Working with light when taking pictures of people requires some additional time and effort to get great results. When shooting portraits, don’t avoid situations that can yield great images just because the lighting isn’t perfect. Try to keep an open mind about the scene you are working with because – as this article shows – when shooting people, the best light might come from places that you would never expect.
Building Up a Relationship
Many photographers prefer to shoot landscapes, flowers and the like, because they prefer shooting subjects that stay still. People’s expressions can be fleeting, and when you are shooting portraits of people, the intent is to show a part of them – the essence of the subject.
Photographing people is more than lighting, and learning to show emotion from the subjects that you are photographing is every bit as important, if not more important, than the light. Learning to work with a portrait subject takes time and practice. A photographer and subject must have mutual respect, but even more important is to make sure that the subject is comfortable in front of the camera.
Take time to talk, even for just a few minutes, with the subject, explaining what you are looking for in the photographs. What sort of emotions do you want the viewer of the photographs to have? What is the feel of the photo?
Just talking about those types of things can help to create a better connection between you and the subject, enabling you to work better together, like in 1-1. The feel for this image is supposed to be warm and pleasant. The light is very soft, and although she is smiling, she does not have a big cheesy grin.
Using a Nikon 80-200mm f/2.8 lens gets the photographer close to the subject without being right in her face. The exposure in the shade here was ISO 250 at 1/60 sec. at f/4.
When shooting portraits and people, the first thing to think about is setting a larger aperture. With a larger aperture (smaller f-stop number) you get less depth of field, which makes the subject sharper and the background more out of focus. By doing this, the subject appears to separate from the background more, putting more emphasis on the person, as in 1-2.
The ISO for this shot was set to 200 with an exposure of 1/80 sec. at f/4. Because of the large aperture and the telephoto zoom lens set to 175mm, the background of fall foliage becomes a sheer blanket of out-of-focus yellow.
Using a telephoto lens, or zooming closer with a compact camera, helps blur the background of the image. Another advantage of the larger aperture is that it also means using a faster shutter speed, to better stop the subject from moving. This is especially important in working with kids.
Using Aperture Priority automatic is very advantageous in portraiture. Being able to control the depth of field and letting the camera’s meter control the shutter lets you work quickly, hopefully never missing a moment. When the light does get low, make sure to monitor just what the shutter speed is so that it remains fast enough to stop any blur.
Searching for Open Shade
Lighting for portraits outdoors is as easy as going outside, right? Well, maybe not. Generally, the best lighting for portraits is softer than bright sunlight. This softer light lets you see more of the eyes and facial expression, as opposed to deep shadows across the face.
The biggest problem with taking photographs of people in the middle of the day is the extreme contrast and shadows on the face caused by the direct overhead sunlight. This direct lighting creates shadows in the eye sockets, making people look like raccoons. Contrast often occurs even in late daylight, and because half of the image is in direct sun and the other in shadow, half of the face is either washed out or plunged into murky shadows.
In most cases, softer light is not too far away; it just takes a moment to look around and find it. The situation that you are looking for is called open shade. Open shade can come in the form of light haze, big trees, or even the other side of a building.
When shooting in open shade, people are less likely to squint than they would in direct sunlight. When under the canopy of large trees, the softness of the light wraps around the subject’s face, making it appear as if the light is coming from all sides, such as in 1-3.
A spot meter was used to get an exposure from the face of this girl, and then the exposure was set manually to 1/160 sec. at f/2.8 at ISO 200.
Metering in open shade is a mixed bag. In most cases, the evaluative meter does a good job, but overexposing by +1/3 to +2/3 of an f-stop increases the brightness of the scene nicely. Make sure to set your white balance correctly as well, to the shade setting. Without the correct white balance, you run the risk of having your images appear too blue. Using the correct white balance maintains rich skin tones, and keeping the subjects near the edge of the shade helps to capture more of the direction of the light and texture to the faces, like in 1-4.
This photo was taken with dappled sunlight all over. The light tree cover made for great texture in this image, with the camera set to ISO 200 at 1/30 sec. at f/5.6 and a center-weighted meter.
Dealing With Deeper Shade
Shooting inside deeper shade, like that of a building or large overhang, can limit the exposure – but the lighting situation stays the same. Using the evaluative meter up close limits the amount of extraneous background light and is a great way to get the correct exposure as, in 1-5.
The exposure in this situation was 1/40 sec. at f/2.8 at ISO 200. The exposure compensation was set to +1/3 to brighten the skin tone, and the white balance was set to shady.
Mottled sunlight, as from thin tree cover, can be especially tricky. The contrast of the bright spots needs to fall where it does not distract too much from the subject. The most important consideration in a situation such as in 1-6 is that any pockets of light on the subjects don’t overexpose too much, especially on the face.
Use exposure compensation if you need to, but mostly just watch where the light is. In this situation, the models can move, a slight breeze can move the trees, and, of course, the sunlight moves across the sky. So be sure that you are constantly monitoring just where the light is.
Exposure compensation was set to +1/3, to make sure the shade was bright enough with the dark background. This photograph also was sepia toned in Photoshop Elements, adding a warm tone to the black and white image.
