Two of the most commonly used and misunderstood phrases thrown around by photographers today are, “It’s all about the light” and “Look at that beautiful light”. But what does that actually mean? How can you use it to make beautiful portraits?
In my early years, I kept hearing photographers online and in person preach about the importance of light yet never clearly explain what good light is and how to actually use it to flatter or minimize a subject’s flaws. Here are a few tips to keep in mind on your next shoot to help understand light and how to use it to make better portraits.
Direction of Light
Before you pick up your camera, stop and look around the scene to see what direction the light is actually coming from which will help you decide what to do with your subject. This might seem really obvious, but once you understand the importance of the direction of light half the battle has been won.
For example, when you first walk into a room for an indoor portrait or bridal session the most obvious light source is likely from a window. With window light there are three common lighting scenarios you can create by simply changing your camera and subject position to the light.
In this scenario, the window is behind you (you have your back to the window) thus soft light is falling onto your subject. There is no light coming into the lens compared to if you were shooting into the window. Usually the lighting is even and flat with no shadows, provided, of course, that there is no direct sunlight coming through the window.
Here the light was behind the camera providing a nice even light across the groom’s face.
A backlighting situation is created when you’re shooting into the light (the camera is facing the window). Shooting into the light will cause a lack or loss of contrast in your image, and the background will most likely blow out and be over exposed. You may also choose to shoot this way to purposely eliminate distracting details that maybe outside like a building or car that detracts from the scene.
This is okay if that’s the look you’re going for or you’re shooting a silhouette, but for a portrait it’s usually not the most flattering light.
Here I chose to purposely backlight the bridal party. So the light wasn’t coming directly into the lens and to try and retain some contrast, I simply turned the blinds slightly so the light wasn’t coming directly through the window as much.
Split or Side Lighting
Having your subject next to the window and shooting parallel to it can be a good way to create some shape, tone, and texture by defining highlight and shadow detail in the face and body. It’s also a great way of hiding or highlighting certain features that might be prominent. For example, if your model has blemishes on one side of her face, to hide or minimize this simply place that side of the face in shadow and or crop it out entirely if possible.
Here the light was coming from camera left, which also makes her the brightest part of the image compared to the darker back ground. The bride and I were standing parallel to the window.
Light with Intention
To highlight your subject’s face, rather than the torso or arms which are bigger in proportion to the face, simply turn their body away from the light source and turn their face back toward the camera.
Also if you can find a location where the background tone is darker than the subject it will help make the model stand out as the center of interest in your image. This could mean choosing a location in the house which has a darker midrange tone not a white or cream. It’s also most likely going to be out of focus anyway.
Here the light was coming from the window to the right of the bride (from camera view). I asked the bride to turn her body away from the light (to my left, her right) and then bring her face back towards the window. This is how I achieved the shadow detail on her left side of her face and body. I was also shooting from the shadow side or her face.
Quality of Light
Sun light, window light, reflected light, diffused light and back light all have a different quality of light. Direct light sources tend to be harsher and will show skin imperfections easier. Direct midday sunlight can create hard shadows in the eye sockets which can look like dark bags.
If you have to shoot during midday, remember that the light is coming from directly above. So wherever possible find poses to get the models to tilt their heads up towards the sunlight so their entire face is lit to avoid having horrible bags under their eyes.
Look at the quality of light and if it is too harsh like direct sunlight it may be a good idea to introduce some sort of diffuser like a scrim, or get into the shade.
Here I was shooting indoors, but the light coming through the window was too harsh. So I asked my assistant to hold a scrim in the window which created a beautiful even soft quality of light.
Sometimes natural reflectors can be found at the locations where you’re shooting. So if you see a white wall or big white truck and the sun is hitting it, that is now a diffused light source and will be much softer than a direct light source like the sun.
This image was taken outdoors before sunset using a translucent reflector as a diffuser. I asked my assistant to hold the reflector in-between the subjects and myself. This created beautiful, soft, non-direction diffused light on their faces filling in all shadows. The natural sunlight behind them added a nice soft highlight to her hair. You can even see the reflection of the reflector (catch lights) in their eyes.
With all these tips in mind, the most important thing to remember is that all light is not created equally. The best thing I can suggest is to go out and just practice for an hour or so at different times of day with varying light sources to see what works and what doesn’t. This way you’ll have confidence on your next the wedding day or portrait photography shoot.
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