How to See the Light for Portraits: A Quick Tip for Beginners
As a beginning photographer, one of the easiest ways to move from taking average snapshots to more professional looking portraits is to develop a good understanding of light. Harsh and uneven lighting can often be distracting and make the photograph look amateur, whereas even lighting allows the viewer to focus solely on the subject and is more visually appealing.
Spending some time learning about the exposure triangle, the quality and direction of light is a great first step, something that I highly recommend to everyone. That said, even if you understand the theoretical aspects of light, it can still be difficult to walk into a park with your children, or clients, and know intuitively where to situate your subject for the best possible portrait lighting. So, I’d like to share one quick and easy trick that you can use to help you “see” the best light if you’re unsure of where to begin:
The Circle Trick
Have your subject stand facing you, at the appropriate distance for whatever focal length you’re using. Think of the two of you being like a clock, with you in the center tether position and your subject as the clock’s hour arm in the 12 o’clock position. Take a photo.
In this instance, I was photographing my daughter in our backyard at about 6:30pm. My starting (12 o’clock) position was with the sun behind her.
Have your subject move to the three o’clock position. Pivot with them so that you continue to face each other. Take another photo.
Now, I’ve moved her into the 3 o’clock position. You can see that if you’re looking at her, the sun is predominantly on the left side of the image.
Have your subject move to the 6 o’clock position. Again, pivot with them. Take another photo.
Now, she’s moved into the six o’clock position, and is looking into the sun. You can see that’s going super well.
Have your subject move to the nine o’clock position. Continue to pivot with them, and take another photo.
Finally we’ve moved into the nine o’clock position. As you’re looking at her, the light is primarily on the right side of her face.
Review the four photos that you’ve just taken, and decide which one offers the most appropriate lighting for the look you’re trying to achieve.
Unless you’re shooting at high noon with the sun directly above you, you’ll probably notice that the lighting will vary dramatically between each of the four photos, with some being much more visually appealing than others. This gives you a great starting point to be able to visually “see” the light and quickly determine which direction you’d like your subject to be facing for your portraits (or in a large park, which general direction you may want to head for your session).
If you notice pretty severe backlighting as in the photo for the 12 o’clock position above, and that is not the look you’re trying to achieve, try having your subject sit down!
This image was taken in the exact same location as the “12 o’clock” image above, only with my daughter sitting on the ground instead of standing.
Keep in mind that the circle trick works in the reverse as well, with your subject standing in the same location and you walking around them as the positions of the clock. Sometimes it’s easier for the photographer to do the bulk of the moving around rather than the subject. On the other hand, I spend a lot of time photographing elementary age children, and find that they really enjoy getting to be a special helper at the beginning of a photo shoot. Getting them engaged early on is a good way to help them to feel comfortable with me. In fact, even though I don’t actually need to use the circle trick anymore to be able to see the light, sometimes I still use it as a quick ice breaker at the beginning of sessions with younger children, showing them the four different photos at the end.
For many people, understanding the quality and direction of light is something that’s learned practically – the more you practice, the more you’ll eventually begin to be able to “see” the light intuitively. This is one really simple (and quick!) way to begin to train your eye to begin to see light – so if lighting for portraits is something that you tend to struggle with, grab a friend and give it a try!
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