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Making Portraits With Available Light

These simple insights will help you make great people pictures with whatever light is available

Many acclaimed portrait photographers use strobes or continuous light sources to meticulously craft beautiful lighting. That might lead to the impression that serious portraiture requires serious lighting equipment—but that’s simply not true. Natural light is available both indoors and out, and it can look absolutely magical. The trick is to know exactly how to put that ambient light to use. So, here’s a look at some essential techniques to employ when making beautiful portraits with available light.

Using Window Light

When I’m indoors, my first thought is window light. This isn’t just any window, however. It’s ideally a north-facing window such that it produces bright but indirect illumination. Similarly, a west-facing window can work in the morning and an east-facing window works well in the afternoon. The bright open sky illuminates the window without direct sunlight pouring in, and that makes it perfect for portraiture. (South facing windows, at least in the Northern Hemisphere, typically get direct sun all day, while north facing windows never do.) If I’m able to, I put the big window at my back or just to the side of my camera such that the light is frontal and fully illuminates the subject’s face. (That’s another good tip: Wherever you’re shooting, start by simply ensuring your subject’s face is aimed at the brightest part of the illumination. There’s a simple way to remember this—point their nose right at the light!) The closer your subject is to the window, the broader the illumination will be and the higher the contrast between highlight and shadow. Big windows make this easier, so if I’m stuck with a smaller window or a confined space, I’ll settle for putting the window to the side of the subject and creating a split-lighting scenario.

Traditional Portrait Lighting Patterns

Speaking of split lighting, an understanding of traditional portrait lighting patterns can help you turn the light that’s available into the perfect portrait light just based on how you position the subject in relation to it. (These patterns are called Butterfly, Loop, Rembrandt and Split, and you can read all about them in these pages and elsewhere as they’ve been a secret to portrait lighting success for generations.)

Shooting In Open Shade

If I’m shooting my portraits outdoors, I head for open shade. This is anywhere in which the subject isn’t in direct sunlight but rather is illuminated by bright sky. This isn’t the same as plain old “shade” like you’d find in the middle of the forest. Open shade is open to bright sky (which does NOT show the sun in it) such that the illumination is bright and directional, but also soft because it’s inherently a reflection of the sun off of the atmosphere. This open shade is a great way to create flattering light for faces. You can find it under awnings and inside doorways, at the edge of the forest or on the shaded side of a building. Anywhere that blocks the direct sunlight and remains open to bright sky is an ideal candidate for portrait lighting.

Next, you’re ready to take your natural light portraits from plain to special. When you’re choosing the spot in which to shoot, try to position the subject so that they’re far from the background and such that the background is without prominent distractions. By doing this and keeping the background fairly clean and simple (although not exactly empty, either) you’ll have depth and texture without distraction.

Another helpful way to achieve this visual focus on the subject is to find a background that’s dark. Assuming the subject is brightly illuminated, a dark background will further recede from prominence and help your subject to stand out, enhancing the illusion of depth. You might be able to find a darker background with just a subtle camera movement, such that shade from a building or tree darkens the area behind the subject, or by choosing a background that’s itself dark in color—whether that’s a painted wall indoors or a natural rock formation out. With a dark and distant background, the subject will more easily isolate the viewer’s attention.

Using Reflectors For Fill Light

To put a little more production value onto the subject, think about the little things you can do to add a bit of wow factor. I find that a simple white foamcore reflector for fill light can help tame contrast, and an over-the-door mirror placed behind the subject and out of frame opposite the direction of the key light can trace a thin bright line along their shadow side and help further enhance that three-dimensionality—particularly if you’ve placed the subject against a dark background. You can even consider positioning a reflector just out of frame below the subject to add a hint of fill light and eliminate too-strong shadows from their face and eyes—although be warned that a little goes a long way here. Too much lighting from below has a negative effect. Just enough to brighten the eyes is plenty, and I find white to be more subtle and effective than anything silver or gold.

Add A Catchlight To Your Subject’s Eyes

Speaking of eyes, if you can position the subject in relation to the key light such that you see a reflection of that light source in their eyes—a catchlight—you’ll notice your portrait immediately becomes more compelling. This is often achieved simply by changing the angle of their head (chin up!) in relation to the light, and you can see it immediately as they turn just the right way and their eyes light up. It’s these little things—like catchlights, fill lights and the enhancement of depth in a photograph—that really matter when it comes to the quality of a portrait. They certainly matter a lot more than the make and model of the special equipment you’re using. As Ansel famously said, the most important component of a camera is the 12 inches behind it. If you know what to do when shooting portraits with available light, you can make absolutely beautiful images with it.

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