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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As well as an inspiration on photo walks, light is easy to find at home. All you really need is a window. At any time of day when there is light coming through a window, you can use it to create a beautiful side-lit portrait. To make a portrait with side light, position the subject parallel to the window, like in the diagram below.
A lot of painters use window light.
Beautiful side light creates classic lighting for a portrait. The shadows created on the side away from the window make for dynamic lighting because the shadows actually show the contours of the subjectâ€”essential for a three-dimensional effect.
A floor to ceiling window camera left created this creamy lighting on model Chloe.
My friend DJ posed beside a window and his long hair made a 'rim light' effect with shadow, too.
Adobe Photoshop is a complex, sophisticated software that has become the industry standard for digital photographers. Although it takes a while to get used to Photoshop and to learn its entire repertoire of tools, there are some staple tools that a photographer can use, and use effectively, to enhance a portrait. Most of the time, I have some basic tools in Photoshop that I use to retouch a portrait. Here are the top ten tools I use every time.
Using layers is a must for me because itâ€™s insurance against bad judgement. What I mean is, if I make a mistake on an adjustment on the original file, Iâ€™ve got to trash the entire file and start all over again. But if I make a mistake on a layer, I can always delete the layer and start fresh on another layer.
The lasso tool is great for selective adjustments. These are adjustments that affect only a small portion of the image. Take the eyes of a portrait. If you want the eyes to have some more detail in them, you can lasso the irises of the eyes and make a small curves adjustment, lightening them up a bit. This is just one example of how the lasso tool makes retouching easier.
3. Shadow Highlight
The Shadow Highlight function in Photoshop is a way for you to add some punch to the detail in the dark areas (shadow) or the light areas (highlight) of the image. Using the Lasso Tool, you can for instance select a dark area, choose the shadow highlight tool, and adjust the amount of detail in that selected area by moving the sliders right or left.
The Curves adjustment is something I use for every single photo. Using Curves adjustments, you can add contrast to a photo by brightening some areas and darkening others.
Photoshop is a full of great tools, which once learned can really make portraits pop.
In my workflow, this is actually the first thing I do. â€œLevelsâ€ is the amount of black and white and every value in between, in the photo. It is the levels of light being reflected by every element of the photo. Adjusting levels makes your blacks black, your whites white, and your middle values just right. Photoshop actually has an automated Levels adjustment, which I always test out for every photo I process. Sometimes the program makes a really good adjustment based on whatever mysterious digital computation it makes, and my photo looks better. Other times, I use the dropper method of adjusting levels, which I go over here.
6. Healing Tools
What retouching is done nowadays without using the Healing Tools? I donâ€™t use this for travel portraits or other documentary work, but I use it extensively for retouching beauty shots or fashion editorial work. There are two nifty tools in this subset I useâ€”the spot healing brush and the healing brush. The spot healing brush is like magicâ€”you hold it over the blemish and clickâ€”and the blemish disappears! The healing brush is a little more subtle. You sample an area you want to â€˜copyâ€™ and then you brush over the areas you want to clean up, and the software helps you to paint over those blemishes with the sampled color and texture you picked.
7. Clone Tool
I use the Clone Tool for a lot of different things. One is to remove distracting spots or highlights in a wide angle shot. Another is to smoothen skin, especially underarms or for eyebags.
8. Brush Tool
The brush is a great tool in Photoshop. You can use the brush to do a lot of things. One, if you use it with a layer mask, or a layer on top of a layer, you can mask out things you donâ€™t want and brush back things you do want. Other times, you can paint over parts of the image with white to brighten up those spots, or paint black or gray over other parts of the image, to increase shadows. This is what is called â€˜painting with light,â€™ which is a popular technique in postprocessing.
9. Hue Saturation
I love punchy colorâ€”so I use the Hue Saturation adjustments to add more punch to clothes, or enhance makeup or eye color. The great thing about the Photoshop hue saturation adjustments is, you can choose which colors to saturate using individual color sliders.
