have a blurry background like I saw online. Eventually, I understood the limitations of my kit lens, in not being able to shoot at a larger f-stop, to achieve shallower depth of field.

500px Photo ID: 53404702 -

This image is very noisy, focus is on her dress rather eyes/face, the out of focus raised hand actually distracts the viewer a lot.

One thing I would realize after many months of shooting, is that the exposure triangle (aperture, shutter speed and ISO) is easy to comprehend theoretically, but really hard to apply in the field. I went out for a shoot almost every day, and started experimenting with aperture and shutter speed to get a more desired shot. On returning home, I always got an impression I should have used a different aperture or shutter speed for a better shot. The ability to learn through your mistakes is a major milestone in your journey.

Branching out

Once you are bit confident in your understanding of the basics, you start enjoying it – which is what I experienced. I started devoting time to reading topics such as composition, photography tips, and subscribed to sites like Digital Photography School. Another thing that helped me a lot, was connecting to local events and activity pages via Facebook. I started showing up at many local events and offering free photography to the organizers.

The experience of shooting events was quite chaotic and challenging, especially when there were far more people posing in front of the camera, and many arbitrary things happening – kids running around, or folks dancing to tunes of the festivities. Every such shoot gave me lot more insight into concepts of understanding concepts like plane of focus, controlling focus points, exposure compensation, tips to hand hold the camera firmly, etc.

One of my early event photos. The face and overall image is poorly lit and the face looks orange. Overall image is noisy and the eyes are not in focus. The person behind her is very distracting.

One of my early event photos. The face and overall image is poorly lit, and the face looks orange. Overall, the image is noisy, and the eyes are not in focus. The person behind her is very distracting.

Upgrading gear

It’s very easy to get overwhelmed when reading about, or watching, the type of gear that pros are using in the field. My advice would be to start with minimum possible gear, and upgrade only when you clearly understand the limitations of your existing gear. Be it body, lens, tripod, or anything. After understanding that I couldn’t shoot with very low noise in ambient light during evenings, or achieve huge shallow DOF with my canon T3i and a kit lens, I moved up to a 6D after few months, and bought a prime lens. Though I love to shoot 100% natural light, I added a flash to my gearbox as well, to use as a fill light in some situations.

Here are few things I learned so far, that you can also apply in your photography. Then I will move on to what kind of work I produce these days, and some explanation about how the results are achieved.

Understand the basics:

Read a lot about aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and other beginner tutorials. Apply them as much as you can. These concepts are simple but take a lot of hands-on practice to start making some sense.

Very noisy, Focus is on the shoulder, a very bright area in the background is a huge distraction, very messy environment.

Very noisy, Focus is on the shoulder, a very bright area in the background is a huge distraction, very messy environment.


Do share your everyday shots and learning, to online discussion groups and forums, without worrying about the quality of your work. Google knows a lot. Give it a try by typing the question the way you would ask someone in person. Once you get some clue, make sure to try it out, to experiment and confirm your understanding. As I said earlier, do volunteer photography for local charity or non profit, etc., as that is a sure way to learn, and it is much more fun.

Avoid GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome):

Avoid the mindset that you cannot do good photography without expensive gear. In the beginning, your cheapest camera is enough to get you started. Photography is not 100% driven by expensive gear. There are way many areas to catch up like composition, understanding of light, angle of shooting, etc. Learn the basics and how to use the gear you have first.

Shoot, shoot and shoot:

There is no shortcut to get good at photography. You have to keep shooting to learn, and learn more to confirm your understanding and get better.

Understand Light:

Taken in the middle of the day when sun was overhead with caring about harsh shadows. From composition point of view the image has a very busy background and viewer will be completely distracted at other elements of the image.

Taken in the middle of the day, without caring about harsh shadows when sun was overhead. From a composition point of view, the image has a very busy background and viewer will be completely distracted by other elements of the image.

It doesn’t matter what genre of photography you shoot; you need a firm understanding of light. This is a key ingredient for a good picture. So, read about the direction and quality of light, and how it affects the shape, size, shadows, and contour of objects it falls upon.

