Thursday, July 19, 2012

Four Portrait Setups for Available Light

Light is all around you, bathing you with energy you can almost feel. Light has color, intensity, direction, strength, “softness” or “hardness. Light is beautiful.

Learning to love light, to embrace it in its ever changing splendor, is the key to excellent photography. Learning to control light, to redirect it, to manipulate it, is the key to making money in photography.

The inverse is also true. To appreciate the light, you have to know and understand darkness. Dark areas in a photograph create contrast with the light areas; otherwise the picture would be boring. Darkness in a picture adds mystery, interest and glamour.

Today, everybody has a camera on their phone, so any picture that was taken with even a point and shoot camera looks better than much of what we see on Facebook. However, a picture that has amazing lighting with always capture the viewer’s attention, and people are willing to pay for that attention if it is directed at their portrait, product or service.

There is only one sun. Two light sources of equal strength look stupid and unnatural in a portrait, so the light coming from the second source must be weaker in most cases. Portraits taken in direct sunlight without a reflector or fill flash are usually harsh and have high contrast, with big black shadows or over exposed areas. This is because of the nature of digital light sensors, as well as film. Digital sensors in cameras are not anywhere near as light sensitive as your eyes. Where human eyes see details in the shadows, digital sensors see only solid black or very dark areas with no detail.
Direct sunlight, as beautiful as it is on trees and mountains can be very harsh on human skin, particularly human skin with defects; all the bumps show! Makeup can help, but filling the harsh sunlight with a reflector or two can make the difference between a throw away photograph and a great one.

Portrait setup 1, outdoors

One of the best places to put your portrait subject is with the sun to their back, or behind their head with a little light touching their cheek. This lighting setup is best when the sun is low in the sky, within a few hours of sunset or sunrise. With the sun to their back, take a reflector and bounce the sunlight into their darkly shadowed face, and behold! A halo of light is outlining the person, and soft, directional light is defining their features. Just make sure the reflector is either big enough or close enough to their face to light it evenly. I prefer to do this lighting setup with the portrait subject in sunlight, but with dark trees or buildings in shade in the background behind the subject. Try this setup with the following camera settings: ISO 100, shutter speed 1/125 of a second, and aperture at f11 or even f8.

This type of lighting is very tricky for the auto exposure settings on most cameras. Often the auto setting on the camera will expose for the sun lit area behind your subject, and not for the lower light levels coming from your bounced light. So you will get your best results setting your camera on manual, and adjusting the settings until the faces are properly exposed.

There is an old fashion rule that dates back to film days, but it still works. It is the “sunny 16” rule, and it works like this. If your subject is in direct sunlight with no clouds or shade, then the correct exposure is f16 with the shutter speed matching the ISO. For example, if your shutter speed is 1/100 of a second and your ISO is 100, f16 will be the correct exposure if your subject has direct sunlight on their front. If your ISO is 400 use the closest shutter speed, which may be 1/400 or 1/500 of a second.

Use the sunny 16 rule as a starting point in your photographs, then adjust and bracket your exposures from there. I always press the “info” button on my Canon 5D Mark II, which brings up a histogram. If you don’t know how to find the histogram screen on your camera, take out the manual or camera and find it at once! The kind of histogram graph you want to see most of the time will look like a mountain or hill, with all of the data picking in the middle of the chart. If there are large peaks of data on the left side of your histogram, your picture is very dark. If there are peaks touching the right side of your histogram, you will have over exposed areas in your picture.

In the case of the portrait lighting setup one I described earlier, you should see some very high peaks in your histogram touching the right side of the chart. That’s because the halo or outline effect you want using the sun as a back light or “rim light” should be over exposed. On blond models, the highlights of the hair may look pure white.

Portrait setup 2, outdoors

Dennis Davis Photography
Place your portrait subject under the overhang a porch or a large tree, just inside the shaded area.  One side of their face should be lit by the skylight coming in under the porch or tree, and the other side of their face will be darker, as it is further from the skylight. This setup can be done almost any time of day, even if the sun is directly overhead. You do not want any direct sunlight to fall on your subject, only skylight. Add a reflector on the darker side of their face if there is too much contrast with only skylight.

Portrait setup 3, outdoors

With the sun low in the sky, place your subject so that direct sunlight falls on only one side of their face, and the other side is in shadow. Place a reflector on the shaded side of their face for one effect, or have the subject hold a reflector at waist height, bouncing the light from below back up in their face. If you have two reflectors, try placing them at both positions as well.

Portrait setup 4, indoors

Find a large window that has skylight coming through it, with no direct sunlight. A window on the north side of the building will often be the best. Have your subject lean against the window frame, with one side of their face almost touching the glass. Make sure the background behind the subject is simple and uncluttered, and if not, bring in a plant or remove items to make the background more attractive. The soft light coming through the window should highlight the side of their face closest to the window, and fall off naturally on the side away from the window. Add a reflector next to the shaded side of their face, and see which lighting you prefer.

The light level for indoor light is much lower than the outdoor setups. You may need to use a tripod due to using a lower shutter speed. I will often use an ISO of 400 for portrait setup 4, a shutter speed of 1/60 and an aperture of around f8 or f5.6. Make sure to focus on the subject’s eyes, as your depth of field is very shallow at that aperture.

For all of the portrait setups, I prefer to use a medium telephoto, at around 100 mm. This longer lens will cause the background to blur behind the subject, and keep the focus of the picture on the person in your portrait.

Photography is painting and writing with light. You must learn to understand and control light, to make the kind of portraits people will love.

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