Use this tip to find the best light for your portrait photography!
Today I am going to give you a simple tip for how to find the best light for your portrait photography. It’s a quick and easy technique and I use it all the time with great success!
This post started out life as a podcast episode but if you prefer to read – fill your boots!
How light can make the face look is truly amazing to me. It can make the face look radiant, menacing, thoughtful, mysterious, forlorn, peaceful (the list goes on…)
Think about the lighting used in films. The cinematographer carefully uses light to reflect the mood of the scene. Think of a gritty, ominous scene from a thriller in which the lead character is finally being exposed as a psychotic killer. You can almost bet that the light will be low and cool in colour. It will most likely be hitting the scene from the sides to create lots of shadows and contrast on our character’s face making them look dangerous and terrifying.
Then switch that scene in your head to one from an upbeat teen movie where the two lead characters are enjoying a fun day out together. You can almost bet that the light used will be bright, warm and fresh. It will most likely be hitting our characters from the front so that our characters’ faces are evenly lit and glowing with happiness.
We actually just recently published a blog post about films to watch to improve your photography. You should definitely check it out!
As a people photographer I REALLY notice how the light falls on someone’s face. In fact, it is has become an obsessive habit that I just can’t switch off!
Sometimes I am so engrossed in the way someone’s face is lit that I lose track of what they are actually saying to me.
Or a complete stranger catches me staring at them across the room! Sometimes I am looking and just loving what the light is doing to their face but often I am looking and wishing I could turn them this way or that way to improve the light they are bathed in. It is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because it has led me to an understanding of light and faces, and a curse because I can come across as rude if I don’t seem to be listening (or a stalker if I am staring at someone I don’t even know!!!)
If you photograph people I am going to stick my neck out here and tell you that I don’t think there is anything more important than understanding the impact of light on the human face.
Let me talk you through exactly the process I go through when I am trying to find a spot to photograph someone in.
Firstly I always talk to my subject about what I am doing. I ask for their patience whilst I find the perfect light. In my early days I used to feel so rushed at the beginning of a shoot. I felt that I couldn’t keep people hanging around and I couldn’t drag them all over a location until I found ‘my light’. All too often I ended up settling on a spot that was far from ideal. I would quickly realise after taking a few shots that the light wasn’t right but I would feel too embarrassed to say anything. So I would take a whole load of photographs knowing that they would disappoint me and I would have to do a lot of work to them in photoshop afterwards.
Nowadays I have learned my lesson – I will never do that again! I take my time to carefully find good light. I don’t think twice about asking my subjects to move to a different location. If it takes me 20-30 minutes to find a place to take photographs in, then so be it. As long as you are chatting along the way and the weather isn’t horrific then your subjects will not mind. They want to look good in these photographs!
When you take your time and talk to them about what you are doing they will have absolute trust in your skill and abilities. You will seem more confident in their eyes – not less!
Whenever I feel that I have found a nice bit of light I ask my subject to stand in it (if your subject is a young child – do this with an adult first and just let them play or run around). Now you might think you know exactly where the best light is coming from, you might think you know what colour it is and how strong it is.
But no matter how much you think you know, light can surprise you.
You might think your best light is coming from the edge of the woods when, in actual fact, the quality of light coming from the clearing in the trees behind your subject is far superior.
But how will you know? How can you be sure that you have found the best light? Here is what I do;
I ask my subject to stand in the light and I stand directly in front of them. I tell them that I am going to start walking slowly around them in a circle. I ask them to turn slowly on the spot so that they are always facing me.
As my subject turns I absolutely examine their face. I look at what the light is doing to them. I like to have a starting point and my starting point is to find even, front light for my subject. That simply means that the light is hitting them from the front. A good example of this is light from one window in a room or the light coming in from the edge of open shade or even the light from a setting sun.
I am not just looking for front light though. I am looking for good front light.
But how will you know it is good?
When good front light is hitting your subject from the front, their face will quite literally ‘light up’! Their skin will be light and bright and there will be minimal shadows on their face. It is often referred to as flat light because the lack of shadows has a flattening effect. Flat light can be quite boring in other genres of photography but it works for portraits if you want to beautify your subject. Let’s face it, we all want to appear even and flawless don’t we? This front light minimises wrinkles and blemishes and softens features. It is also super-simple for photographers to work with because the light hitting the face is consistent, making the exposure all over the face very similar and easy to find.
When good light is hitting your subject from the front you will also see their eyes light up. The skin around the eyes will not be in shadow and there will be twinkling catch lights in the iris. The importance of these catch lights in the eyes just can’t be overemphasised and I am going to be talking about that in more depth next week.
I want to be able to see a huge difference in the light on their face as they turn. If I turn my subject around and there is not a great deal of difference in the way their face is lit as we turn then I am going to move on. That is not great light to work with. It probably means the light is coming mainly from the top. This is usually because I am out in the open when the sun is very high in the sky or it is just a very cloudy day and there is no direction to the light. It is just coming from the sky and it is flat and dull. Or it might mean that I have found a spot in the shade that just isn’t getting enough light to give me that illuminating effect I am looking for.
When I see their face light up, bright and fresh with gorgeous catch lights in the eyes I know I have found my front light. I don’t stop though! I make sure I turn the whole 360 degrees with them because you just never know. There might be something even better. Make sure you do the full turn!
It goes without saying, I hope, that your background will have to be right. It’s no good finding beautiful front light to work with and then realizing that you have an ugly backdrop. That is a whole other episode though so stay tuned for my background episode coming up soon!
Finding that illuminating, flattering front light is my first step. Once I find that I always take a few shots using it. These are straightforward, evenly lit portraits. Some would call them ‘safe shots’ because they are easy to expose for, easy to capture and your subject will love them. They will be the best versions of themselves in that light. Fresh-faced, twinkly eyes, flawless skin – what’s not to love?
However, it certainly doesn’t stop there. Once you have found your light, keep your subject in it. I usually keep my subject facing that general direction with just subtle turns to each side. I then move around them looking for new angles.
I look for the shadows and I consider how strong they are and where they are falling. Some shadows are ugly, such as dark shadows falling under or all around someone’s eyes or a deep shadow under someone’s nose (making it look bigger). No one is going to thank you for capturing those. Some shadows engulf your subject’s whole face and their catch lights will disappear completely. Get out of that light asap!
However, some shadows are beautiful and add stunning contours to the face. If you are wondering how you will know which are ugly and which are beautiful, you simply have to look.
When I say look, I mean really look. It is truly amazing what you see when you really look.
A mistake that so many learner photographers make is to change their exposure as they move around their subject. They see that there are more shadows and they assume that they need to increase their exposure to compensate.
The thing is, your subject is in the same light, it is just you who has moved. If you have moved to capture more shadows then you need to make sure that these are evident in your photograph. Your exposure shouldn’t change.
This is something I am going to be talking you through in much more detail during Tuesday’s live webinar which is all about using the light from one window in three different ways. So if you would like to get a much deeper understanding of this concept then make sure you register. It is happening at 8pm (GMT) on Tuesday 8th March and it is entirely free to join.
I really hope you can make it – I am so excited about it!
So there it is – turning with your subject – how simple is that? Next time you are doing some portraits, take time to do that turn and find that light. This simple tip will transform your people photography and will get you well on your way to a much better understanding of light.
I know that you won’t always be photographing people. If you are wondering if there is a tip for finding the light when you don’t have a person with you and you are photographing something else, the answer is, yes there is!
I am going to share it with you next week so please tune in!