Natural Light Portrait Photography

September 1st, 2009 by wys


Most think you must have a massive investment in lighting to do a good job. Portrait photography is the same as any other area of photography. You must know how to use your equipment and understand light and angles. The light can be man make from strobes or a continous source. It can also be from windows or open doorways. The source of the light does not matter. What counts is how you control or modify the light. I learned light control when doing jewelry photography. I photographed both jewelry , wedding bands and diamond engagement rings. They required total light control or the reflections would ruin your shot.

What you need for portrait photography

  • White Foam Core Board-Optional
  • Tripod
  • White Balance Card
  • White Sheet - Optional
  • Arm-less Chair

One of the first things you need to understand is what good light looks like. Walk outside at 12:00 noon on a bright hot day. Where I live that means clear skies and at least 100 degrees. Try to open your eyes and even the reflection from the sidewalk is blinding. This is not good light. Go back inside the air conditioned house and cool down. Now when the sun moves to the back side of your home go to the opposide side. Open the front door and let the soft even light flow in. Notice how it lights a path about 3 feet into the room. This is what I would call nice soft light. Hold up a black poster board and see how it blocks sections of the light. This can be done to increase slight shadows and add depth to your portrait. You can also increase the light by bouncing off a white poster board. This will fill shadows or add light on one side to produce slight shadows on the opposite side. Watch for reflections from cars, sidewalks and buildings. What you see is what you get so play around with it and watch for changes. Very slight changes in lighting make a major impact on the final portrait.

Next I would bring in the model and adjust her position to fit the light. I would bring an armless chair or stool to sit on. For most portrait photography you want to hide the problem areas and bring out the eyes. Shooting down at a slight angle will do this most of the time. With the model in the chair place a solid color backing behind her. I prefer brown or other earth tones. Black is OK but a bit harsh and can mix with dark colored hair since we are not using an above the head hair light for seperation. The low position of the model does provide a touch of a natural hair light but not enough to define dark black hair against a dark black background.

Pick one of your better quality, longer lenses for the photo. I like 100-200mm range but from 85mm -300 will give tou a nice look. 24mm and even 50mm can make the subject look wider or a little distorted plus it does not work well with the angel you will be shooting at. Adjust your ISO and shutter speed. I like my portraits taken at around F4.5.-F5 This gives a sharp face with a very slight softness starting at the ears and back. Under this you may have sharp eyes but the nose may look soft which is not good for portraits. If using a lower cost lens you may need to start at F5.6 which will work fine.

White Balance is the key to great color reproduction. This way I get much better skin tones and can go a touch warmer or cooler in post processing while still knowing what my neutral ( balanced ) shot looks like. Most of the time I leave it as shoot. During processing I may give my background a slight burn at low opacity to increase the depth. Same with the hair or clothing. I may also give the face a tiny bit more depth or contrast depending on how close I got my lighting during the shoot. Using this style of shooting you should have a very nice portrait.

Always make sure you do your photo processing on a color corected monitor. My main screen is corerected and looks 99% the same as my lab prints. My not so costly laptop does not have the adjustments and the photos never look correct. If you are serious about doing portraits invest in a good monitor and color correction softwear.

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