March 08th 2013 by Andrew S Gibson
I’ve spent a lot of time recently taking portraits in natural light. I’ve come to the conclusion that there are several types of natural light that are most suitable for portraiture. I’m going to write about them here today because understanding the nature of the light in these different situations will help you take better portraits.
My aim is to take moody portraits, and I want the most evocative light possible to help me do this. Light is an important element of mood (my previous two articles looked at mood in more depth, you can read them here and here).
I often take portraits in the late afternoon as the quality of light is higher. Time of day is as important as location and model choice as the quality of light directly influences the end result.
Sun vs. shade
It’s surprising how many people think that you need bright sunshine to take portraits (models included). That couldn’t be further from the truth. The first thing I look for if I’m taking portraits on a sunny day is shade as that’s where the best quality light is found.
The above two photos show this principle in action. For the first one I positioned my model Wimmy so the sunlight just caught her hair and shoulder. It kind of works – the light is interesting. But it’s also created a couple of distracting highlights on the background.
For the second photo I moved Wimmy into the shade. There are no distracting highlights on her body or the background. These lighting conditions are much easier to work with in the field.
Bear in mind that the background is just as important as the light (and the model!) in portraiture. Everything should work together in harmony – the setting should suit the model, the clothes she is wearing and the light. It should complement the subject of your portraits without distracting from her.
A cloudy day
This is good light for portraiture. It’s soft and even. It lets bright colours come through (I haven’t done anything to enhance the colours of the above photo) and with a little care it won’t give you any issues with excessive contrast. All you have to do is find a good background and then you can concentrate on working with your model to create some interesting portraits.
Shade on a sunny day
This is my favourite type of natural light for portraits. It gives wonderful results. It took me a while to work out why, but here’s the reason. If your model is positioned in the shade, and whatever is behind you (the photographer) is lit by the sun, then it acts like a giant reflector and bounces a tremendous amount of light onto your model. Especially here in New Zealand, where the sun is very strong. This type of light gives the model’s skin an almost luminescent glow. Here’s the photo from above again, larger this time, so you get the idea:
It also creates great catchlights. I can even see myself reflected in the model’s eyes. This is an enlargement from the above photo. The detail camera is picking up is incredible:
In the shade, standing in a doorway
This may sound a little odd until you see it in action. We’ve already seen that the quality of light in the shade is beautiful, especially on a sunny day. If your model is standing in the doorway of a building, and there is no light illuminating the interior, then you have a nice dark background behind her. This looks very cool.
These two photos show how it works. I used an old boat house I found by the sea. I asked Wimmy to stand in the doorway. The first photo includes the boat house. I created the second by cropping the first image when I realised in post that it would be a more effective composition:
Backlighting at sunset
The light is incredibly dramatic and beautiful at this time. But backlighting is tricky because of the high contrast. The correct exposure for the model will blow out highlights in the background. You could lose some detail around the edges of the model, especially her hair. It’s a bit hit and miss.
I get the best results when I take a photo with the sun setting behind the model just at the point it is about to vanish over the horizon. The light is at its warmest and softest, and the camera can cope with the contrast.
The light at dusk is very beautiful, especially in the spring and summer. I live amongst hills and as the sun sets behind them it creates a very soft, even, warm light. It’s a magical time of day when just about everything looks a little special. Light levels are low so a fast prime lens and a camera with good high ISO performance help.
This is the time after the sun has set and the light levels are rapidly fading. Street lights come on and so do the lights in any buildings in the background. Fast lenses and high ISOs are essential. I’ve taken some of my favourite portraits on the edge of night and day like this. The low light levels are a challenge but when it works out the results are worth it. You can see that the light from the street lamp in the above photo is reflected on the road – super moody, especially when combined with the bokeh created by the wide aperture (f1.4 on a 50mm lens).
Hopefully these tips will help you take better natural light portraits. When it all comes together (model, setting, background, lighting) the results can be really evocative. The effort required to be in the right place at the right time for magical lighting is always worth it.
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