Dappled Light, Direction of Light & Making Portraits in Available Light
- Oct 19th. 2012
- Posted in lighting . Portraiture . Tips & Tricks
- @ThomasShue . Dappled Light . lighting . Lilsamedia . lilsamedia.com . Make Better Portraits . northern light . open shade . people pictures . photography . Thomas Shue . Thomas Shue Photography . tom shue
- By Thomas Shue
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Dappled Light, Direction of Light & Making Portraits in Available Light
Hi and welcome to my blog. Today I want to share a few tips on portrait shooting when you are working with available light. If you find yourself working outside in the middle of the day, you want to find a spot that has “open shade”. When I say open shade, I mean a place that is shaded but does not allow light to penetrate. Dappled light should be avoided unless you plan to use the blotches of light to create some sort of image with lots of artistic expression.
When I am out and about, I see lots of photographers that take a subject, stick them under a tree and start shooting. I know the images won’t be good. The mix of shade and shafts of light that fall on a subject can ruin the image. The problem is there is too much contrast between the shadow and the highlight. Don’t get me wrong, if I have no reflector, I too search for the shade of a tree, but not always shade from the top of the tree. Sometimes I use the trunk because it wont let any light through it, and the shade is a consistent value. Also, it’s a great natural GOBO that has a great quality of light. TIP: Right at the edge where Light meets the shadow, there lives a sweet spot. That edge can be used to wrap light around a subjects face, used as a hair light, or as a fill light. Just look around you and see what direction the light is coming from.
Direction of Light
We all know that living in the northern hemisphere, the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. We also know that if you face your subject into the sunlight, they they will be squinting and eyes watering…all in all, just miserable. With this information it should be easy to figure out the proper direction to face your subject. Face them away from the sun and in the shade, right? Well yes and no, it isn’t that simple.
Lets say you are renting a studio and want to use available light to make portraits. There are two buildings to choose from, they are exactly the same in size and both have a huge front window. One building has the large window facing North, and the other is across the street and has the window facing South. Which one would you rent, and why? Think about that for a minute. I will tell you the answer at the bottom of the post. I will say this, one photographer will be able to work all day and the other will have to use strobes most of the day.
I will share a simple trick I use to to determine the direction of available light. This might sound silly, because you can just look up and see where the sun is, right? Well, I am here to tell you, if it was that easy, I wouldn’t see so many photographers working in the middle of the day on the wrong side of the park. It’s bad enough they are working in the middle of the day, when the sun is hard to deal with, but if you must, this is what I do. Just stick your hand up in the air, look to see what side of your hand the direct sun is hitting, and, volia, you just found the direction to place your subjects back against. It’s a simple trick that no matter how tired, hungover or distracted you are, you can always use to determine the best direction to face your subject. Now it’s a matter of determining what you want your background to look like. If you use a flash you can make it dark, use scrim to cut more light from the subject to make the background even brighter. All of the usual lighting rules apply, but at least now you have a nice clean slate to start from.
An Open Shade Image above
Find Open Shade.
Now that you know what direction to face your subject, find and use some nice even open shade to your advantage. You see, even shade will allow you to open the lens aperture much wider and render the background super soft. The colors just blend so nicely and any distracting elements are eliminated, allowing the viewers focus be be directed to the subject. Personally, I love wide open, fast glass. Also in the open shade the subject won’t be sweating, squinting and complaining about the direct sun. This makes it much easier for the subject to concentrate and follow your directions, thus making for better images. In the open shade you can use a fill flash and to create a catch light. You can set up a reflector in the open sun and kick light back to the subject. But, beware if your subject has blue eyes, they can’t take a reflector on them for very long. Just put it on, take the picture and take it off. Dark eyes can handle it much easier. Avoid using the silver and gold in direct sun, it’s too powerful. Use a soft white reflector while working in the sun and if you need more contrast, use a black one.
A Dappled Light Example Above
I try to Avoid Dappled Light
When you shoot with dappled light, besides the nasty shadows you to have to deal with, you’ll have to stop down the aperture to achieve a proper exposure. This will cause the background to not be rendered as nice or soft as when the lens is wide open. The background objects will be more in focus due to the wider depth of field and the shadow patterns caused by the light shafts will be a major distraction. In a portrait, I try to create an image with the least amount of objects competing for a viewers attention. All rules are meant to be broken, but I think you should know the rules before you go breaking them. All of this advice is based on what I have learned over the years, so please use it as you wish.
The Answer To The Above Studio Window Question
A North facing window is the kind of window I prefer, northern light is more even in coverage, and has a more consistent brightness as well as a longer duration. It’s a forgiving light that can be used as the main light or with reflectors as a fill, or as the fill light working with strobes/constant light. Also, early 20th Century photographers built studios to utilize northern light, since electric lighting equipment was very expensive and they made some amazing portraits using glass plate negatives.
A Simple Test
Here’s a simple test to see if you want to use northern light. Place an object like a bowl of fruit or a flower arrangement in a nice shiney vase on a table next to a southern facing window and take shots of the subject an hour and half apart. Next repeat the test with a northern facing window. When you frame the subjects for the test shots, make sure the subject is being shot from an angle where the camera is ninety degrees to the light source, you need to see the shadow side of the subject as well as the side that is being illuminated by the window. I am quite sure you will see why I prefer the northern facing window. I hope you found useful and it helps you make better images. Thanks for taking time to visit my blog today and if you have any questions or comments please post them below. Thomas Shue