Portraits | How I Light My Work
A Sneak Peek Behind My Style of Work
I recently had the honour to photograph the gorgeous Grazia Mezas (IG: @graziamezas), a Caribbean Dutchie model.
We experimented with different looks and styles, and only covered 2 locations, but ended up with a huge variety of photos taken all in the same afternoon — exploring everything from soft lighting indoors, to harsh shadows from the setting sun. A huge thank you to Grazia for her talent, creativity and passion in front of the camera; this afternoon was so wonderful.
We approached this shoot with the desire to get photos that looked effortless and natural but also had an artistic and earthy tone throughout.
I’d love to explain the process behind the lighting in this shoot. Read on to learn more about:
How I light my portrait work.
The differences between the soft vs. hard light (and how I use them).
How I choose the right location.
Start With The Right Time of Day / ‘Golden Hour’
I always prefer to shoot at sunset, usually starting atleast 1-3 hours before sundown is scheduled and ending the session as soon as the sun goes down. As an example, I started this shoot at around 2.30pm and ended at 5.30pm, which is my 3-hour package: but this will vary depending on what time of year the shoot will be in and what time the sun will be setting in the area.
This lighting is what is known as ‘magic hour’ or ‘golden hour’ and it will add beautiful, soft lighting to the photographs. Simply shooting at the right time of the day will give you a head start to amazing photographs and I highly recommend scheduling the shoot for when the best lighting is available.
If I want soft, ‘white’ light, I can achieve this easily with cloudy skies, at somewhere shaded/undercover, or somewhere indoors that’s near a large window with indirect sunlight flooding in. And if I want soft, ‘golden’ light in the photos — both of which are flattering — but I gotta get out there in the setting sun for that golden glow!
Shooting at sunset also allows me to work with the softest lighting of the day and when the sun is at a lower, more flattering angle, rather than directly overhead (which causes harsh, unwanted shadows). Colour casts are also something to watch out for. Unflattering colour casts also can appear if you’re not shooting in the right lighting: for example, the grass will reflect unwanted green/yellow colours onto the skin, or a bold red dress can reflect unwanted colour when in direct light.
Dark vs. Light Background
Taken with only natural light, the two indoor shots you’ll see above were set up with a very simple backdrop near a window. These two photos above were taken in the exact same spot, with the same angle and distance from the window I was using as my source of light, but I simply swapped in a dark background for the second photo.
Using a dark background brings out more depth and shadow as it wraps around the subject, resulting in a moodier look that I personally love working with. The light background was purely a large white wall that bounced beautiful light and airy light everywhere throughout the frame. Soft lighting with a white background like this provides “flat” and “clean” lighting that is flattering on everybody, shows minimal shadows, and provides lighting that you simply that you can’t go wrong with.
Both set-ups work well for different reasons and different purposes, but I feel that the ability to sculpt and shape the light with a dark background is ultimately more rewarding as an artist. I also find that it provides more opportunities for different photographs with interesting poses and expressions, while also outlining more curves in the body and facial features. A dark background also serves as something known as “negative fill” — this means that it doesn’t bounce any light, and instead absorbs it, cutting the light completely and creating more shadows on the subject.
See the example below for how negative fill wraps around the sides of the body and facial features, helping shape them:
Soft vs. Hard Light
The indoor portraits here are all taken with soft or also known as indirect light. This is light that is not shining directly through a window, but it softly "wraps" around objects, casting diffused shadows with soft edges (see photo below on the left).
The outdoor portraits you’ll see were taken with hard light, as it was an hour before sunset and the sun was shining directly onto the subject. Hard light or direct light is harsh light that makes distinct, hard-edged shadows (see photo below on the right). Shooting with hard light has it’s own challenges, but when outdoors at sunset, you’ll get gorgeous shadows coming in at the right angle.
Style of Portraits — My Tip For The Best Location:
For professional, business or bright and airy portraits, I recommend shooting indoors directly next to a large open window with a white background or somewhere with an undercover veranda to get the most beautiful and flattering lighting. You can also shoot outdoors in a beautiful setting, or wherever has a clean and minimalistic background, but I would ensure it’s a clean or open space like a grass field, large concrete space or open water that’s behind you, rather than a busy or distracting texture.
For artistic, creative, actor headshots or modelling portraits, I recommend including atleast one dark background and/or shooting with hard light that has harsher shadows, sculpting light and fosters experimentation. As you can see from the examples in this shoot, your facial structure will be shown differently under a darker background that allows for more shadows and more interesting set-ups.
My Info Pack
I always send out a detailed info pack to my clients that covers what outfits and clothing items photographs best as well (future blog post covering outfits coming soon!), but in this info pack I also cover choosing the right location and setting for your portrait session. As you know by now, I photograph my portraits on location using solely natural light; be it sunny or overcast. The location choice is a very crucial element of the planning stage that differentiates an ordinary photo from an extraordinary one.
I will be happy to assist all my clients in choosing one that is not only convenient, but most especially, one that will give you the best possible results. I have a huge list of locations I personally recommend and provide advice as to what photographs best. Plus who doesn’t want an adventure? A mini roadtrip to some of those unique or unusual locations on my list is always worth it for the experience alone! Pack the esky and the tunes, and hit the road…
Creating Open, Clean & Minimalistic Backgrounds
I direct and create a background that tells a story throughout all my shoots. My portraits are environmental portraits after all, that show a lot of the scene and include a lot of the surroundings. But this only works well when the background is as clean and minimal as possible—but thankfully, choosing the right location is the solution to this.
For outdoor shoots, I do my best to work around the backgrounds available and I will always recommend the areas that are simple, open and avoid any busy textures.
For indoor and at-home shoots, it’s best to clear away any visible clutter, clean all surfaces from smudges and remove anything that seems out of place.
A busy background will distract the viewer and create a photo without a true subject. It’s important to remove any background details that don’t add to the photo (i.e. scuff marks, clutter, messy elements on the ground etc.). If it doesn’t add to the photo, it doesn’t need to be there. Less is more in these instances.
And that’s it for now!
I hope these tips help. If you have any questions about booking the right location and time of day, or if you’re interested in photography yourself and would like to know more, feel free to reach out. Sometimes it can be a case by case basis, and it especially depends on the spaces or locations that is available. If you’re unsure about anything - just ask!
Stay tuned for more blog posts explaining my process, tips and tricks, or to see the work from some of my favourite projects. I hope you enjoyed this collection.