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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