Tag Archives: window light

natural light portrait copyright Aloha Lavina

Week 9 Module: Portrait with Light from One Window

This week, be grateful for your windows.

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 illustrated for Imagine That Photography Tribe

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.

Setting up

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.

Other tips

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.

natural light portrait copyright Aloha Lavina

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.

natural light portrait copyright Aloha Lavina

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.

horizontal portrait in natural light copyright Aloha Lavina

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!

If you want to rekindle your photography in 2012 and want to shoot alongside some really cool Tribe people, why not join us? LIKE us on Facebook, the Imagine That Photography Tribe, and you’ll have access to weekly modules, a community that loves to share photography, and be featured in our weekly Editors Picks post! You could even find your photos in our seasonal Module ebook, where we summarize the season’s tips and tricks. Give yourself a great gift this year, and join the Tribe!

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Pools of light and pools of shadow create drama in this image.

Let Shadows Speak

Dynamic lighting in a photo begins with direction and quality of light, but it doesn’t stop there. Part of the effect in dynamic lighting is where the shadows fall. You know that rule in physics that says ‘for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction’? This tension also works in photographic lighting, except that we could rewrite the rule as ‘for every light there is an equal and opposite shadow.’

So controlling the light means controlling the shadows. This effect can create lighting that is dynamic, three dimensional, and eye catching.

We can learn basic lighting conditions, whether in a natural setting like in travel photography, or in a more controlled setting like when using strobes or window light. To add to this wonderful skill is the ability to read the stories that shadows tell.

Telling stories with shadows is a great way to learn dynamic lighting. When we can learn to see where the light falls, how much it falls off and in which direction, we can start designing images that tell stories.

Where you stand to take a photo affects where light and shadow fall in the final image.

The photo of the two people was lit using ambient light, light from broken walls and holes in the ceiling of an abandoned mansion. There was light coming from above both the woman and the man, and the shadows falling around them framed the shot. If I had moved a little to the left, two things would have happened: the man would have been out of the line of sight of the 50mm lens I was using, and the woman would have had less shadow on camera left. Positioning the camera where it was, I was seeing the way the shadows would frame the scene. Moving around is one way of controlling the direction and amount of shadow in a photo.

Pools of light and pools of shadow create drama in this image.

Another vantage point that was deliberate was in the next photo where the model is below the camera; I was standing on a ledge in another broken building. The light was coming from camera left, through a broken wall. The harsh midday light created deep, dark shadows around and beside the model, making shadows on the wall, and forming pools of shadow around the path she walked. The mystery created by the shadows gives the photo a story telling quality I would not have achieved if I had the whole scene lit up.

Paying attention to shapes created by shadow can make a shot dramatic.

Lighting a scene, we know, doesn’t need to be complicated. In this shot of some Indian fashion, I only had a high window to work with, and a distant doorway some 300 meters behind the model. I found a place where the window light would directly shine on her face and side. Having done this, I also saw that the curvy geometric shapes and their shadows in the image complemented the pose and dress of the model, so I played up the shadows by underexposing the background and using a small aperture. The slower shutter speed gave me a sharper take on the dress plus created a three dimensional image. Controlling the settings to augment shadows in a shot is another way of allowing shadows to tell part of the story.

Telling a story with a photo doesn’t just depend on where light illuminates and what it illuminates. Where the shadows fall also speak stories.

Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That! To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage.

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Sunrise and mist, Bhutan.

Beginner’s Guide to Light

At some point in their journey, people with cameras begin to photograph light instead of “look what I saw.” Light is the main ingredient in the mix of elements that make an image. Content, composition, technique will all pale if the light isn’t “right.” But is there a “right” light? Here are some common lighting situations that could help you create compelling shots. Practice looking for them, and you will see your images increase their wow factor.

Back light

Dancer with rim light, Bali.

Back light is when the light source is behind the subject. This means that it is directly in front of the camera, with the subject in between. The photo of the dancer sitting was lit with two windows behind him, lighting him like a halo around his head and body. This line of light around a subject is called “rim light,” as it creates a rim of light outlining the subject. To shoot this kind of shot, I had to use exposure compensation, overexposing to making sure I had a balance between the bright light I wanted to capture, and the man’s features.

Backlit spools of thread at a weaver's shop in Burma.

In cases of really bright light behind the subject, like in this shot of colorful spools of thread in by a window, the patterns created by the light and shadow make for an interesting picture.

Front light

When the light is right in front of the subject, it is easier photograph, but if the light is directly in front of the subject, it may result in a ‘flat’ photo. ‘Flat’ lighting is light that evenly spreads on the subject. I try to avoid this because it makes a photo look two-dimensional; it is the shadows in a photo that create a three-dimensional effect.

Dancers putting on makeup, Bali.

