Behind the Photo: Finding the Light

One question I get a lot (besides "What camera do you use?") is "What did you use to light that?" For probably 95% of the shots on my Instagram feed, the answer is the same: natural light.

A couple of benefits of working with natural light:

• You don't need to carry any heavy equipment & gear; all you need is your camera and lens.

• It forces you to work with what you have. You have to get creative and work with your surroundings; using pavement as a natural reflector or windows as diffusers, for example. This trains you to become proficient with recognizing where you can take great photos.

Let's take a look at some examples from a recent shoot I did:

Scaffolding Pull-back.jpg

Scaffolding generally looks pretty...well, ugly. But it makes for a surprisingly good backdrop if you frame it properly. Either opening of the scaffolding is a great place to place your subject so that they're lit nicely. As you walk further underneath the scaffolding, it becomes darker, making for a nice shadowy background, which helps your subject pop from the scene more.

The result:

 Settings for this shot: 85mm, f/1.6, 1/250s, ISO 100

Settings for this shot: 85mm, f/1.6, 1/250s, ISO 100

I should note too that it was pretty cloudy outside, which definitely helped with getting a nice, even light on my subject's face. This shot could still work even if it was sunny out; I just would have had to experiment with having Jessica angle her face towards wherever the light looked best.

Window Light

Windows are your friends. Whenever you're shooting inside and you have a nice big window, you can pretty much guarantee you're going to have an awesomely-lit portrait. The biggest challenge when using windows to light your subject is making sure whatever is in front of the window looks flattering. Fortunately for me, we had some nice chairs and a relatively clean bar/table area to work with. These were shot in the lobby of a Courtyard Marriott. I asked the staff if they were cool with me taking a few portraits and fortunately they didn't mind.

Notice the awesome blue lights in the background. I had Jessica on that side of the table so I could incorporate them into the shot. Since I was shooting with an 85mm, I had to be pretty far away from her to frame the shot properly. So I had her sit close enough that the window still lit her well, but far away enough that I could include some of her jeans in the shot. (I thought the blue would go well with the lights behind her.)

  Settings for this shot: 85mm, f/1.6, 1/250s, ISO 500.

Settings for this shot: 85mm, f/1.6, 1/250s, ISO 500.

Shooting at Twilight

Contrary to what a lot of people think, shooting at sunset sucks. If you're shooting directly in the sunset, you get a really unattractive orange hue that makes your subject look like this:

But once the sun sets past the horizon, there's maybe a 10 to 15 minute window where the light is beautiful. I usually have to crank my ISO up a bit around this time since it's pretty dim out, but still light enough to take a great portrait.

The sun had just set when I took this pull-back shot. (Notice the street light is on!) We were walking around looking for some last-minute locations to shoot at when I noticed this street.

Between the cobblestone that kind of matched her jacket and the lights in the storefront window in the distance, it was the perfect spot. You really can't go wrong when shooting at twilight; it's pretty easy to get flattering light on your subjects, the most important thing to concentrate on is the backdrop and avoiding any distracting elements.

Here's the shot that came from this location:

  Settings for this shot: 85mm, f/1.6, 1/250s, ISO 400.

Settings for this shot: 85mm, f/1.6, 1/250s, ISO 400.

Final Thoughts

I realize that shooting a good portrait involves more than just lighting, but it's a super important concept to grasp if you're starting out or looking to improve. Once I started paying special attention to how to best light my portraits, I also found that my post-processing became a lot easier too. I could focus more on retouching and less on dodging and burning the background or making big changes to exposure and highlights.

I hope you found this post helpful. As usual, I am completely open to your feedback -- if you have any questions about my camera settings, gear, posing direction, lighting, or anything else, I'm an open book! Leave a comment or email me and let's chat. :)

P.S. If you liked this post or know anyone who might enjoy posts like these, please share it! The more people that benefit, the better. Thank you!

Kevin Kleitches