Portrait Lighting Tips

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When you think about photography you more than likely think about capturing something on film or some form of digital media. Most folks consider the art of photography to be all about capturing the image. That is technically true. But in reality it is not so much the art of an image as much as it is the art of mastering light and making sure that it does what you want it to do. You need to learn how to take the light and mold it to fit your subject.

It might not be the first thing that you think about when you are composing the shot but it certainly should be because the correct lighting elements can make or break the shot. It can make the shot an okay shot or one that will earn you the acclaim of those that view it. You need to start out by looking at light and figuring out how to make that light do what you want it to do and not the other way around.

As a little side not here, too many people that I know that are professionals prefer to shoot and then fix things in Photoshop. This is not the best practice to get in to. It is far better to start off with a shot that is as close to perfect as you can get it and then tweak it ever so slightly in the computer than it is to start off with one that needs a lot of work. Your end result will be more trouble and digital remnants if you take the lazy man’s way out. Trust me here. Good stuff in, good stuff out; it’s a rule to live by. Okay, I’ll hop off of the soap box now.

Things to Look Out For and Basic Rules

The first thing that you want to look at is pretty obvious but yet in the haste of the moment we tend to forget the little details that can make a huge impact in the final photo. That all important and yet often forgotten rule is, look at your subject and then look at the background. They might be very similar in coloring (i.e.: dark on dark or light on light) and that is simply going to make for a bad shoot no matter how you look at it.

Granted if it is a spur of the moment thing that you are doing then you might not have a lot of control over the setting. But look at the other areas in the general vicinity. Perhaps a slight move to a near by area will correct the issue. It might even be as simple as changing the angle that you will be shooting from. Again, the attention to detail can make the lighting go from hum drum to eye catching with a minimum of changing and it can sometimes completely change the lighting complexion of the session.

Also, long before you start trying to do some sessions or other work where you need to be concerned with lighting, you should take the time to learn everything that you can about lighting and how it affects things. You see all too often people learn the rules from books and then jump in feet first to try and capture a great shot. That is like trying to make a good chocolate mousse the first time that you step into a kitchen. It is not likely to happen.

You need to take the time it takes to learn all of the ground rules and commit the basics to your memory banks. This is important because once you know that light coming from angle “A” with a subject standing in location ”B” and a camera at area “C” is going to give you result “D” you will relax behind the lens. You will gain confidence which will allow you concentrate on composition details that you might otherwise miss.

Unfortunately for you, that means that you need to take a lot of time experimenting with things to figure out how lighting works in the real world if you want to get good.

One nice way to handle that is to offer to shoot your family and friends for nothing or else even offer to shoot some Trade for CD sessions – also known as TFCD. That is where you shoot the session for free and give the model edited copies of the shots from the session for free.

The nice thing about TFCD shoots are that you not only learn lighting and composition with a live person but in the editing stage you also learn how that lighting affected the shot and you will start to ho=one your Photoshop skills as well.

You have to make sure to not take it all too seriously though because if you get all caught up in the logistics of the lighting set up and calculations you will forget that the whole photography thing is supposed to be fun. And once you commit the knowledge into your brain a few times you can get back to fun and concentrate on working with your model to capture the best images possible.

Light is Everywhere

Seems like a pretty obvious statement but the truth is that al too often we get caught up in looking at the subject and treating the light as a one dimensional thing, In reality light comes from all around us in the real world and as a result we should think about it that way when lighting our subjects.

It is not simply about getting enough light on the subject to allow you to capture a usable image on your film or your media card. You also need to learn to use the light to help you separate the subject from the background to give the portrait some depth and then you need to add in a little side fill light to add some interest and shadows to make everything look real.

A really good experiment here can be done with a stable object and one single light; you needn’t worry about color temperature, simply light a subject, like a store mannequin from the front and then photograph it with your camera on a tripod. Move the light an even amount at a time all the way around the mannequin and photograph a shot in each location. Then review the shots. You can now see how a dingle light source affects your subject.

Try the same experiment with a light coming from below and behind your subject at about 75 percent of the brightness of the main light and then sit down and compare those results with the single light shots.

Next add a side fills light on one side or the other at somewhere around half the power of your main light and once again repeat the shooting all the way around your subject and take those images to your PC and look at them.

Finally add one mode light on the opposite side and repeat the whole thing one final time. This particular light should be in the neighborhood of around 25 percent of the man light.