In the photo of the dancers putting on makeup, their light source is directly in front of their faces. I could have taken the shot with the light behind me, but I broke away from that and instead focused on the mirror one of the dancers was holding. My thinking was, the composition was more interesting with the dancers echoing each other’s postures. But most importantly, the light from the window was reflected on their faces into the mirror, and the mirror’s image was thus well lit for my camera to capture.

Top light

Light from above of course is quite common. When you travel, mostly the sun is your light source, and most of the day the sun is right above your subjects. So it’s important to know how the light from above will affect your images, and what you can do to minimize the shadows that the sun from above will invariably create in your subjects.

Early mornings and late afternoons are great because the sunlight is more orange; the angle of the light is also more from the side, especially at sunrise and sunset. But also in the hours right after sunrise and the hours just before sunset, the light is not as harsh as in midday.

Man asleep in his ox cart at midday, Burma.

Having said that, though, one of my favorite shots from Burma was taken at around 11 am. This man was sleeping in his cart while his oxen were grazing. The shadows were harsh, but it worked because the content of the photo made for a good contrast. To get this shot, I had to close my aperture to f8 and used exposure compensation to get details in the sky and the immediate subjects in front of me.

When there is harsh light, like in midday, I look for subjects who are under a sort of shelter. When there is a covering above the subject, the harsh light does not create equally harsh shadows on their faces.

Girl in pink hat, Burma.

Shan woman at a temple, Burma.

Both the photos of the woman in the turban and the little girl in the pink hat were made around midday, but both were under a kind of shelter–the temple roof for the turbaned woman and her pink hat for the little girl.

Side light

This is my all-time favorite kind of light. Side light is light coming from the left or right of the subject. It was used by the masters of painting–Rembrandt used side light in his paintings to give the picture a three dimensional effect. When the light falls on one side of the subject, the other side is in shadow. The shadows are what give the picture a 3D look.

Monk at old wooden temple, Burma.

The monk walking past old wooden doors shows how shadow and light can create the contours that make the subject seem three-dimensional.

Sunrise and mist, Bhutan.

In the early morning shot of a misty scene in Bhutan, the side lighting created by the sunrise gives us a sense of the overlapping hills and the thickness of the mist.

Like every skill, seeing the light–its direction and quality–takes practice. But with some basic knowledge of lighting situations, any person with a camera can practice the right skill and do what photographers do: capture the light, and make it look fantastic.

Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That! To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage.

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This image was published in Masala Magazine, December 2010.

The Girl in the Pink Dress: How to get this shot

Light It! Shoot It! Process It!

I enjoy fashion editorial photography, and when I’m not traveling, chances are I’ve got a photoshoot lined up. Sometimes, I post my photos up online (when the client gives the go ahead, after publication), and people ask me, How did you do that?

I’ve heard this question lots of times, and decided recently that I’m going to deconstruct the lighting, the shot, and the processing for you. So here is the first in a series I call 3inOne-Light it, Shoot it, Process it. Sometimes, I’ll talk about the lighting. Or I’ll talk about the thought process behind an image. Other times, I’ll talk about some Photoshop post-work on an image. Then, if I’m feeling really nice, I might just talk you through the whole thing—all 3 in one.

How to Light the Girl in a Pink Dress

This image was published in Masala Magazine, December 2010.

When we got to the location, I was very excited about this window. The client’s dress had this wonderful scarf that was delicate and diaphanous, and I wanted to love it in the image. So I had to use the window and the scarf to add drama —impact— to the image.

The other advantage of the window was the directional light through it. Plain good old sunshine—but the most beautiful light of all.

I placed the model in the gorgeous dress on one side of the window and angled her body so that the dress would be seen in its elegant cut: a brilliant upper bodice with intricate embroidery, and the skirt with its graceful folds. Then I asked the model to hold the scarf in front of her, and love it.

Notice that the window light does a couple of things. One, it gives the shot a sidelight which is perfect to create that 3D effect in a portrait (Thank you, Mr. Rembrandt, for this centuries old tip). Two, the window light gave the scarf a backlight, showing us how delicate and lovely the fabric is.

The last lighting bit was to fill in the dress with a portable strobe. I didn’t want to overpower the sun; all I needed was a suggestion that there was another window at camera right. So I just popped the flash at a medium intensity. Below is the lighting diagram.

Sometimes one light and a window is all it takes.

And there you have it. In my next posts, I will be going through some camera settings for an editorial shoot and a Photoshop workflow, Parts 2 and 3 of 3inOne. So stay tuned!

Let me know what you’d like to learn in the comments.

Welcome back and thanks for reading Imagine That! To keep updated with new posts, subscribe to Imagine That! by clicking on the RSS Feed button on the upper right of the Homepage.

You might also like:
The Beginner’s Guide to Photography’s Holy Trinity
The Man at the Window
11 Ways to Build a Better Photo
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