There are some things we know about light. We know that light changes throughout the day. The best portrait lighting is when the sun is low in the sky — such as early morning and an hour before sunset – and we know to avoid shooting midday when the sun is strongest and directly above. No one likes having harsh shadows under noses and in eye sockets or subjects squinting from the bright sun!
So let’s say you’re at a location when the sun is fairly low in the sky. Now what? Where do you shoot? Is the quality of light the same everywhere?
Whether you’re a hobbyist or a professional photographer, the question is the same: How do you “find the light” at a location?
It’s the same sun, the same location and the same time of day, yet the light varies depending on where you are, what direction you shoot and what surrounds you. Simple and small adjustments can change the outcome of your image.
To give examples of the various kinds of light, I chose a park with hills, trees and buildings; and walked around with my model in the afternoon for about half an hour. I’ve marked where I took my shots in the image below. I did not use a reflector or flash. It was just me, my camera and my model.
Should the Sun be Behind You or Your Subject?
We started at Location A where there was ample light.
If the sun is behind your subject, you get warm “back light”, which brings color and attention to your subject’s hair. It will also create a bright outline of your subject, which is especially nice for maternity, children and Senior portraits.
With my model in the exact same position, I moved to the other side of her, so the sun is now behind me. The image looks and feels completely different.
Her hair now appears jet black and the image looks cooler. I notice more texture and details because the light is shining directly on my model. Overall, it is a good image, except for the glaringly harsh shadows on her face!
Depending on whom you are photographing, you may not have control over where your subject will be, like in the case of young children. It would then be up to you to make slight adjustments to improve the lighting situation or make the most of the type of light.
Here, I corrected the harsh shadow problem by having my subject turn her head. Voila!
In Location B, I saw a large flowering bush that blocked the direct sunlight, but allowed enough light to illuminate the area. This is called “open shade”, and it produces even lighting and softer shadows, which is great for portraits.
Mixed Light: Shadow and Sun
Both images below were taken at Location C, just steps apart, but the quality of light was vastly different.
Sometimes I like dramatic light – where shadows are very dark and the light is very bright – when I want my image to focus on a pattern or the architecture or to create a particular mood.
For a portrait of my young model, I preferred the contrast to be less dramatic. So we walked along the same side of the building to a doorway that was close to surrounding trees. With a narrower range of dark and light, the portrait still had interesting shapes from the mixed light, but they were more subtle.
Engulfed in Light
There are times you have no choice and there are times you may just want to: shoot directly into the sun. In fact, fully immerse your subject in it! (Location D)
To keep your subject from being underexposed because your camera sensor will read that this is a very bright image, you can use a flash or reflector, or adjust your camera’s “exposure compensation”.
This image below was shot at ISO320, f/2.8, 1/2000 sec, and +1 exposure compensation.
Once you realize that sunlight is different even in the same location and same time of day, you can learn how to “find the light” that you want for a particular image.