Sunday, June 26, 2011

Natural Light Portraits

I am really getting in to Natural light portraits. I will discuss some things I find work well here. But first a little background on how I figured this out.

I have been getting better and better at lighting my portraits. My workflow is as follows:

- Compose the shot and shoot with no added lights. (Natural Light)
- Examine the shot and add a key light or a fill light.
- examine that shot and add a fill light if I added a key previously
- add rim or accent lights (with a grid)

So the shot builds up gradually from no lights to as many as four or five lights. More on this in a future post. What I wanted to talk about here is some of the wonderful shots I have been getting without adding any light at all beyond the natural light.

I like these shots for several reasons. They typically have a very narrow dept-of-field (DoF). This means that only a very small portion of the photo is in focus. As an example, in the photo of Tainted Gypsy above, only her eyes and lips are in focus. This is accomplished by using a wide-open aperture. The best lenses for this have an aperture that can open to f2.0 or better. In this shot I used an 85mm F1.8 Canon lens. This lens retails for around $450 most places. Quite a bit less than the 84mm f1.2 for $2100.

Another great factor is the warm rich colors. Because you are lighting with sunlight, it comes off as a little warmer. All the colors match because all the light is coming from the same source, usually the sun. I like to use indirect light. I place the subject in a shaded area. The light should come from the side ideally. In other words, don’t have your back to a window that the light is coming from. Also, if you are using a window for your source, have it be a window pointing away from the sun, so that the sunlight is not coming directly in the window. In this photo of art gallery owner Joan McLaughlin, the subject is about 8 feet from a huge window that faces south. The shot was in the city, so light was bounced off of buildings across the street.

The lack of glare and harsh light really allows the colors in the photo to be very saturated. In the photo of artist Tim Christiansen, the colors in the paintings that surround him, really pop. Not only does this technique work well for portraits, I found it works best for shooting portfolio shots of art. Here we just opened Tim’s garage door. And all the light came from that.
Sometimes a great effect can be made by using a reflector. This shot of Kristie California has a large white reflector on the right side of the shot. The sunlight was coming from behind and left as you can see on her hair. The reflected sunlight really adds a nice soft highlight on the side opposite the sun. It also creates a huge catch light in the eyes.

One hang up for shooting this way is that you often use very slow shutter speeds. I find it helps push the ISO higher rather than risk the blur of camera shake. Even better is to leave the ISO at 100 or even 50 and use a tripod. Then you get a crystal clear image with minimal pixilation. This shot was at 1/30 sec, f2.0, ISO 100 using the 85mm f1.8 lens.

In my final example, you get the full effect with one added feature, a flattened perspective. In the shot of Miss Rockwell DeVil. the light was coming from behind her. So a very soft light rims her face, elbow and stomach. I used my beastly 70-200mm f2.8 lens set at 90mm, 1/30 sec and ISO 200. I can’t hold this one still at 1/30 so I used the tripod again. The window light was coming from the south. By using the longer lens the DoF is about a foot. Notice the front corner of the couch is out of focus as is her necklace. There were some side windows in the room. They provided some fill light for the shadows and a nice catch light in her eyes. She was closer to the back window, so that light is brighter.

If you want to see these larger and see more examples, I have a set on my Flickr page.