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When we’re new to photography, we tend to avoid dramatic lighting and instead look for flat soft light.
And why not? It’s a perfect place to start because it’s easy to create flattering and beautiful portraits. But flat soft light lacks depth and interest, and you might start to notice creamy, delicious, beautiful light that makes you fall in love, and want to give it a try.
So if you’re craving more creative light in your photos, you’ve come to the right place! This post explores some more dramatic lighting techniques, including how to use it in a way that still ensures flattering portraits.
When soft light is directional, it creates shadows that add depth and result in more dynamic images.
Turn your subject so that they’re at a 90 degree angle to the light source, and the trick is to ensure the shadows aren’t too harsh.
So you want gentle graduations between light and shade areas, not sharply defined lines. Experiment by moving your subject closer to or further from the light source until you have a good balance of light and shade.
In this portrait, the light is positioned 90 degrees to her front right, which creates shadows on her left and results in a much more dramatic light than if she had faced the light directly.
In contrast this next image was taken with very flat light, by placing her directly facing a window.
The two photos show the difference between flat soft light and directional soft light. The flat light is lovely and flattering, but the photo lacks depth and drama. By contrast the directional light created a dynamic, moody, dramatic light photo.
Related: Dramatic Window Light
The golden hour, which is that hazy light we get late in the day and early in the morning when the sun is low in the sky, is perfect for shooting beautiful portraits! It washes over our subjects with a warm glow, and adds a gentle softness to our photos. It also creates the beautiful halo effect (also known as rim light) that we see in the photos below.
However, backlighting can be tricky to master because the camera can have a hard time working out how to expose the shot correctly. So it’s easier to practice this technique once you’ve learned how to use your camera in manual mode.
In this light situation, expose for your subject’s face for the best effect, so you’ll need to meter off their skin. Also ensure you can see some light bouncing into your subjects eyes from the open sky behind you. If you can’t see any catchlights in their eyes, make minor adjustments to their position (or yours) until you can.
Above all, make sure the sun is positioned directly behind your subject to avoid hot spots of light on their face.
Related: How to Meter for Correct Exposure
You can achieve an overall softer look and feel in your images and create some light bokeh by using sun filtered through something, such as trees or bushes. This is easier to work with because the sun is not hitting your lens directly and causing focus challenges and unwanted lens flares.
For that reason it’s a great place to start experimenting with backlighting.
The same techniques apply for exposing and metering, but as the light is filtered you do have a little more flexibility as to how you position them to the light. You can position them so it is directly behind them, or a little to the side.
In this example, the sun was filtering through the trees, and I positioned the light slightly to the side. This allowed it to illuminate her hair, and captured light bokeh in the background.
Related: How to Capture Light Bokeh
Another form of backlighting is a silhouette.
A silhouette is created when, instead of exposing for the subject, you expose for the sky behind them. In most cases this leaves the subject very dark, so you only see their outline.
The trick to taking a successful silhouette, is creating strong shapes. The easiest way to do this is have your subject pose in such a way that creates clearly defined and interesting shapes.
Position yourself so that your background is mostly sky to create a really dramatic composition. For many silhouettes, I lay low on the ground and shoot upwards, to create the gorgeous effect like this image below. So much sand in my clothes… but always worth it!
Related: How to Take a Silhouette Photo
Hard light can be a hero, when used mindfully and with purpose. Look for patterns created by hard light both indoors and out, and expose for the highlights.
Related: How to Use Hard Light Creatively
The biggest step towards learning to use natural light more creatively is learning to see light strength and quality, and how it affects your subjects. You can do this by taking notice of how light plays and falls on your subjects, and experimenting with positioning and the distance between subject and light.
Play with placing your subject is multiple positions in relation to the light. Take note of how it creates shadows, and how much depth they add. You also want to make sure there is light at least in the eye that is closest to the light source. If there’s not, adjust your subject’s position.
Light can be hard or soft, warm (yellow) or cool (blue) depending on the time of day, the weather, and even as the seasons change. You’ll soon discover a whole world of different opportunities to use light creatively from the same location!
These two shots were taken in the same location, at different times. The shot on the left shows the quality of hard light – notice the sharply defined line between light and shadows? Not only is it distracting, but it’s also highlighting her nose and putting her eyes in shadow. Not exactly flattering!
The shot on the right shows soft light, which wraps evenly around my subject. She has light in her eyes, and there is nothing to distract from her.
When shooting indoors near window or door light, try varying the distance between subject and light. Take notice of how those small changes affect the strength of that light, and decide whether or not it flatters your subject.
What you’re looking for specifically is:
Hot spots are little patches of highlights on your subject’s skin that are too strong. Adjusting your exposure won’t eliminate hot spots entirely, and you also can’t fix them in processing later.
You have a few options here to solve the problem of hot spots:
Look for patches of soft or golden light falling in among the shadows and place your subject in that light.
Related: Low Light Photography Tips
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