FINDING THE LIGHT - PART 1
GOOD LIGHT versus BAD LIGHT---WHAT IS BAD LIGHT?
DIRECT SUNLIGHT--midday--is EVIL! It may be great for growing flowers, but not for portraits, I NEVER allow it to strike my subject's skin. It's just too hard a light source--it's harshness just gives your subjects squinty eyes and unrelaxed faces. The midday sun will also sabotage your portraits of people in the shade. If won't provide a good hair light because with the difference in exposure on their shaded faces and the direct sun you'll just get blown-out highlights on their hair. And for the same reason if you catch ANY direct sun on the background it will just go white.
FULLY OVERCAST SKY--contrary to popular belief--IS THE WORST POSSIBLE LIGHTING FOR PORTRAITS OF PEOPLE. It might as well be raining--when I think I'm only going to get overcast sky--I reschedule the session. Here's why:
1. Most of your light will be TOP LIGHT creating the dreaded RACCOON EYES--dark eye sockets--on your subjects. ( some of you may be saying, "Why not just pop some flash to fill those dark eyes?" hmmm, bring a point light source, into a flat light environment, that will further darken the background and create the most unnatural LOOKING lighting possible--it's too late, if you've already gone over to the dark side!)
2. Overcast sky light is very flat and dull. You will loose the three-dimensionality of the portrait because there will be little difference in the light on the foreground, the subjects, and the background.
3. Color intensity in the background is GONE. IT'S DEAD! If you've read my previous articles you know how I feel about this!
4. There's an ISO issue: With CLEAR SKY--one or two hours before sunset--when my subjects are in the shade my working ISO starts at 400 to get f6.3--for good depth-of-field on groups--giving me a shutter speed of 1/100th sec. (that's putting my camera on a tripod). Then as the light fades I go to 800 ISO and slow the shutter speed to maintain the same f-stop. In an OVERCAST SKY scenario I'm forced to START at 800 ISO to use the same f-stop/shutter speed combination---then I have to go to 1600 ISO as the light fades---WILL YOUR CAMERA PRODUCE A GREAT 24X30" OR 30X40" PRINT AT 1600 ISO?
SO WHAT IS GOOD LIGHT?
The good light for natural light portraits is CLEAR BLUE SKY--the biggest patch of blue sky you can find--without the SUN in it. My ONLY exception to this rule is the setting sun at the "magic hour". That's usually at the beach starting the half-hour before sunset--down to actual sunset as the sun melts into the ocean. Hard to beat this light for drama and warmth!
THE FOLLOWING TWO PORTRAITS, DONE IN THE SAME LOCATION, SHOW THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE LIGHT QUALITY OF OVERCAST SKY AND CLEAR SKY.
In this OVERCAST SKY portrait you can see that the light is VERY top heavy creating dark eye sockets in my subjects and that the background is rather dark (there's no back-light). The only reason I have ANY separation between my subjects and the background is because I picked this location for it's fall colors.
In this family's portrait I have my usual CLEAR BLUE SKY coming from the left, creating a beautiful light on all their faces, light in their eyes, and nice back-light in the background. This is how true, subtractive, natural light portraiture can look with careful placement of the subject within the location at the right time of day.
Until next time....
Author: Jerry W. Venz, Master Photographer, Certified