This is part of my series on the basics of photography. The purpose of these short tutorials is to teach you principles of photography which can be utilized regardless of what kind of equipment you have. These principles apply to cell phone cameras, point and shoots, SLR cameras and even shooting video. Nor does it make any difference if you’re using film or digital medium. Most of these techniques do not require any advanced knowledge of how to use the camera in a technical sense. The vast majority of these tips are related to elements which are directly controlled by the person taking the photograph, not by the equipment.
BoP Episode Two: Sunlight and photographing people.
This time I’m going to write about taking photographs of people outdoors utilizing the sun as the primary lighting source. Much of this also applies to artificial lighting however when you introduce the idea of artificial lighting and photography things can get awfully complicated awfully fast. So for the purpose of this tutorial we’re talking about photography where your only (or primary) source of light is the sun itself. I will also briefly mentioned the use of your on camera flash for the purpose of fill lighting.
Colour of sun light:
Sunlight has colour tho the human eye doesn’t typically notice it. At sunrise and sunset light is shifted towards the red side of the spectrum. In the early or late afternoon and at high noon sunlight is the most white and the most harsh it is all day long. To varying degrees between sunrise & sunset and high noon the light is shifted towards the blue side of the spectrum. Sun light also has a blue tint in the shade and when the sky is overcast. We don’t notice these colour shifts because our brains and our eyes are sophisticated enough to compensate for shifts. However the camera will notice these changes. Your camera is not as smart as you are. That’s why you have to adjust the white balance on your camera or later with imaged editing software.
The best light for photographing people is the red morning light or the blue light. High noon is the least desirable.
A general rule you can apply for taking photographs of people outdoors is to look at your shadow. If your shadow is shorter than you are than the sun is too far overhead. The light is going to be white and harsh and also the shadows you get on the person’s face are not going to be very flattering.
If your shadow is taller than you are this means the sunlight will either be blue or red both of which are good and the shadows cast on the person’s face will be more pleasing.
Cloudy days are good days:
Many people think that sunny days are ideal for photography and overcast days are not. Nothing could be further from the truth. Overcast days are great for photography as is doing photography in the shade. In each case (cloudy or shade) you get an even diffused lighting. That means there are no shadows (or very slight shadows) and in many cases diffused lighting will make a person’s skin look smoother and flawless. Harsh light will emphasis flaws, wrinkles, scars and other such things.
If you are moving a person into the shade to take their photograph be sure that all of that person, or least all of that person which is going to appear in the photograph, is in the shade. Don’t have part of the person’s body in the shade and part of the persons body in the sunlight. When you take the photograph the camera will have a difficult time reconciling the exposure for the part of their body in the sun and the part of their body in the shade.
This is also not as noticeable to us because our eyes and our brains are capable of compensating for the two different degrees of brightness. The camera, regardless of whether it’s digital or film, is not as smart as we are and can’t do this.
Let me briefly talk about the on camera flash. The on camera flash is regarded as evil by most photographers. Totally totally evil. Everybody knows about red-eye and red-eye can be easily corrected in most photo editing software. But another major disadvantage of using the on camera flash is the shadow it throws behind the subject. So if you’re going to use the on camera flash make sure the subject is well away from any wall or other structure behind her so that when you use the flash you don’t see her shadow in the picture.
For our purposes here the on camera flash has a more useful function which is to be used as a fill flash. At this point I am going to talk about one technical feature which your camera may or may not have. That would be flash compensation (it may be called something else on your camera) which allows you to reduce or increase the power of your flash. When using the on camera flash for fill flash I recommend starting with an exposure compensation of 1 ½ stops lower than normal and adjust from there. There is no set rule for fill flash settings because every cameras flash has a different output and the distance from you to your subject factors as does the strength of the sunlight (or other primary light). Thus you really have to wing this. Or you can actually measure the light and make mathematical calculation. I don’t think we’re up for that. I know I’m not. So this is something you have to play with, experiment with and learn how to do it.
The sun in relation to your subject:
What direction is the sunlight (or any primary light) coming from? This is going to have an effect on the picture when you are photographing the human face.
If it’s high noon and the sunlight is coming from up above you’re going to have a shadow underneath the nose extending down across the lips. Both of the eyes will be in shadow. The person can look up and minimize the shadows however generally speaking this is not an ideal opportunity to photograph the human face. Keep in mind that this sunlight will also be white and harsh.
If your lighting source, most likely not the sun in this case, is coming from below then the nose is going to cast a shadow on the top of the nose and possibly up onto the forehead. Depending upon the angle of the face to the light source the eyes may be in shadow again. Again this is not ideal for photographing the human face.
If the light source is behind the person you’re photographing you will have face in shadow but an interesting halo effect around the person – especially so in the hair. If the sun is behind the person you’re photographing then most likely the lighting on their face will be defused and there will be no shadows. This can make for some interesting and artistic photographs. One thing you can do here is use the fill flash to enhance your subjects face. Another thing you can do (if your camera is capable of spot metering or you can set the exposure manually) is to expose for the persons face and have the background overexposed. This can work out quite well and give you a great image.
If the person you’re photographing is facing into the sun you’re going to have even lighting across her face however because the light is hitting her so strong from straight ahead and because you don’t have any shadows you may end up with a picture that is somewhat flat and lacking in detail and contrast. This is not necessarily a bad thing but it isn’t always necessarily a good thing either.
If the sun is at full profile to the person you’re photographing her face on the side towards the sun will be lit the the side away from the sun will be in shadow. This can be pleasing in some circumstances. Also mixing this lighting with a fill flash can produce very nice results.
The mostest ideal lighting sometimes:
Perhaps the most ideal situation is to have the sun at three quarters to the subject. Not full profile and not full front but between the two. This way you still get some shadow on one of the eyes and you get some shadow from the nose. You’re going to get a little bit of shadow on various parts of the face which is going to give you some definition and some depth yet the shadows are not overpowering. Couple this with taking the photograph when the sun is low so that the shadow on the eye away from the sun is minimized and the shadow of the nose is going across the face not down the face and you have what could generally be termed as “ideal” outdoor natural lighting.
All of this boils down to “watch the shadows”. And yes you can apply this when you’re taking that picture of your three friends in the restaurant with your cell phone. Before you take the picture look at their faces. Do you see shadows on their faces? If you don’t that means you have diffused lighting. Probably you are good to go. If there are shadows on their faces adjust everybody so that there’s a little bit of shadow on one eye and a little bit of shadow from the nose. You could probably make a game out of this as all the other people in the restaurant wonder what your doing.
Break ’em, break ’em all:
And remember all of these rules, if you want to call them rules, are meant to be broken. When taking pictures of people controlling the direction of the primary light is one of the most powerful ways to alter the overall artistic and emotional impact of the photograph. Experiment with lighting direction and have fun.
Your notes for this session: