Portrait Special: The Light of Life
Ambarin Afsar discusses how to control and experiment with the one element that breathes life into every photograph—light.
Regardless of whether you are shooting indoors or outdoors, light can make or break your portrait. There are a few things that you need to keep in mind to make sure that your subject is lit in a manner that emphasises their features.
25. Good Lighting is Simple
The lighting of a portrait should be so good that it should make you feel as if you can step into it. Good lighting should actually be very simple to achieve. The more you struggle with the setup, the more contrived the light might look in the image.
26. From Up Above
Good portrait lighting comes from slightly above the eye level of the subject. Make a note of this when arranging a pose.
27. Towards the Light
Watch the light on your subjects. Ensure that their faces are turned towards the light, unless you are trying backlit or sidelit portraits.
28. Position Your Subject
The smaller the light source is in relation to the subject, the sharper the shadows. So, for softer lighting, you need to move to a location with larger or multiple light sources.
29. Where the Shadows Fall
Pay attention to the shadows falling around a person’s nose. Make the nose appear straighter. Position the person or the light so that the shadow is against the straighter side of the nose. If there is no shadow, the lighting may be too flat. If the shadow is too long, it may look unpleasant.
30. The Other Side of Detail
You will pick up more texture and detail when a person is sidelit. So, if your subject is facing the light, then try to angle the body diagonally to the light source.
31. At Home
You can create a home studio with simple lamps, thermocol sheets, butter paper and a black piece of cloth as the backdrop.
32. By the Window
A window that gets lot of light for the better part of the day can be a wonderful source for simple, yet great portrait lighting.
33. If the Light Source Cannot Move…
…then move yourself. A few minutes of walking around and observing the area will help you identufy your best options. You can also direct your subject to move till you see the desired effect.
34. Doorway Light
Light from a doorway is just like light from a large window. If you do not have access to a sun-facing window, then make use of a door.
35. How Many Lights?
Select a lighting system on the basis of ease of use and portability rather than power. Sometimes, all you may need is a small flashgun.
36. Good Outdoor Light
When you see light right next to shadow, at a covered porch or even in an open garage, you can be assured that you can find great portrait lighting there.
37. The Time of the Shoot
Shoot just before sunset or during sunrise to get soft, golden light. However, if you have to shoot at noon, then use a diffuser. A simple frame covered with thin white cloth will do the job nicely.
38. Ideal Directional Light
Finding good directional light is always useful because it makes for nice, contrasty images. So, try to look for places where light is not coming straight down from above.
39. Harsh Midday Sun
Strong midday light can cause sharp, unwanted shadows. While reflectors might not always work, you can lessen these shadows by firing the flash to fill-in the shadows.
40. Backlit Situations
If there is extremely strong backlighting, then expose for the background and use the onboard flash or an external flashgun to illuminate the subject.
41. No Catchlight
Sometimes, there might be no catchlight visible in the eyes of your subject. Fire the flash at a low intensity to get that lifelike spark.
42. The Need for a Reflector
If you are just looking to open up the shadows slightly so that the subject will have good detail throughout the face, then you can use a reflector. Whitewashed walls often form natural reflectors.
43. Employing Different Reflectors
A simple sheet of white thermocol can help you cast a very soft, clean light on the subject. For a greater intensity, a crumpled sheet of silver foil would be more effective. On the other hand, crumpled gold foil casts a warmer light on to the subject.
44. Using a Reflector
Effectively Make sure that the reflector is facing the light source, angled towards the shadowed side of the subject. You will be able to visibly confirm the effect.
45. Shooting in the Shade
Open shade provides softer light coming from one basic direction. Patches of sunlight can be blocked using a cutter, or a piece of cardboard.
46. Meter Off the Face
In situations where the light source is directly behind the subject, exposing for the person’s face may cause the background to get blown out, but can also lend an interesting effect.
47. The Flavour of Ambient Light
In certain low light situations, you might want to retain ambient light, while ensuring that your subject is properly exposed. Here, you can use Slow Sync Flash combined with a slow shutterspeed to balance flash light with ambient tones.
48. White Balance
Your camera already has certain White Balance presets such as Shade, Cloudy, Tungsten and so on. Depending on the conditions you are shooting in, you can use these to render colours as you see them or even enhance the ambient tones of an image.
49. Control Your Flash Output
You might find that the light from a flash gun is too harsh and too flat. You can always soften it by using a diffuser or reduce the intensity with Flash Exposure Compensation. However, remember that the larger a diffuser, the more light it scatters.
50. When in Doubt, Shoot RAW
Plenty of times, you will find yourself confronted with tricky lighting situations. At such times, shoot in RAW so that you can make adjustments later.
This article originally appeared in the January 2012 issue of Better Photography.