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Portrait Photography Tips for Good Easy Light

Photography Tip Skill Level: Beginner

Portrait Photography Tips for Good Light

Portrait Photography Tips for Good Easy Light
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Good lighting in portrait photography can be the difference between a terrible photo and a phenomenal one. I'd go so far as to say that the lighting used is more important than the composition, the subject, the makeup, the wardrobe, the lens, the exposure settings... If you have good light, the job becomes very easy. But it seems that photographers like to overcomplicate things (shocking, I know). They start adding flash when it isn't necessary, breaking out soft boxes, umbrellas, light stands, Pocket Wizards, and who knows what else to try and get the light just right. Sure, that works great if you have the time and budget of Annie Leibovitz, but for most of us just looking to get better portrait photos without going crazy, this approach can be a bit much. So I thought I'd post this portrait photography tip about how to find good, flattering light that'll take your natural light portraits to the next level. No need to purchase anything for this portrait photography tip, you just need to move into the right position.

So a friend of mine manufactures these amazing sunglasses made out of exotic woods (keep an eye out for Knottywoods Eyewear). He dropped me a line over the holidays because he was going to be in town and wondered if I might be down for a photo shoot highlighting these awesome specs. Although you might think of me as a landscape guy, I can still snap a mean portrait and I love the opportunity to get creative on something like this.

The situation was a little tricky. We went out into a local nature park, brought some props, and started searching for a good place to set up. The tricky part was the light. It was a clear day, not a cloud in the sky, and the sun was beating down harsh on our models. If we shot in open sunlight, the shadows would be too harsh because direct sunlight is generally hideous for portraits (unless it's towards sunset or sunrise). The dark, hard-edged shadows created by the open sun exaggerate facial features and blemishes. It can also put dark shadows on people's eyes, robbing the photo of that sparkling glint in the irises. So direct sunlight was a no-go.

The second option was shooting under a tree. But that gave us mottled light - blotches of sunlight mixed in to the shadows of the branches. Also no good.

That brought us to the third option and the subject of this portrait photography tip: flat even shade. That's right, some of the best light you'll ever find for portrait photography is even shade. And when I say even shade, I just mean the shadow is big enough to completely engulf your subject - no splotches of sunlight breaking through. Whenever I'm shooting portraits in natural light outdoors, the first thing I look for is a big shadow I can throw my model into. But not just any old shadow will do. You need a shadow that has some lighting bouncing into it from the sunlit environment around it. In other words, I don't want to be so deep into a shadow that virtually no light is illuminating my subject. I want to be near the edge of the shadow so that the sunlight bouncing off the trees, clouds, ground, buildings, street, and whatever else just outside the shadow will bounce into the shadow, bathing my model in a nice, soft glow.

For this shoot, I found the shade I was looking for on the eastern side of a big oak tree. The tree was sufficiently large enough to completely block the westerly sun, casting a nice big shadow for my models to pose in. And just beyond the shadow (further to the east) was a sunlit landscape of hills and trees that kindly bounced that sunlight right back into my shadow in a huge, soft glow. As you can see in the photos, the light on my models is soft, even, and consistent. No dark eyes, no exaggerated features, no highlighting blemishes. The light is easy to work with and it results in softer skin, requiring no touch-up work in the computer. The light works very well regardless of the tools used. Here I used a DSLR and medium format Portra 160 film.

Don't make your portrait photography shoots more difficult than they need to be. Remember this portrait photography tip and just put your models in the shade. They'll be more comfortable, your job will be a lot easier, and they'll like the pictures more (which is the most important part).

Portrait Photography Tips for Good Light

Portrait Photography Tips for Good Light

Portrait Photography Tips for Good Light

Portrait Photography Tips for Good Light

Portrait Photography Tips for Good Light

Portrait Photography Tips for Good Light

Portrait Photography Tips for Good Light

Rembrandt Lighting in Portrait Photography

Rembrandt Lighting in Portrait Photography Rembrandt Lighting in Portrait Photography
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Continuing my previous post showcasing the photo shoot I did with my brother, here I wanted to share some more details on the lighting I used to create some of these portraits. I opted for a style of lighting called "Rembrandt Lighting" because I've always loved the deep, soft-edged shadows it creates. When used in the right way, Rembrandt lighting makes for some excellent depth and drama in portrait photography. Granted, this light probably isn't ideal for the fun family portrait to hang over the fireplace, but in these shots, it worked quite well.

Rembrandt lighting gets its name from the works of the 17th-century painter Rembrandt. His painted portraits often utilized a light that appears to originate from a large source - like a big window - at the extreme side of the model. The light was soft and the shadows dark with little to no fill-light on the shadowed side. The trademark look of Rembrandt lighting is when the shadow of the nose and cheek creates a little upside-down triangle of light on the model's cheek opposite the light source.