10. Dodge and Burn
This is a tool that even Ansel Adams used, only he did it manually. On Photoshop, weâ€™ve got a burn tool which makes things you brush with it darker, and a dodge tool, which makes things you brush with it lighter. I use it sparingly because it does ruin the pixels of a photo, but I do use it especially for monochrome shots. Dodging and burning are techniques that can add drama to a photo.
I had always wanted to do a shoot with a car, but not just any car. A car with a classic beauty. So when the owner of a 1959 Mercedes Benz agreed to let us use his car in a photoshoot, I designed a shoot called â€œClassic Beautyâ€ and headed out to the manâ€™s apartment building parking lot to make some images.
I wanted to shoot classics, so we used polka dots, strings of pearls, long gloves. The model was the perfect beauty for this shoot. Nook, a Swedish-Thai model, is statuesque and models H to T or “head to toe” in Tyra Banks‘ lingo. She can lower her eyelids just a tad and give you the most arrogant, sexy look one moment, and then soften her whole face the next.
On photoshoots, I always bring portable flash guns. In this case the shoot started at around 11 am after makeup. It was cloudy; this shot was taken in the rainy season in Bangkok when the clouds are thick and gray. I decided then to use only natural light with a couple of reflectors to enhance it and control where it was most intense.
The girl in the polka dots is actually Nook Wiwanno, a Swedish-Thai model based in Bangkok.
This particular shot was taken inside the driverâ€™s side of the Merc with the door open. I had one assistant hold a large six-feet by four-feet reflector with the silver side toward the model. This reflector was position outside the windshield, angled at 45 degrees. This created the side lighting that gives us a three-dimensional effect in the image. The subtle highlights on the modelâ€™s arm is from the same source as the more pronounced highlight on the steering wheel.
This shot used two reflectors, much like a main light and a fill light.
I also placed a smaller 60-inch reflector with the silver side up, below camera, on the modelâ€™s lap. This light was to fill in the shadows on her face, and to give emphasis to her lips, the subject of the photo.
I used a very shallow depth of field, f/2.8, to give the shot a dreamy quality. I also shot it from slightly above, so that the subject of the shot (those lips!) would be framed by the modelâ€™s hands and the polka dot hat she wore.
Lastly, the light on the hat is from above, and thatâ€™s the sun diffused by the clouds on this rainy day.
So there you have it, an image shot with natural light.
Itâ€™s dark inside the bar, except for a few bare bulbs emitting a feeble orange light. Miss Universe is here, and I have to shoot her in brilliant Indian couture.
I love the dark location. It means the camera is only going to see the light from the flashguns Iâ€™ll use. Sometimes, you can blend ambient light with strobe light, like in this shot with a brilliant blouse in deep red with gold embroidery. There is a bare light bulb just above the most beautiful woman in the universe, and itâ€™s mixing in with the main light I have firing with a diffuser on from camera right.
She is soft spoken and humble.
Other times, itâ€™s good not to have too much ambient light. Controlling light from flash gives more pop to a photoâ€”more saturated color, more detail. When youâ€™re shooting people, for example, closeup with flash, it seems every pore on their face is visible.
Off camera flash, small and portable, have been catapulted into star status among photography enthusiasts by The Strobist extraordinaire David Hobby. I chose flash units rather than buying a studio set because the flashguns are easy to carry around to locations away from my small home studio. These flashguns are versatile, accompanying me from shoots in a tropical forest to a tabletop where I shot jewelry.
While the makeup artist Hilde Marie Johansen is working with Miss Universe 2005 Natalie Glebova, I am working with Bianca Kirn, a young model working out of Bangkok. The outfit is an orange and bright pink variation of salwar kameez, a three-piece set worn in the day time. I want the color to pop, so I use a high shutter speed to kill the ambient light from the bare light bulbs. To light Bianca, I use one light on a lightstand above her, attached to a softboxâ€”essentially a black box with one white side through which the light comes out soft and diffused. Another flash gun provides fill lightâ€”just a little burst of light to fill in the shadows on the fabric.
Brilliant orange and pink on Bianca.
