I was asked about my portraiture by a reader who wanted to know what I am thinking about when shooting.

I decided to break down a couple of shots I did of Natalie in Seattle the Sunday after my creativeLIVE presentation.

We were on the waterfront and the sun was out in full force. Yes, it was out in full in Seattle in April. Maybe it was me, maybe it was Bri… who knows.

The girls were taking turns standing by a metal building with some glass in order to get warm. Even though the sun had just burned off all the clouds, there was still a very chilly breeze coming off the water.

I was taken with the light that fell across Natalie’s face as she was facing away from the full sun. The area we were in had a lot of patio that was very light concrete. It served as a fantastic fill.


Looking at Natalie in the sun and taking a meter reading of all of her would naturally include some sunlight. And that sunlight would skew the reading toward being darker than I wanted. I was not interested in anything but her face. I took a reading of her face, opened up a stop and 2/3 and did my test shot. I found that a little hot, so I closed down a third of a stop. That seemed right to me.

Yep, the hair blows out. Yep, the background seems really bright.

That is the look I wanted to portray… what I saw in my minds eye was the shot playing out against the bright sun, and letting that sun BE bright and open and airy.

What I didn’t want was to get any sun on her face. The contrast of the sun on the tip of her nose or on a part of her cheek would have been terribly difficult to remove.

I like my faces to render in such a way that there is not a lot of complexity in tonality and presentation. That means that deep shadows on noses and highlight /shadow / highlight / shadow across a face is not something I would usually actively seek. If the sun had been allowed to strike Natalie’s face, that is exactly what we would have had.

So I worked with Natalie to keep her face toward me without turning so far as to get the sunlight on her nose.

Here is the first shot without any modifiers at all… pure natural light next to a small building that was actually being a kind of reflector from the shadow side. Natalie is actually leaning against the building.

Here is the diagram of what I was thinking about while doing the shot.

Used in discussion of portraiture on Lighting Essentials, a place for photographers. Lighting, posing and the thought process behind two images.

You can see the under lighting that is filling in by noticing the light areas just under her eyes, and the shadow above each side of her nose. This is not a problem in these ratios, as having a black hat on would necessarily result in a little feel coming from the concrete. As long as it is subtle, it can be a nice part of the image’s authenticity.

EDIT: In the comments, Lily asked about how I see this stuff and I answered that contact sheets were such a vital part of learning how to photograph for me. They are not a part of our lexicon and I think that is a shame. I use the ‘grid’ on my Canon software to look at the take as if it were a contact sheet. Below is the contact sheet from the shot above. You can see how I worked with Natalie in the light and I also think you will agree with my pick for first shot (Red) and second shot (Orange).

You can see how I encouraged her to move in the light that I wanted, carefully keeping it off of her face and nose.

We added a diffuser for the second shot. This is the middle panel in a 5-in-One reflector kit and is usually a soft, translucent panel. In this case it is about a 42″ panel. It is being held in very close to block the full sun from striking the hair and edge of the hat.

I like my diffusion panels to be in very close, and in this case it is just out of camera… maybe an inch out of camera. At that distance it becomes a huge, soft light source for the subject and delivers amazing, soft, wrapping light.

You can see the soft gradient of light from under the brim to the chin in this one as well. Notice however that the hair is no longer burned out, and there is a bit more subtlety to the face presentation.

And the diagram to show my thought process:

Notice the placement of the lines... I wanted something specific and got it. Deliberately making the choices to deliver the final image in the manner you want it delivered... ah, that's the ticket.

By using the diffuser to kill the very bright sun from hitting the hair, and the wall in front of her, we have smoothed out the gradient, and eliminated the small light under her eyes. The light on her face is far more even than in the previous shot.

The ‘contact sheet’ from this image is to the right:

You can see the distinct difference that the diffuser makes on the overall emotion of the shot. There is a much more subtle feel to it. I had forgotten to move my camera back to RAW after shooting at creativeLIVE the previous day. Didn't catch it until after shooting all day Sunday. I simply forgot as I NEVER shoot JPEG. Dang it. LOL

This is neither a good or bad thing… it is only a choice thing.

We still have a nice feeling of light coming from the camera right side of the image, but it is changed substantially in both feeling and emotion. One being more flamboyant and involved in the light and the other more subtly presented in a feeling of ambient.

I am quite deliberate when I shoot, and my mind is seeing the image finished as I am shooting it. Noticing the little things in these diagrams becomes second nature to us as we shoot more and more. Always be shooting… and try these simple ideas for making a portrait:

– Find an area that is bright in the sun.
– Put your subject with the sun over their shoulder and PLACE the exposure for their face.
– Shoot with the full on sun behind them, keeping any part of their face from being lit by it directly.
– Add a scrim, and see how the light changes the mood. Remember that the scrim should be as close as possible to get the effect I got here.

I like both methods a lot and use them when I love the light. Which one do you like better?

And BTW – if you would like to see more of this kind of article here, let me know in the comments. I want to make sure we get the best info out to you.


I was recently on creativeLIVE and have received some rave reviews of the workshop. If you are interested in taking a look at the workshop, you can find it on creativeLIVE’s web site here. I think it is a tremendous value and if you are unable to attend any of my workshops, this may give you a ton of information you will want to have to push your photography to the next level.

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