Natural Light Portraits with your instax Camera

Professional wedding and lifestyle photographer Antony Hands is an avid instax user. In this article he shares his tips on how to use natural light to change the mood of your instax portraits.

By Antony Hands

natural light portraits instax

Photography is all about light, and the way it falls on your subject. The type and direction of the light can completely change the mood of a portrait, and learning to use light well can take portraits from being snapshots to something more special. Portraits in low light especially create a challenge for instant photographers, and this article is about how you can use your instax camera to create evocative natural light portraits.

natural light portraits instax

First of all, you need to understand how your instax camera works. When you take a picture, no matter what lighting conditions, the camera will always fire the flash. It does this to ensure that there is good light on the subject, no matter the circumstances. This is a great feature to ensure you always get a good photo, but when shooting natural light portraits you need to shoot without flash. Cameras like the mini 90 and SQ6 allow you to disable the flash, while others like the mini 70 do not. If your camera doesn’t allow for the flash to be disabled, you can block the flash using tape, or even your hand, to be able to shoot in natural light.

instax natural light portraits

Here you can see that the image with flash disabled captures the scene in a more natural way.

When you take a picture in bright light, the camera shutter stays open for a very short time, as little as 1/400th of a second in some cases. As the light level falls, the camera shutter needs to be open longer to allow enough light in to ensure that you get a well exposed photo. However, if the shutter speed falls too low, you can get blurry pictures. In Normal Mode your instax camera solves this problem by stopping the camera shutter from dropping below 1/2s (1/30th of a second for the mini 90), and using flash to provide the majority of the light needed for a good image.

This creates a well-exposed photo, but the use of flash can spoil the mood of the image you were trying to create. Have a look at the images below:

instax natural light portraits

These were shot in diffuse window light. The shot on the left was at standard settings, and while the camera has produced a perfectly exposed image, it looks flashed and loses some of the feeling of the scene. In the shot on the right I disabled the flash. When you disable the flash, the camera has to add extra light by opening the shutter for a longer time, and in this case the shutter was open for approximately ¼ of a second. This created the look I wanted, but at the risk of a blurry photo due to camera shake. Because I knew that the exposure may be long, I held the camera very steady and had my subject stay still to ensure we would get a sharp image.

Once the light drops really low, the shutter needs to stay open for too long to handhold effectively. In this circumstance you need to either use a tripod, or some other support to ensure you are very still. So how can you tell if the light is too low? After a while you will recognise how much light you need, but the easiest way to learn is through using a free light meter app on your phone. There are many to choose from but the important thing is to set your film speed at 800 ISO, and your aperture at  f/13. Meter the scene using the app, and follow these guidelines:

Shutter speed above 1/30s – shoot away!

Shutter speed 1/30s – 1/4s – hold the camera very still, and have your subject stay still

Shutter speed 1/4s to 1/2s – use a tripod or secure your camera tight against something stable.

Shutter speed > 1/2s – Use a tripod or enable flash

So what is the number one tip for creating a good natural light portrait? The most important thing is some form of directional light. Masters like Rembrandt and Vermeer use directional light to create striking and memorable portraits, and the techniques they used still work well today. The readiest source of directional light is from a window, and if you place your subject turned towards the light you are on your way to creating stunning natural light portraits.

instax natural light portraits