Take a look at the picture below. Notice that triangle of light on the model's left cheek (your right). That's Rembrandt lighting.

Rembrandt Lighting in Portrait Photography

So how to do you find Rembrandt lighting? Simple. You just need a big light source to one side of your model and a dark, unlit room or shadow to the opposite side. Put someone next to a sliding glass door in an otherwise darkened room, then photograph them with the door to their right or left. All of the sunlight outside bouncing off the landscape will pour in through the door as a big, soft glow. You don't want sunlight shooting directly in through the door, just let the light bounce off the trees and sidewalk and grass and sky and everything else beyond the door. But the photos you see here were not taken next to a sliding glass door, so let me dissect the light on this series of shots.

For the photos you see here with the concrete background and floor, we were in the shade of a storm drain. No joke. Just a dirty old storm drain. It was one of those rectangular drainage tunnels about as tall and wide as a 2-car garage. You could easily drive 2 cars down it side-by-side. We went right to the edge of the storm drain where the ceiling of it terminated and opened up to daylight. This is where I found Rembrandt lighting - under the shadow of this dark tunnel, but just at the edge of it where sunlight bouncing off the environment poured a few yards in to the cavernous space.

This is where you find good light: the edge of shadow. What I mean by that is you put your model in a shadow, but get right up to the edge of the shadow where it just starts to meet the sunlight. The sunlight bouncing off the environment outside the shadow will pour light into the shadow itself as a beautiful gentle glow.

When you think of a shadow, you probably think of a lack of light. But shadows are not a lack of light. There must be light in a shadow, otherwise we wouldn't be able to see anything in a shadow. The light in shadow is coming from light bouncing off of buildings and trees and clouds and sidewalks and the sky itself. So when you're in full shadow, like we were under the shelter of this storm drain, the light source is actually the environment out there in the sunlight. Standing indoors next to a sliding glass door or a big window achieves a similar effect. The environment itself illuminates with the sunlight and that light bounces into the shadow.

When it comes to light, the bigger the light source is, the softer the light is and the fuzzier the edges are on the resulting shadows. When the whole environment to your left (in this case) is the light source, you have a huge light source to work with. Thus the light is soft and, for portraits like this, very flattering.

Rembrandt Lighting in Portrait Photography

Rembrandt Lighting in Portrait Photography

Rembrandt Lighting in Portrait Photography

Rembrandt Lighting in Portrait Photography

For the photos in this series below done out in the open where you can see the sky, I used the setting sun to illuminate my subject. The sun itself is not small but relative to us it's no bigger than a quarter held at arm's length. That makes it a small light source which, accordingly, creates harder-edged shadows. But you'll notice in these photos that the shadows are nearly nonexistent, which indicates that the light source is very large. Well, if you wait long enough, the sun will drop so low on the horizon that its intensity about evens out with the sky around it. Basically, the air stretching out to the sides of the sun and a little bit above it illuminate like fog in headlights. When this band of air illuminates under the light of the setting sun, it creates what is called the "twilight arch." This illuminated air - this twilight arch - acts as a light source in and of itself, making the shadows just a bit softer than in the middle of the day when the twilight arch is absent and the source of light is much smaller.

If you wait until the sun is below the horizon, the light source becomes the sky itself. This light source is huge, and so the shadows virtually disappear after sunset. In fact, if you look at the series of shots below, you'll see that the first photo shows some relatively sharp shadows on my brother's face. This is because the sun wasn't that low on the horizon yet, and thus the light source was relatively small. Then, as the sun dropped lower for the next 4 photos, the twilight arch started to glow, creating a bigger, softer light source, bringing with it the attendant softer-edged shadows.

So size does matter...at least when it comes to good lighting for portraits.

Medium Format Kodak Portra 160

Medium Format Kodak Portra 160

Medium Format Kodak Portra 160

Medium Format Kodak Portra 160

Medium Format Kodak Portra 160

All of the photos featured here were made on Kodak Portra 160 film using a 6x7 medium format camera (Mamiya RZ67 with a 110mm f/2.8 lens). I was switching back and forth between medium format film and 35mm film using a Canon 50mm f/1.2L lens throughout this shoot because I wanted to compare the shooting technique and the overall look between the two formats. Upon reviewing the shots, I quickly came to the conclusion that I prefer the medium format. The resolution is unreal and the 110mm lens at f/2.8 created the perfect depth of field and compression. I also enjoyed shooting with this camera a lot more. Since I had far fewer frames to burn, I was much more careful and deliberate with my shots. I hate feeling sloppy, and that I wasn't on the medium format.

