Light and Shadow
I lightly covered this topic in Lesson 1, but I want to go into some more detail on how you can quickly recognize a poor lighting situation and make it better.
First, let me say that it’s rare to have a perfect lighting situation unless you are posing your subject… and even then, it can be difficult. Sometimes, you have to make the best of a poor lighting situation, especially when indoors with low light. This is why a professional portrait studio not only has the fancy cameras and lenses, it has professional lighting. The lighting is often as costly as the camera set-up, as taking an awesome photograph requires that you simulate ambient sunlight evenly, with minimal shadows.
The sun – friend and foe
Carrollton Elementary students, Hannah and Heidyn, helped me again with some of these demo shots to point out things we do without realizing it. It was a bright sunny day when I took these photos, as you can tell. Not a cloud in the sky. In this photo, I’ve got the sun to my back and the sun is in the eyes of my subjects. Not only are they squinting, which makes it so hard to smile, but check out those super-harsh shadows on their face. When you have such a stark contrast between light and shadow, you lose precious detail.
Here is a demo of another commonly seen issue with photos that are sent to us of events around our district… scattered light. The idea of moving the subject to the shade is a sound one – but the execution is poor. Unless you are beneath very robust trees full of leaves, you are going to get scattered light and shadow.
The human eye and brain adjusts when you’re talking to someone under the shade of a tree. You don’t notice how everyone has leopard spots due to the shadows of leaves across everyone’s faces – but the camera is going to see it all and record it for you. Permanently. It’s not terrible, but it could have been better. Sometimes moving the subject closer to the trunk of a tree can help to concentrate more shadow and let fewer spots of light spoil the shot.
Here’s another demo of Hannah and Heidyn – the sun is behind them, but also above them. While they are not looking into the sun, the glare is still there. You can see the slightly pained expressions on their faces. We still lose some detail as their hair and any highlights are washed out. As bright as it is outside, you see no reflection in their eyes. It’s hard to get creative with posing when no one is relaxed – and no one is relaxed when everything in their subconscious is telling them, “as soon as this photo is over, I’m retreating out of this sun!”
When it’s high noon (or depending on the time of year, later in the afternoon) and the sun is at 90° above your location, your best bet is to find a covered area – a building overhang, a car port, awning or even an umbrella. In the absence of a covered area outside, you can also retreat indoors with your subject near the window – receiving ambient light. You want light – lots of it – but we want it diffused, When we buy lighting for our home, we typically have either a lamp shade or an opaque plastic cover over our lights. It’s not just for aesthetics of the lamp or light fixture – a bare bulb is hard to look at and does a poor job of lighting a room evenly. The same goes for photography.
A good rule of thumb – if you cannot comfortably read a book in the lighting you’re in – it’s either way too bright or way too dark for photography!
Good lighting should allow for highlights in the eyes
To show the contrast – again, all of these photos in this lesson were taken in the same 10-minute span – same weather conditions and relatively speaking – same position of the sun in the sky. We retreated under the covered walkway in front of Carrollton Elementary and got perfect lighting. There was abundant ambient light, courtesy of that fireball 93 million miles away… but no one is squinting and there are no shadows. Also, the photo is more engaging because you can actually see highlights in these girls’ eyes. As we humans are drawn to eyes when we look at paintings or photos. Whether they are photos of people or animals, we want to look into the subject’s eyes. Being the reflective orbs that they are, our eyes look ‘alive’ because of the light that is reflected off the cornea. If you click on the photo to the right and look at the larger version, you will note the highlight in these girls’ eyes. It is subtle – we’re often unaware of it – and even in the large version, we’re only talking a few pixels of white near their pupils. It’s not a lot, but it makes eyes ‘pop’ and look alive and engaging. If your subject is squinting due to direct or harsh reflected light, you’re often going to end up with a photo with no discernible eye highlight – and such photos lose engagement almost immediately.
I’ve included a close-up here to emphasize what I’m talking about. When upping your game in photography, there’s a lot to remember – but over time, practice makes these things intuitive. You will just know when a lighting situation doesn’t feel right and how to adjust according to the environment you’re in and what level of control you have over your subject matter and surroundings.
If you find these lessons helpful, we’d love to hear from you below and would love to show off your successes with improved photos of your children. Coming soon – in Lesson 3, I will go over how to take engaging photos of groups.