Master your camera:

This tip is especially important if you aim to shoot events, happening at fast pace like kids photography, birds, action, sports, etc. You will really miss opportunities if you are unable to change settings quickly on the fly, without looking at the controls.

Go Manual:

This needs to be your ultimate destination in terms of shooting modes. It’s true that 80% or more time you may be happy with Av mode, but ideally you should have no hesitation in switching to the manual mode in a blink.

Depth of Field:

Technically, in simple terms, aperture controls the depth of field. However, this is the area that took me the longest time to get a good grip on. It’s very hard to stop the desire to shoot at f/1.2, if you own a lens capable of that. However, lenses are not the sharpest at so small f-numbers, plus the depth of field is so thin, that it could be unusable if you are not at the right distance from the subject.

Though there is a nice catch light but looking at the distance it has been shot the f stop should have been chosen higher. The face is not completely in focus and the image does not appeal the viewer. The subject should have been moved a bit to get rid of uneven shadows.

Though there is a nice catch light, but looking closer, it has been shot with an f-stop that should have been higher. The face is not completely in focus, and the image does not appeal the viewer. The subject should have been moved a bit, to get rid of uneven shadows on his face.

Positioning the Subject:

Another key point I have seen even very mature photographers lacking, is realizing the importance of where you should ask the subject to stand. Key mistakes are: placing subject in front of a very busy background, having undesired points of interest in the frame, a brighter large light source behind the subject, etc.

I hope you find the above tips useful. In the final part, I would like to show some images, and a bit about my thoughts on post-processing. All the below images have been published in one or the other magazine.

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85mm, f/1.6, 1/1600, ISO 800

Location: Milwaukee, WI. This was taken at golden hour, with the sun facing the subject. The trees with some fall colors, are very far behind her.

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85mm, f/3.2, 1/400, ISO 400

Location: Redwood Shores, CA. This was taken at golden hour with sun facing her. The intensity of the light was low, as only partial light was passing through the tree. It was shot from above at about a 45-degree angle.

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70mm, f/2.8, 1/320, ISO 800

Location: Los Angeles, CA. This was taken in the middle of the day, in an apartment, where model was facing window light.

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135mm, f/2.8, 1/400, ISO 400

Location: Palace of fine arts, CA. Taken in the middle of the day, where plenty of ambient light was available. Behind the subject is a little darker area, due to trees and pillars. I positioned her at a spot where light was just right to avoid on her face which were too dark.

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85mm, f/1.8, 1/6400, ISO 100

Location: Fremont, CA. Again taken during golden hour, with a bit of shade from the door structure.

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85mm, f/2.8, 1/2000, ISO 800

Location: San Jose, CA. Taken in the middle of the day, using the shade from the ceiling above the model, and avoiding sunlight falling directly her.

Importance of Post-Production:

As a beginner you will surely hear or read a lot something similar to these statements, “I love straight out of camera pictures” or “I hate editing pictures”. However, I have found that you can delay getting into the post-processing of images, but cannot avoid it.

The extent you go to post-processing an image, is totally a different debate. Some do it to enhance the existing elements of an image, and others do it to make it into a totally different image. I am in the first category, and spend time doing things that improves the overall image appeal.

For beginners, I would advise that you stay away from it until you are comfortable with your gear and the basic concepts of photography. Always aim to get the image right in the camera.

The first step for post-processing, you can start with Adobe Lightroom, which is a great piece of software to enhance your images. Spend time in achieving mastery with Lightroom, and, once you understand its limitations, then start exploring Adobe Photoshop on a need only basis. In my typical workflow, all the images go through Lightroom, then for some final touches in Photoshop.

Your journey

So where are you in your photography journey? Did you just pick up a camera and can relate to my early experiences? Have you been practicing for a while? What is your experience, please share in the comments below.

Author Bio

Vik (Vivek) Kumar is a photographer and a software engineer. Hi started his photography a couple of years ago as an amateur landscape photographer. The hobby became serious portrait photography fun. His images are used by reputed hotel brands like Hyatt. He has been published numerous times in various fashion magazines like ICON, PUMP, Surreal Beauty Magazine, etc. See more of his work on his website or on his Instagram profile. His landscape photography work can be explored on 500px.

