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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Get The Right Light

Finding and creating soft, flattering light for portraiture

This Article Features Photo Zoom

right lightOne general question I’m asked frequently while teaching photo workshops is, “How can I improve my images?” Participants expect to hear answers like, “Try a different lens,” or, “Change the composition.” True, these things may help, but many times I reply, “Try shooting the subject in better light.”

What is “better light?” With portraits, softening or diffusing the light often is the best strategy. Photographing people on a sunny day will result in strong contrast and shadows on the subject. What are your options to soften the light? You could return on a different day with no harsh sunlight, or you could move the subject into some shade or window light, add diffused flash to overpower the sunlight, or pop out a reflector and fill in the shadows. Let’s explore ways to soften the light.

Window Light
Since the early masters of painting, window light has been recognized as an excellent source of diffused light. Often referred to as “north window light,” this term refers to ambient light entering the window without any direct sun rays. In the northern hemisphere, windows facing north normally don’t have direct sun coming through them, only natural ambient light. With this in mind, virtually any window at the right time of the day can be an excellent source of diffused light for a portrait.

Window light alone makes a great portrait light. If the shadows are too strong on your subject opposite the window, try using a reflector to bounce some light back onto your subject. If you really want to soften up the light, place a large diffusion panel between the window and your subject; this will diffuse the light further.

What about just moving your subject into the shade? True, this will soften the light and eliminate any harsh shadows on a sunny day. If you have no other options, use shade. But shade alone is very flat light and omnidirectional, unlike window light, which originates from a directional source. Try using a reflector in the shade to add a little directional quality to the light.

right lightReflectors
Using reflectors is the first step in learning to modify light. Reflectors produce what I call “real-time lighting.” What you see is what you get, and the light is consistent, so it’s easy to meter and adjust the angle of the light. You can make simple reflectors at home for about a dollar, though excellent collapsible reflectors are very inexpensive—no batteries needed, just pop them open and begin to shoot!

Reflectors come in a variety of styles, shapes and colors. There are two basic kinds of reflectors, collapsible and rigid. Small, circular collapsible reflectors are about a foot in diameter when open and fit into your photo bag or coat pocket. Just take them out of their bag, and they spring open. These reflectors work well with small subjects, from flowers to headshots. Collapsible reflectors also come in larger sizes, up to six feet or more. Advantages of collapsible reflectors are their small size and light weight.

Rigid reflectors consist of metal frames with reflective material stretched tightly across them. Some rigid reflectors collapse for easier carrying and others don’t. The big advantages of rigid reflectors are they don’t flutter in the wind, which makes the reflected light flicker, and they come in very large sizes.

You also need to decide what color of reflective material you want. White is the classic standard and works well for many applications. White isn’t adding color, it’s simply adding a little light to the subject—great to fill in shadows. Gold and soft gold are choices for adding some warm color to the subject. I find gold a little too orange, so I prefer soft gold, which is a muted hue of gold. Instead of turning skin tones orange, it adds a nice tan!

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