When you get all of these together and compare the same positions with the different lighting combinations, you will begin to understand some the more basic of lighting tips and you will learn what lighting will give you which results. That will give you the knowledge and the confidence to take on almost any session shoot with a bit more flair than you did before and you will be a much better photographer for doing it and it cost very little and actually took up less time than a couple of expensive photo courses at the local school.

Remember that one of the most common things that you can have that will totally mess up your photograph is light or the lack thereof.

No Brainier Solutions

If you are looking for ways to get started without having to actually do a lot of research you should try some basic things. Remember that day light is the best light to shoot in. It gives you vibrant colors and awesome illumination. Direct sunlight from 10 in the morning until around three or four in the afternoon is not flattering. If at all possible shoot before those times and / or look for a nice overcast day to shoot your portraits. I don’t mean cloudy with thunder heads looming in the distance, but a nicely clouded day.

The light will be soft and even and it is almost impossible to take a bad photo under that type of lighting. In fact I personally try and look over a weather report and schedule my outdoor shoots around the clouds. It is amazing what a nice cloud covered day can do for the skim tone of a lovely lady.

Also, if you are going to be doing shooting outside, bring some reflectors along to help you make the most of the available light. Now while not everyone can take along a full crew to help them carry the gear and the reflectors and the stands there are a couple of cheap tricks to try.

If you are just starting out, head over to a local super center. Walk back to the automotive center and pick up a couple of the sun shades that go in the windshield of your car. Try and get the all white ones or the silver covered ones.  These can then be cut in half giving you two very small and easy to fold up reflector screens. Pick up a roll of black duct take and come plastic spring type table clamps as well and you are ready to go.

When you get to the outside shoot, pop open the shades and look for a couple of sturdy sticks. You can then prop up the shades off camera and clamp them to the sticks. You then direct the sunlight onto your model and you have instant three point lighting from the sun.

I often use one silver and one white reflector because it allows me to vary the intensity of the light, much like our experiment with the mannequin. The silver will usually be much brighter than the white and you can sculpt things to your liking.

If you do a lot of outdoor stuff and use models for swimsuit poses, glamour or even nude photography, you may want to consider getting some of the gold colored reflectors because the gold will add a bit of warmth to the final shot and make the skin tend to glow more. It’s not terribly needed with an average facial portrait but if there is a lot of skin showing it can make a world of difference. The gold reflectors also have the effect of making even early spring shots look as if it was the midst of summer when the portraits were taken.

And the duct tape? Well no photographer should be without it anyway, but for the reflectors it can help to hold them in place on a wall or other flat surface and it can also be used to tape clothes together in the back off camera so that instead of being baggy they look tight and tailored and make your portrait look ice and crisp regardless of the subject matter.

Using Flash

Generally I have three words to say about using flash in a portrait shoot. Don’t do it. Okay, some times you will have no choice. You might need to add some light on something that you really have no way to light up. But if you have been following the article you should at least have your reflectors.

Anyway, let’s assume that you are in a situation where you need to illuminate a portrait and you have only your camera and the on camera pop up flash and it is a once in lifetime opportunity. You know, maybe Snooky is at your local watering hole and you need to grab the shot before she leaves so that everyone can see that you really saw her.

Here is a solution that will help you get the most that you can out of the flash and not totally lose the shot. It’s not perfect, it does not work all the time and it is often more hassle than it is worth but read on young Jedi and see what trick the master has for you.

This will work equally well for on camera built in pop up style flash or the hot shoe mounted flash units. Grab a white bar napkin or a napkin from a fast food place (I always keep several in my case just for emergencies). Unfold the napkin and then take your duct take or some scotch tape or even a rubber band and cover the lens of your flash with tone layer of the napkin and secure it tightly to it – I never said it would be pretty but it will help. Turn off your red eye reduction setting if you know how and set your flash at full power if you can adjust it. If you are using a hot shoe mounted unit tilt the head at about 45 degrees and start shooting.

What you have effectively done is made a cheap diffuser for your flash. The harsh light from the unit will be spread out giving a much more even light. It will cut down the effective range dramatically so you may want to bump up your ISO setting a little to help counter the lower light. The result is that you get a more balanced light, less shadow and more than likely an actual usable portrait from your simple flash unit.