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First Look: New Tamron Portrait, Macro Lenses Are An Optical Dynamic Duo

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Four Hidden Lightroom Features

Adobe Lightroom is a complex piece of software, and it includes countless features that are buried beneath the surface. In this article, I will cover four useful Develop options that aren’t obvious at first glance, ranging from precision cropping to local color adjustments. If you are a Lightroom guru, you certainly may use each of these already; however, for most Lightroom users, these features are somewhat difficult to find.

1) Precision Cropping

One thing that bothers me about Lightroom is that you cannot crop your images to pixel-level precision. Especially on a small monitor, it is difficult to crop to exactly the right spot in a photo. You can get close, certainly, but Lightroom’s cropping tool does not allow the fine adjustments that I sometimes need.

This doesn’t matter for the vast majority of images, but there are some scenes where it is important. Consider a landscape where you want to include as much of the sky as possible, but there is a tree branch at the upper corner; by cropping at the pixel level, you could include the absolute largest amount of sky possible. If you plan to make a large print, Lightroom’s standard level of precision simply is not enough.

Luckily, there is a way to remedy the problem. It certainly is not perfect – and not everyone needs such a careful crop in the first place – but you can make more precise adjustments simply by clicking the “crop” tool, then closing the sidebars of your editing window. By doing so on a small computer monitor, you can nearly double the size of your photo on-screen, which correspondingly improves your cropping precision. Look at the image below:

Hidden Lightroom Settings-1

This is the standard cropping window in Lightroom. As you can see, the bottom-left corner of this image is white and featureless. (This is a panorama, and the lack of detail is a result of the photo-merging process.) I want to include as much detail as possible above that corner, but I clearly didn’t want to include any of the white area itself. Here, though, the cropping tool is not very precise; it is difficult to adjust the image exactly how I want.

To make the most precise crop possible – getting rid of the white space without removing any of the beach itself – I needed to collapse the left and right sidebars. See the screenshot below:

Hidden Lightroom Settings-2

This gives me much more room! I can collapse the sidebars without closing the crop tool. Now, it is much easier to get the exact frame that I want. The final version is below:

Hidden Lightroom Settings-3

NIKON D800E + 50mm f/1.4 @ 50mm, ISO 100, 1, f/16.0

I don’t use this technique very often, but it is invaluable for certain photographs. For your trickiest images, this extra precision is more than welcome.

2) The Alt Key

One of my personal favorite Lightroom tricks is the unassuming Alt key (Option for Mac users). If you are in the develop module, hold down Alt while making an adjustment; chances are, something about your screen will change!

The Alt key functions as a preview. If you hold Alt while adjusting exposure, Lightroom will show you which highlights are blown-out to white; the same is true if you adjust highlights or whites. Likewise, if you hold down alt while adjusting shadows or blacks, you will see which areas of your photo have gone completely dark.

Many common adjustments have a built-in preview. One of my favorites is the Defringe option under Lens Corrections > Color. This option lets you remove color fringes, or longitudinal chromatic aberrations (as explained in this article). When you hold down the Alt key, Lightroom shows you all the colors that can be removed through the fringe correction tool. This is incredibly useful! Check out the photograph below:

Hidden Lightroom Settings-4

In the image above, everything in purple can be eliminated by a strong fringing correction. (In this case, there wasn’t actually color fringing; this is simply an example photo with a lot of purple.)

