Picking the correct natural light for portraits.

"Oh it's sunny ! let's go take pictures !"

...or let's not ?

What is actually good natural light? This short post should help you with some basics on light for photography.

Let's start from a well know studio habitant: the soft box. While shooting portraits with artificial light, the big issue is the directionality of light: because it comes from a narrow source and in straight line, it creates shadows. Now shadows can look cool and be created on purpose, but many time you wan't to avoid the black areas under the eyes and next to the nose, on the neck or even on your background. In order to diffuse the light, we use soft boxes. It forces the light to bounce inside the box and come out from a very large surface. Instead of a 2 square inches light source, you have a 1 square meter light source that doesn't even shoot light straight. The next two pictures speak for themselves:

Courtesy of weichongraphy.wordpress.com

Now one of the best ways to have a natural soft box is to use a window:
- with a light transparent white curtain if the sun directly hits the window (otherwise it is very directional and hard to expose between light and dark zones in the room).
- without curtains if the window is hit by non direct light or if it's rather cloudy. It will give some direction to the light and it will yet be quite even and smooth. See for yourselves:

Thanks to Ema, Mamiya RZ67 pro II F2.8

Now shooting outdoors. I find that a bright sunny day is actually a pain, unless you want to create that burning sun, strong shadow effect that suggest heat. I live in Ireland, and fortunately, the sun is only a myth here. Instead I have plenty of cloudy skies with very even light.

Boring? Yes it can be if you don't use depth of field & expose correctly. But if you pull those right, you can have very nice, soft images, as follows:

 Mamiya 645 1000s, 80mm (246$ online...)

 Nikon D80, 85mm @F1.8 

Last two are with the Mamiya 645 1000s too.

So don't be afraid of cloudy days. I find that the overal best case scenario is sun with some clouds. In other words, any average day :)

If you shoot in a very harsh sun light, don't hesitate shooting against the sun : you subject's face will be evenly lit, and if you spot meter (measure exposure) on his / her face, you'll have a nice back light effect like this:

Mamiya 645 1000S: I made sure Albin's face was not directly hit by the sun to avoid bad shadow. Ladies: the girl behind is his GF, don't even ask.

If they face the sun, they'll close their eyes, have ugly shadows on the face, yuk ! In that case, you might want to use your flash for some fill light.

Last but not least, you can do one cool thing with very strong sun light, this:

Nikon D80, 50mm F1.8 (100$ lens...)

On this picture, Deborah is in a park in Dublin 4, saturday afternoon, 2pm bright sun. So how come only her face is lit and the rest came black? Well that has to do with something call dynamic range, that I would describe as a camera's ability to restitute details in extreme bright or dark zones.
HDR for example is artificially made extreme dynamic range: you take a shot exposed on dark objects of the image, one shot exposed on bright objects, and you mix the two so everything is bright and details.
Well most digital cameras have a very poor dynamic range (film does much better). So if you measure the correct exposure on the brightest part, in that case her face, the rest will be far to dark to show at that exposure level. 

Now go and shoot stuff.

1 comment:

  1. Hello Ronan,

    I discovered your blog some weeks ago and now I've read all your post. Your portraits and models are simply amazing and I love your reviews too. I think that your suggestions to do correct portraits are really useful. One more thing I love from this site is that you don't need an incredible expensive equipment to shoot. You can make magic with a simply (and wonderful, of course) Nikon FE and the great Nikkor 85mm 1.8 AF-D, it's great! I didn't use to shoot portraits but now, thanks to your blog and your work, I want to start it.

    Thanks for this beautiful (and really useful, one more time) site.

    Best regards,

    P.S. Sorry for my english, I'm spanish.