Rembrandt’s studio had a bank of windows through which streamed one of the most important elements of his paintings: light.
We can take a page from Rembrandt’s book and use his method of lighting to make some portraits.
Rembrandt used a specific quality and direction of light: Northern light coming from the side.
Northern light is considered to be one of the best quality of light because when it streams through the window onto a subject, it is not harsh or too contrasty.
Coming from the side, it produces a side-lighting situation that lights up one side of the subject and leaves the other side in shadow, revealing the three-dimensionality of what it’s illuminating.
Side lighting from a window.
Rembrandt used Northern side lighting through his studio windows to produce beautiful portraits. We’re going to do the same in this week’s module.
Camera and lens choice
Most people who want (or agree, when you ask) to have their portraits made want to look their best in the photo. Lens or focal length choice is key if you want to create a natural looking portrait. Usually, a ‘normal’ focal length is preferable. A normal focal length, which is 50mm, is the way the human eye sees naturally. If you have a zoom lens, setting your lens to around 50mm is the best way to avoid distortions that happen at shorter focal lengths. This avoids distortions like making the nose too big for the image, or making the face ‘taper’ too much if you should tilt the lens up or down while you’re making images.
There are some important things you have to set up before you start shooting the window light portraits to maximize your chances of making effective portraits.
Sit the subject so that their position forms a triangle between your camera and the window, like in the diagram above.
You could also shoot the subject with the lighting directly in front of their face. But this will produce ‘flat lighting’ which doesn’t create the 3D effect and gives the image a flat look.
Here’s some advice from Scott Kelby about natural light and how to position your subject.
If the shadows on the side of the face opposite the window are too dark, you can use a ‘fill light’ opposite of the window. This is usually accomplished with a reflector, but if you don’t have one, you can use a white sheet or white cardboard to reflect the window light onto the shadow side of the face, and ‘fill’ the shadows with light.
Shallow depth of field gives the portrait some drama.
Control the background. Backgrounds can help or hurt a portrait. If for instance there is something behind the subject that looks like it is sticking out of their head, that’s not a good background. You can drape a sheet behind the subject, or you can move them to another window that gives you a better background.
If you want to eliminate the issue of background, fill the frame with the portrait. A closeup can be a way for you to try to be creative with the simplified elements of the image.
Fill the frame.
Depth of field can also be used to control the background. You can use a shallow depth of field, accomplished by opening the aperture to a wide size, say f/2.8 to around f/5, to give you a considerable difference between the sharpness of the subject and the sharpness of everything else. Shallow depth of field results in beautiful blur around the subject. Here is a great video about a rule photographers follow about depth of field in portraits. You can use the tips, or you can choose to go by how you feel–it’s up to you.
What should the sharpest point be in the portrait? Where should you focus? The eyes are the most important part of the portrait. If the eyes are sharp, the portrait will draw attention from the viewer, no matter if everything else is super blurry.
Try horizontal frames, too.
Finally, don’t think that all portraits have to be with a portrait orientation. You can make some interesting portraits using the horizontal frame, too. Don’t forget to experiment with the framing.
Your assignment this week is to shoot some portraits using window light in a side lighting set up. Experiment with contrast in the dark and light sides of the face, and find your preference as to how much drama you like in your portraits.
Then, post a couple of the portraits you made, side by side, discussing why you prefer one over the other in terms of the lighting. This way, we review what we know about lighting.
Have fun, and make me and Rembrandt proud!
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