I do not advocate doing this as a standard practice. If you are out and about a lot and in situations where you know a flash is going to have to be used then you have to use a flash and you know ahead of time, use a sync cord and set it off the camera and bound it with the actual diffuser or soft cover that you can get professionally from a camera store. You may also wish to invest some rather serious cash into getting a fast prime lens that will allow you to capture lower light with less flash and get better results.

More Little Known Tips That Really Work

Photography can contain a lot of hit and miss chances where you might not be totally prepared for the shot and you often have to fly by the seat of your pants to get the best results. You may have noticed that I am not a big proponent of wasting a lot of money on expense things to do my job. A good fast prime lens and a good camera body are essential. After that you can make due with most anything else that you can make work until you can get rich enough to warrant the extra expense.

For the most part if I am not on an assignment or a scheduled photo session, I travel around with my small camera bag with my Canon camera, my fast prime 50 mm lens and a 55 to 250 mm zoom lens and a spare battery, a monopod, some model releases and that is it.  It gives me all that I need to take photos. I often goo out scouting locations for shoots this way and have ended up with some of my best shots from this set up. It allows you to have what you need to make photos and it is light enough to allow you to be fast and mobile.

Use buildings to their full potential. What I mean by that is that a large open building wall can make a phenomenal reflection area to aim the sun on something that you want to shoot.

I was walking down a street in Chattanooga Tennessee one afternoon and I saw the most amazing female I have ever seen in my life. She simply embodies the southern woman with her long straight blonde hair, bikini top and cut off Daisy Duke Shorts. I approached her and handed her a card and asked if I could shoot a few photos. It was about three I the afternoon on a June day so the sun was awesome.

We walked around the corner by this little café and the sun was reflecting off the building across the street it was crazy. I set her so that the sun was over her left shoulder which highlighted her hair and the reflection from the building was right on her face giving it a warm glow.

In the next fifteen minutes I snapped over two hundred shots of her and she has since become one of my many go to models in that area. Of the shots we took over 75 percent of them were spot on for lighting and had we not had the buildings light reflection I would have had maybe five or ten usable shots.

What that shows you is that you need to be prepared and always be looking. I had spotted that café earlier and was planning on having an early snack there because it had an ambience that I liked. Charming and semi sophisticated which actually was in stark contrast to her bikini and cut off shorts but it worked well. I had noticed the large blank wall when I passé by there and planned on snapping a couple shots of it as I had my snack.

Timing worked out well there to combine the elements into a great impromptu photo session that worked extremely well for all concerned. The moral there is that even if you are not planning on shooting something at the particular location keep your head on a swivel and look at everything.

Besides the large flat walls, some other things that you should look for when looking for lighting are areas where the ground can help you by acting as a reflector. Light cobble stone or brick or even a concrete driveway or road surface can be immensely helpful in getting available light to help lighten up the dark shadows that are hard to illuminate.

The moral of the story is to never take off your thinking cap when you are walking around. Available light photography is a nearly lost art form because it is so difficult to do and to do it well. But the cool thing is that once you have the hang of using the lighting that Mother Nature gives us for free every day, you become that much better in creating fantastic shots in a more controlled environment like a studio.

Final Thoughts

So while it is possible to do everything by the book and get the same predictable results time after time. I find that it is far more beneficial to step outside of your comfort zone and use some out side the box ideas and techniques when it comes to shooting your photos.

For instance, most people that I know in the industry like to shoot at a speed of 100 to help eliminate blur and give razor sharp photos. But I have found that lowering the lighting and the speed a little takes a little of the edge off of the photo. Yes, it is not going to be as crisp on the edges but you know what? It looks better to me and a lot of my clients agree.

I always take several shots in very pose that I set up that are nice and sharp and then a couple that are a little slower on shutter speed to soften it up a little. The net result there is that you get a photo portrait that is a little less digital looking and a little more like film. That makes a much better portrait because it softens the blemishes in a natural way. I would say that about seventy or eighty percent of the people that I allow to choose their portraits from a crisp or slightly softened shot induced y lower light and slower speed tend to grab the latter. They claim that they think that they look better that way and they compliment me on my Photoshop skills.

Never stop learning and always challenge yourself to do better and to find new, creative and better way to do things with the light that you use when shooting your photos.

Once you learn and master what light does and you train yourself to look at light as a 360 degree source that is there as a tool for you to use, you will be far better equipped to deal with the little impromptu things that life throws in front of your lens and you will graduate from being a photographer that simply takes pictures to an artist that creates masterpieces. Your quality and confidence will increase and the demand for your work will continue to grow.

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