Shooting people while the sky is lightly overcast can also be great. This type of lighting creates a large soft overhead light, potentially with some nice highlights. Make sure that the light is soft enough or directed in such a way that the eyes of your subjects are not filled with shadows. The light in 1-7 still has quite a bit of contrast, as you can see from the nearly white sky and highlights on the hair of the couple. Because seeing the background is important, a smaller aperture and a wider lens were used for better depth of field.
Using a center-weighted meter was important so that the bright sky was not considered in the exposure. The exposure was 1/100 sec. at f/7.1 at ISO 200 using a 28-70mm f/2.8 lens.
Shooting in Direct Sunlight
Sometimes, no open shade is readily available. Inevitably, this happens when you need to shoot in the middle of the day. One place to find some shade is to have the subjects make their own shade. By turning your subjects so that the sunlight hits the back of their heads, their faces naturally are in the shade of their own shadows, as in 1-8.
Turning the subject is not without pitfalls. Using this technique also can cause bright areas on the shoulders and heads of your subjects. To avoid these shadows, make sure to expose for the subjects’ faces; use center-weighted or spot meter, or exposure compensation by about +2/3 f-stop, or both. With high, direct sun behind a subject, you also might get flare. Make certain that your lens is adequately shaded to prevent lens flare.
By turning the subject against the sun, his face is in shadow, allowing you to see his eyes and his expression. ISO 200 at 1/640 sec. at f/5, with +2/3 exposure compensation and white balance set to shade.
When the light has more direction to it than just overhead, you can use the directional light more to accent the people in your photograph. When the light is lower in the sky, that accent can be created by backlight. The light hits the back of your subject, causing a rim of highlight around the perimeter of your subject, which is shown in 1-9. This rim light makes the hair look like it is glowing, and yet the face of the subject remains in the soft light of the shade.
The rim light accentuates the hair in this image with the white balance set to shade and the ISO at 100. The exposure was 1/320 sec. at f/2.8 and with an exposure compensation of +1/3.
This situation is ripe for lens flare, and remember that the exposure must be set for the face, so having the highlights of the hair might skew the exposure a little dark. Setting the camera to overexpose 1/3–1/2 of an f-stop helps. By using a spotmeter on the face in a subject like 1-10, not the jacket, dress, or the highlighted hair, you can also get the right exposure. (Some light lens flare on the right of this image makes the groom’s jacket a little too light.)
After taking a spotmeter reading directly off the face of the bride, the exposure was set on the camera manually at 1/200 sec. at f/4 using ISO 200.
Creating Better Light
In learning how to better see the light that creates compelling photographs, the next step is learning to create your own light. By using a few small tools and tricks, you can create better light and further add to the dimension of the light in your photography. As much as shadows help to create shape and drama in some types of outdoor photography, in portraiture, shadows must often be overcome.
How To Use Fill Light
Fill light is short for fill-in light, which means that you are trying to fill in the shadows with light. Since too much contrast on a face can often detract from a portrait, using a simple reflector can bring light back into the shadows, brightening the scene and allowing detail to be seen clearly.
A reflector can truly be anything that reflects the sunlight back into the scene – a piece of white cardboard or white foam core, cloth stretched over some sort of a frame, someone else wearing a light colored shirt, or one of the vast amount of commercial reflectors available for purchase. The most popular of these are flexible discs with white, silver, or gold fabric stretched over a plastic frame that can be folded down and placed into a small pouch.
Learning to use a reflector takes a bit of time, and having someone to help hold it or some sort of a clamp and stand is recommended. The easiest way to use a reflector is to have a subject backlit and then hold the reflector toward the subject’s face. Keep the reflector in the light and move it around. In bright sunlight, it is obvious when the light is hitting the subject. In lower light levels, it might not be as simple.
Notice the angle of the reflector and how the angle correlates to the position of the sun and the person. In some cases, the reflector is virtually flat; sometimes, it is almost pointing away from the person, and other times the reflector is angled directly toward the subject. If you are having trouble seeing the light hit the subject, point the reflector directly at the sun and then slowly turn the reflector toward the subject, because roughly in the middle of those two points you can find the point where the optimal amount of reflection is evident.
Moving the reflector in and out of the scene also helps you determine the amount of light that gets filled into the shadow. In many cases, if you don’t find enough effect, you need to bring the reflector closer to the subject.
The reflected light also changes when the reflector has different material. A silver reflector has a much harder light than a white one, and a gold reflector reflects a much warmer light. In 1-11, you can see the use of a white reflector in a very backlit scene. You don’t need to go out and buy fancy gold and silver reflectors, but if you want to experiment with the effect, wrap a piece of heavy cardboard with tin foil and spray paint the other side white, or gold. Or go to the hobby store and get a piece of gold or silver matt board. Any of these solutions costs less than $10 and can at least get you comfortable with using an additional piece of equipment.
Using a simple white cardboard panel, the light was bounced back into the shadow of this backlit portrait scene. The exposure was ISO 200 at 1/250 sec. at f/5.6.