Here is a list of all the adjustments that open previews with the Alt key:

  • Basic
    • Exposure: Shows which highlights are blown-out to white
    • Highlights: Shows which highlights are blown-out to white
    • Shadow: Shows which shadows are completely black
    • Whites: Shows which highlights are blown-out to white
    • Blacks: Shows which shadows are completely black
  • Split-Toning
    • Hue sliders: Previews the hue that you are adding to your shadows or highlights
    • Balance: Previews the balance between shadow and highlight colors (read more)
  • Detail
    • Sharpening amount: Makes the photograph black-and-white to preview sharpening without any color noise
    • Radius: Exaggerates sharpening adjustments to show the radius, as if you have applied a high-pass filter
    • Detail: Again, appears as if you applied a high-pass filter – only shows the edges that will be sharpened
    • Masking: Very useful – darkens everything that won’t be sharpened
    • Luminance noise reduction: Makes the photograph black-and-white to preview without any color noise
    • Luminance detail: Makes the photograph black-and-white to preview without any color noise
    • Luminance contrast: Makes the photograph black-and-white to preview without any color noise
  • Lens Corrections
    • Defringe amount: Shows which colors are detected by the Defringe tool
    • Defringe hue: Turns black everywhere that is affected by the Defringe tool
  • Effects
    • Midpoint: Darkens the vignette that you have applied, allowing for a better preview
    • Roundness: Darkens the vignette that you have applied, allowing for a better preview
    • Feather: Darkens the vignette that you have applied, allowing for a better preview
    • Highlights: Darkens the vignette that you have applied, allowing for a better preview

There are other adjustments that change when you press the Alt key – the gradient mask centers itself, for example – but the items above give you a preview of your edits. Depending upon the photograph that you are processing, they can be incredibly helpful.

3) Match Total Exposure

Another useful feature of Lightroom is the Match Total Exposure setting. Essentially, this option lets you take a series of photographs – all with different exposures – and then adjust them to match the same level of brightness.

The process is quite simple. First, hold down the Control key (Command on Mac) and click on each photo that you want to be the same brightness. Then, click again on the photograph that you want them all to match. (Every photo should be highlighted now, but the “target” image should be highlighted most prominently.) See below:

Hidden Lightroom Settings-5

The next step is to click “Photo” at the top of the page, then “Develop Settings” and “Match Total Exposure.” See the photo below:

Hidden Lightroom Settings-6

Ultimately, Match Total Exposure gives you a result like this:

Hidden Lightroom Settings-7

I use this setting quite a bit when I expose to the right. I may take a single photograph at the “proper” exposure, then a series of increasingly bright photographs. I can use the Match Total Exposure setting to make all of the photographs look like the first, “correct” image – then compare each subsequent photo to see which ones retain detail in the highlights.

There are other uses, as well. If you want to blend several photos into a panorama, they should be the same brightness; if that is not the case, for whatever reason, you need to equalize their exposures. Doing this manually is a painful task, but the Match Total Exposure option is incredibly easy.

Note that Match Total Exposure works based on your camera settings. If you took a photograph indoors, for example, and then turned on an extra light (without changing your settings), the Equalize Exposure option wouldn’t have any effect – even though your second photo would be brighter.

4) Local Color Adjustments

One adjustment that I just recently found – and, honestly, have only used for experimentation at this point – is an interesting local color adjustment tool.

This option is hiding in plain sight under any local adjustment tab. Click on the gradient tool, for example; the lowest slider in the gradient menu is the “Defringe” tool. Below that, though, is another option: Color. By clicking on the gray box to the right of the word color, you open up the local color adjustment tool. See the screenshot below:

Hidden Lightroom Settings-8

Once you pick a color, you can draw on the photograph like any other local adjustment tool. Do you want to change the color of a photo’s sky? This option was made for you.

Although I haven’t yet used the local color tool extensively, I can see its value. Portrait photographers, for example, might want to enhance the color of their subject’s face – making someone’s eyes look more natural, for instance.

Even a landscape photographer may find this tool useful. I, for one, think that the photo above is too gloomy; the local color adjustment fixes the problem! The improved version is below:

Hidden Lightroom Settings-9

As you can see, the local color adjustment has helped me turn a sad photo into something happy. For me, that’s the real value of post-processing.

5) Conclusions

Lightroom is not an easy program to use, and some of its useful tools are hidden in unexpected places. None of the four features in this article are essential Lightroom adjustments, but each has its uses. Whether you need a more precise crop or a preview of your adjustments, Lightroom’s built-in options have what you need; it just takes some work to find. Hopefully, this article showed you some of those halfway-hidden features, making it easier to process your photographs exactly the way you want.

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