Photography Tips: How To Crop Photos Correctly

Skill Level: Beginner

Cropping a photo after the fact seems like the most basic of basics. I mean, come on, how much can I really write about cropping a photo? Well, surprisingly, most beginners in photography don’t know how to crop a picture correctly. Errors in the process result in unexpected printing issues and some serious frustration.

The key to properly crop photos involves aspect ratios. The aspect ratio is simply a ratio that indicates the length of the photo compared to the width. For instance, an aspect ratio of 1:2 means the long edge of the photo is twice as long as the short edge.

Every print size available has an aspect ratio. There are standard aspect ratios and non-standard aspect ratios. If you crop your photo to a non-standard aspect ratio, one of two things will happen: either (1) you’ll get the print made on a standard size paper and as a result, the sides of your photo will be lost, or (2) you’ll print the photo on non-standard size paper, but then have a hell of a time trying to find a frame that fits it.

Let’s look at some common print sizes:

  • 4x6
  • 5x7
  • 8x10
  • 8x12
  • 10x15
  • 11x14
  • 12x18
  • 16x20
  • 16x24
  • 20x24
  • 20x30
  • 24x30
  • 24x36

In order to determine the aspect ratios for each print, we simply reduce the dimensions like we would a fraction:

  • 4x6 = 2:3 aspect ratio
  • 5x7 = 5:7
  • 8x10 = 4:5
  • 8x12 = 2:3
  • 10x15 = 2:3
  • 11x14 = 11:14
  • 12x18 = 2:3
  • 16x20 = 4:5
  • 16x24 = 2:3
  • 20x24 = 5:6
  • 20x30 = 2:3
  • 24x30 = 4:5
  • 24x36 = 2:3

So, you see, some print sizes are 2:3, some are 4:5, and some are seemingly weird ratios like 11:14.

Many people crop their photos free hand. Meaning, they crop it to whatever they think looks good, completely ignoring any preset aspect ratio. That’s fine to do so long as you don’t plan to print the photo on standard size paper. If it’s just going up on Flickr and Facebook, no problem. Aspect ratios don’t really matter in digital sharing.

How to crop a picture - crop photos correctlyThis photo was cropped to no specific aspect ratio - it was cropped free-hand.
So long as I don't plan to print and frame this image, the non-standard
aspect ratio is no problem. It doesn't really matter for digital display. 

But if I want to print this free-hand cropped photo as an 8x12, the 2:3 aspect ratio will force me to lose some of the image:

How to crop a picture - crop photos correctlyPrinted as an 8x12 (2:3 aspect ratio), my photo loses some of the sides

If I want to print it on 8x10 paper, the 4:5 aspect ratio will force me to lose a lot of the image, too:

How to crop a picture - crop photos correctlyPrinted as an 8x10 (4:5 aspect ratio), my photo loses a lot of the sides

And when I send the file to the printer for an 8x10 print or an 8x12 print, they’re just going to print the center of the image, forcing the edges out.

But maybe I want one of those edges. Maybe the right side is really important and I only want to lose the left side. Or maybe I’d rather keep both sides and just expand the top and bottom to include more of the image I previously cropped.

That's why when you crop photos, it’s best to crop to a specific aspect ratio so that you know exactly what will be included in the print. If you plan on printing an 8x10, crop the image to a 4:5 aspect ratio. If you plan on printing an 8x12, crop it to 2:3. You may need to create duplicate files with different cropping for different size prints.

Every image editing program worth its salt will allow you to “lock in” a certain aspect ratio when cropping. This is how it looks in Adobe Lightroom:

How to crop a picture - crop photos correctlyIn Adobe Lightroom, just choose
an aspect ratio and make sure
the padlock icon is "locked"

By simply choosing an aspect ratio and clicking the lock to lock it in, you can force the cropping box to maintain the proper aspect ratio. That way you can control exactly what will be cropped and what won’t.

And here’s the thing...your DSLR camera is very likely shooting photos in a 2:3 aspect ratio. Some cameras shoot 4:5 natively, but almost all Nikon, Canon, and Sony DSLRs shoot in 2:3. So if you want it to print exactly as it came out of the camera, stick to 2:3 aspect ratios.

Oh, and here’s the other thing...many of the most common frame sizes don’t match your camera’s 2:3 aspect ratio. For instance, 8x10 and 5x7 frames are plentiful, but 8x10 and 5x7 prints are not the same aspect ratio as what your DSLR spits out.

So stick to the proper aspect ratio, whatever print size you plan to make. It’ll make the process a whole lot less frustrating.