In some cases, a reflector just brings the light level up a small amount so that the light isn’t so flat. This also helps so that the exposure level stays up, and the background doesn’t get too overexposed. Even when the reflector is in a more shady area, bringing a white reflector close to the subject brightens up the scene a small amount. In 1-12, the reflector is just barely out of the scene to the left of the image, about 15 inches from the woman.
A collapsible reflector was used in this image to bring a small amount of brightness to one side of the scene. The exposure was 1/320 sec. at f/3.5 using ISO 200.
How To Use Fill Flash
Turning on a strobe in the middle of a bright sunny day might seem to be unnecessary and unwanted, but turning the flash on full time might be the best way for beginners to get the best photos. A lot of shadows surround people, especially in bright sunlight, and using a strobe fills those shadowed areas with light with minimal effect on the bright areas. The flash simply brings the exposure level of the shadow area closer to the exposure of the sunlit areas, making for a more balanced exposure, as in 1-13.
With sun hitting the couple from the left, their eyes and half of their faces are plunged into shadow. By hitting them with a bit of strobe, the shadows are opened up. ISO 200 at 1/640 sec. at f/4.
In today’s digital camera, the software is so advanced that balancing the strobe and sunlight to get a great exposure is totally automatic. Only a few years ago photographers would have to do complex calculations regarding distance from the strobe to the subject and the ambient exposure and the flash output level using charts or graphs; now, it is virtually a “set it; forget it” proposition.
The flash fires, and during the millisecond that the shutter is open, the sensor and the computer determine exactly how much light is needed for the correct exposure and fire the flash exactly that much.
Using fill flash for portraits is also important to simply give them a little life. Even when good light quality is on a subject, using fill flash outdoors can add to the image. By turning the flash on, you can brighten up a face, add a sparkle to eyes, give some sheen to the hair, and soften the shadows, as in 1-14.
Exposure was manually set to 1/250 sec. at f/5, using ISO 100. The evaluative meter gave the reading, and the accessory flash was set to TTL with flash exposure compensation set to –1/3 to lessen the flash a bit.
As the light gets lower in the day, fill flash is used to put light on a subject so that it does not appear as a silhouette. This is great for shooting against a sunset. The light is very bright behind the subjects in 1-15, and the exposure should be set for the background so that it maintains its color and richness. Using the strobe in its TTL mode automatically balances the amount of strobe light with the background exposure. If the subject is too dark or too light against the background, use flash exposure compensation to raise and lower the amount of flash power.
The exposure in this image was 1/125 sec. at f/5.6 at ISO 200 and was set in manual with a 28-70mm f/2.8 lens. The exposure was set for the background sunset; the accessory flash was set to TTL automatic.
Lighting for Silhouettes
Much like a sunset, by placing the subject in front of a bright background a silhouette is almost a certainty. Sometimes using only a little bit of fill flash is what is called for, such as in 1-16. Setting the exposure to get the proper exposure on the background is important, and using manual keeps the exposure consistent frame to frame.
Here, the exposure for the background sky is too dark to maintain any detail on the subject. The power of the dark subject is important, though, so just blasting this subject with light is not good. Using the flash exposure compensation, the power of the flash is set to –2/3, and the actual exposure stays the same. To further make sure that only a bit of light hits this subject, the strobe was zoomed to telephoto manually, and the lens stays wide. Further, the flash head is tilted upward so that the light hits only the subject’s head.
A low camera angle captures a subject in front of a stormy sky and inevitably causes a silhouette. Using a small amount of fill flash shows detail in the shadows, without sacrificing the drama of the image.
Flash Sync Speed
The flash sync speed is the shutter speed at which the flash fires. In most cases, the fastest shutter speed that can be used with strobe is around 1/125 or1/250, but consult your owner’s manual to make certain. Digital cameras with built-in flashes and dedicated accessories generally do not fire if the exposure is incorrect for their operation.
When a shutter fires, the first blade (or curtain) opens the shutter; the second blade closes the shutter. At shutter speeds up to the maximum sync, the shutter is fully open for that fraction of a second, and that is when the flash fires. Faster than that, the closing shutter blade actually begins closing before the opening blade is fully open, blocking the light from a flash that fires at a faster shutter speed than the maximum sync. This causes a dark band across the image.
Sometimes, though, slower shutters are more desirable, especially when the light level is lower. In most cases, the camera’s default sync as it gets darker is 1/60. This sync can cause the background to get very dark prematurely.
By using manual exposure, but still having the strobe set to an automatic mode, a photographer can set the shutter as slow as is necessary to get the background as bright as is wanted. Remember, though, that you get more camera shake and blur as the shutter speed goes down. Some cameras allow you to set the default to any shutter from the maximum sync to as slow as 1 second.
Coming Up Next
In the second post in this series, we’ll be looking at photographing children, groups, candid shots, and environmental photography. Stay tuned for some more great tips on lighting for people and portraits!
- Perfect Photography Technique for People & Portraits: Part 2
- Advanced Macro and Still Life Photography: Part 2
- Quick Tip: 3 Creative Uses of Slow Shutter Speed
- Quick Tip: Dramatic Portraits With Off Camera Flash
- The Ultimate Guide to Working with Interior Light: Part 1