It’s been raining a lot here in San Francisco, and the fact that we need the moisture offsets only so much grey-sky depression. However, in addition to being annoying, persistent cloud cover is also a good reminder that, when it comes to lighting people, less is often more.
If you’re shooting portraits, lighting has more of an impact on your final result than anything else. Yes, it’s important to get subtle skin tones the right color, and sure, you might want to consider whether you want more or less depth of field, but it’s lighting that will do the most to make a person look more pleasing.
Of course, you can buy expensive lighting rigs or multiple flash units and concoct carefully constructed three-point lighting schemes. Using studio lighting (or multiple handheld strobes) definitely gives you the greatest control and flexibility. Or you can save yourself a lot of money and use available light.
The sun is a very good source of illumination for portrait shoots (as well as for agriculture and the general survival of life on the planet). What’s more, it’s a type of light that our visual system is attuned to. The only real problem with it as a portrait lighting source is that there’s too much of it.
Shot in direct sunlight, this image suffers from deep shadows and harsh highlights. Her eyes are lost in shadow, and every contour of her face casts a shadow. Click on the image to see a larger version.
Because she’s standing in direct sunlight, her eyebrows, cheekbones, and nose are casting dark shadows onto her face. This is usually the case when you shoot in direct sunlight. In addition to making eyes look sunken, noses bigger, and wrinkles and skin texture more pronounced, these shadows also make the image generally more contrasty, which can make it a little harder to read.
You can, of course, wait for cloud cover, but this isn’t always practical, and often comes with the risk of rain. What’s more, cloud cover can be too thick.
A better approach is to employ your own portable cloud in the form of a piece of diffusion material. Most camera stores carry collapsible diffusers. They’re a lightweight, easy way to reduce the contrast in a portrait.
To use them, place one between your light source and your subject — just as if a cloud had floated in front of the sun.
In the image above, I’ve mounted the diffuser on a pole. If you don’t have an assistant available, you can use a stand, which you should also be able to find at your local photo store.
To further reduce the darkness of shadows, you can bounce sunlight back up into the subject’s face with a reflector. You can buy disks that have solid white surfaces (or gold or silver) or get covers that go over a standard diffuser disk. In a pinch, you can use a sheet of white cardboard or foamcore as a reflector. Even plain paper will do if it’s not too windy.
Now shadows are much less pronounced and highlights are toned down, so the image has a less-distracting contrast ratio overall.
Reflectors are handy even without a diffuser. “Don’t shoot into the sun” is an oft-repeated photo tip, but shooting into the sun can be a good choice when shooting portraits. If you position subjects with their backs to the sun, you’ll get a nice halo of light around their heads. This is a flattering accent and separates them from the background.
What’s more, because your subjects won’t be looking into the sun, you won’t have to worry about them squinting.
If you have a white reflector handy, you can bounce a little bit of light back into their faces to fill out the shadows.
A silver or gold reflector gives you a different color of light and usually bounces more than a white reflector. With it, you can cast a warm tint on an image and deliver a lot more light. These warmer reflectors are mostly too warm for me. I prefer to shoot in the raw format and adjust white balance to warm up an image. Also, you have to be careful with very bright reflectors, since they can make your subject squint.
Go to page 2 for a few reflector tips and to see a great shot of the author.