Later, Natalie comes out in a beautiful lehenga choli, a traditionally red outfit worn by brides in the Northern part of India. This lehenga is ice lemon and turquoise,Â so lovely on Natalie. To light Natalie, who is already very tall and is standing on a staircase, I have to prop my lightstand on three bar stools and tie it to the rail of the staircase with a couple of bungee ballsâ€”these nifty little elastic bands with large plastic balls at the end. The main light is the softbox on the lightstand camera right. Two other flash guns provide fill, one below the camera for the dress, and another camera left for the shadows on the model.
Although a celebrity in her own right, Natalie is very down to earth.
We shoot six outfits, and the last set is with a white salwar kameez with fringe made of 19 meters of fabric. To show off that fringe on the skirt, I ask Natalie to hold the skirt beside her. To light this shot, I place the softbox on camera right and the fill light three yards on camera left, zoomed to 85mm. The great thing about the flash guns these days is the zoom function. Some flashguns can zoom up to 200mm; this means the light is stronger coming out of the unit, and it can be thrown a long way.
Natalie is one of the classiest famous people I have ever met.
I could have been there all night, shooting away. It didnâ€™t matter what the light outside looked like, or what light was available on location. There was a way to make light, and this is always, always a good thing.
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The man at the window, Myanmar. Photo by Aloha Lavina.
He was at the old wooden temple with his family, but they were somewhere else in the building, in another room. He sat by the window, deep in thought.
It was my first trip to Burma, and I had a D200 with the Nikkor 17-55 mm 2.8f lens.Â From inside, I saw him sitting by that circular window. All wrinkles and warm colors, seemingly the same textures as the wood.
I ran downstairs to get this shot.
To get the shot: I zoomed the lens as wide as it could get and angled the shot so that the wood would distort.Â I saw the planks at the bottom of the shot, leading to his hand. I abstracted the window by cropping it above and on the right, so his face would float in the dark background. To get the colors to pop, I used Aperture priority and compensated for exposure by underexposing three quarters of a stop.
In post processing, my goal was to enhance the underexposure and separate the man from the shadows around his face. I also wanted the textures accentuated.
Most often my exposures are subjective, so I did not do a levels adjustment with Photoshop CS2 as I was quite happy with the underexposure. The more dramatic the contrast, the better, for me. Instead I wanted the skin tones to remain the chocolate color of the manâ€™s real skin. So I used Channels, using the blue channel for the wood to give it more grain or noise, and the green channel for the man. I blended the two channels using the Multiply mode, which effectively darkens the whole image. Then using a layer mask, I brushed back the color, using a very soft brush and around 30 percent opacity. Later, on a separate layer, I used the dodge and burn tools to achieve more pronounced textures in the wall. Lastly, I sharpened the whole photo using Unsharp Mask and Fade Unsharp Mask combinations, with the aim of increasing the already dramatic contrast.
And that was how this image was created.
This photo is special to me, one of my favorites, and the reason why I fell in love with the stories of Burma.
NOTE: This post was written for LightStalking, who asked me this question on Twitter. Thanks for inspiring this blog post!
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I travel so that I can collect you. Like a book of old stamps, the photos I have taken and the journal entries I’ve scribbled in the pages bearing coffee rings and beer stains flip through
A man stares out of a wooden temple near Nyaung Shwe, Myanmar. Photo by Aloha Lavina
my days of being a vulture–a traveler who collects days not mine.
I gawk at you and take your photo, and in the night when I am sweating underneath a fan too slow, under itchy blankets, under the hypnotic howling of street dogs and strange snorers, I thank God I am only here for a few weeks.
I will Tweet about you and blog your life which makes for great soundbites and compelling writing. It has been getting harder and harder to find thrills. People come to my blog and seek vicarious thrills because it has been getting harder and harder to find that shock, that moment when revelations intersect with vivid disgust or awe.
So here I am, ensconced in your life, for a moment. I will collect you, and what better thrill than living someone else’s life for a few weeks, knowing that soon, soon I can go home?