February 14, 2014

available light portraits – composition and light

Over time I noticed that my style in photographing portraits have gravitated to a specific look where everything is quite simplified – the lighting, the background and the framing of the shot. Whether I use the available light, or video light, or off-camera flash, or even on-camera bounce flash, there’s a certain uncomplicated look. I’d like to think of it as elegant unfussy simplicity.

Analyzing this, it is easy to see there’s a specific method here. It’s a method which helps especially when under pressure. Here, even allowing extra time for the crazy peak-time traffic here in New Jersey, I was still running late for the photo session with Christy. When I arrived, falling back into a familiar rhythm of shooting portraits, allowed me to get images that work, very quickly.

The essential idea is that the light has to be good, and the background has to be complimentary. Then it is a matter of posing our subject, and composing the frame. Invariably then, the starting point is finding that intersect between good light and a good background. And if  you don’t have great available light, then you need to create it with additional lighting.

Here’s the pull-back shot of exactly where I photographed Christy – it’s just a grassy stretch next to the side of the road. Nothing much there.The image at the top was shot at 180mm, which is towards the longer end of my 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom. This is an essential lens for me – fast telephoto zoom with stabilization. It allows me to shoot in low light with relatively less chance of camera shake. The shallow depth-of-field also adds its own characteristic to the image.

More importantly here, the longer focal length allows me to pick out the specific background that I want. I can choose my background, and even a small sideways movement of a few inches can change the background of the portrait. Shooting from lower down, I moved my own position to frame Christy against the brighter background, and with that natural vignette there of the out-of-focus trees. All of this isn’t random, but specific decisions.

camera settings for the image at the top:
1/160 @ f/2.8 @ 1250 ISO … available light only

The starting point – with the sun setting over the horizon, there was a golden glow to the light. I asked Christy to turn her back to that, hoping for some of that rim-light to perhaps work its magic. But it wasn’t strong enough for the effect I wanted – the light was already fading. Also, shooting in this direction didn’t look like it would lead to much in terms of an interesting background.

Then, turning around, I saw the patch of brighter sky between the trees, and knew this would make a great natural frame. It even worked for the full-length images.



photo gear (and equivalents) used in this photo session


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{ 14 comments. } Add a Comment

1 Ian February 14, 2014 at 8:29 am

Nicely done, simple and clean.


2 Philip Lord February 14, 2014 at 11:26 am

I love working with available light. Nice shots Neil , simple and effective


3 Eric February 14, 2014 at 11:56 am

Was a soft box used in the image with her back towards the sun?


4 Dustin Hoang February 14, 2014 at 12:34 pm

I don’t think so b/c exposure of the subject and background are identical. Hope, I’m not wrong !


5 DaBears February 14, 2014 at 3:48 pm

I don’t think so because the title of the post is “Available light portraits…”


6 Eric February 14, 2014 at 7:30 pm

Yeah, I thought about that too, but I figured to expose for that nice orange background, she’d be a lot more under exposed than she is, and the catchlights in her eyes kinda look like a soft box.

I could be totally wrong.


7 Joe Schmidt February 14, 2014 at 1:34 pm

Great available light images Neil. As in all photography you have to be in charge of what you are doing. We see so many of these Soccer Mom photographers who don’t seem to know what they are doing. They get this idea that everything should be photographed by available light no matter what. Wish more of them would read your blog. By the way I thought your shoot was with Governor Christy. Wrong Christy.


8 SEAN SHIMMEL February 14, 2014 at 8:33 pm

What a powerful testimony to composition with the wide reveal and the zoomed versions.

I never, ever grow tired of natural light. Here’s a post from right before winter:

Halcyon Days


9 Patrick Ng February 15, 2014 at 12:29 am

Simplicity is great indeed.

This post can also be thought as another example of photography being a subjective art. I happen to like the warm photo against the sunset in the horizon quite a lot.


10 Raul Mortela February 15, 2014 at 7:11 am

You’re too hard on yourself Neil. The sunset in the background picture was great.


11 photomatte February 16, 2014 at 7:54 pm

I’ve always been a big fan of shooting with available light…that’s why I always have my off-camera lights available!
No camera can capture the amount of dynamic range visible to the human eye. In high-contrast situations (ie, most outdoor weddings), having all that extra available light is crucial to making the images appear more natural, ironically enough. When I actually have a chance to shoot using just available light (ie, dusk) I’m always excited!


12 g Chu February 16, 2014 at 10:54 pm

Hi Neil, You forgot to put your “stamp” on the last picture where the lady has one leg up…I don’t like it when people use other people’s work as their own, so please consider putting that “photography by Neil… ” thing on it…Otherwise great work


13 Jason Rodgers February 17, 2014 at 4:51 am

I liked the sunset background shot better, just my opinion.


14 Jennifer Lynch February 20, 2014 at 10:53 am

1. I love the sunset shot too and I think the rim lighting is great. It totally works, at least it does for me. I prefer it to the other two below it.

2. Great dress.

3. g Chu: It’s probably one image, a composite, so no need for two logos. Just a guess. Neil is vigilant about watermarking his images and preventing theft.


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