available light photography

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.

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a favorite image – before & after (and the how to)

There’s something about this photograph that I really like … aside from Anelisa being one of my favorite models. It is slightly surreal with Anelisa’s apparent levitation. The dress and hat is reminiscent of a 1950′s Fashion, and Anelisa’s mid-air pose is also reminiscent of Philippe Halsman’s iconic jumping images. All that, combined with the sun flaring across her face and the washed-out background, all adds to this wonderfully nostalgic mood.

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embracing serendipity during a photo shoot

I love that word – serendipity. A bit of chance favoring you. When a tiny bit of serendipity comes your way during a photo shoot, you have to be open enough to see it and then run with the idea.

This photo was taken during the mini photography workshop in Denver. Our model, Elizabeth, had dropped a box on her foot the previous day. When Elizabeth wriggled her feet into these high-heels for the photos, she bent over to soothe the arch of her foot. And then … those legs happened! There was something in this pose that really worked. So we went along with this a while. (I didn’t quite want to call this blog post “a happy accident”, since there was actually a minor accident involved for Elizabeth!)

This photo was taken with the Fuji X100s (B&H) using only the available light. By exposing for my subject, the background blew out. But I had to help that effect further with a bit of Photoshop work. The image was further enhanced with RadLab.

With her pose like this, the light reflecting off the ground lit up her face. Another happy accident. We tried different poses with that hand … and it never quite fell into a position where *this* was the best pose. In the end, I really like this image, and how it came together.

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available light photography: direction of light / posing into the light

A topic that I’ve given more and more attention to here on Tangents, is available light photography - but specifically the concept that it isn’t just a random way of taking photos, but that consideration has to be given to the direction of light. When you work with someone you want to take a portrait of, it is crucial that you pose someone in flattering light. This often means posing someone into the light, with the one shoulder toward the direction of light. This idea works for even the simplest of cameras.

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taking photos in harsh sunlight

Taking photographs of people in harsh sunlight will always be one of the more daunting lighting situations we can find ourselves in. Without additional lighting, or the use of scrims, we have a few basic ways of dealing with the harsh sun:
- pose our subject into the light,
- pose our subject with their back to the sun, or
- just suck it up and accept that our photos will look bad.

Well, that last option isn’t really the way to go if we have any pride in our work as photographers. Which leaves us with the two other options …

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photographing in bright sunlight – find the shade!

Hard sunlight must be one of the most difficult lighting scenarios to work under. But with a bit of thought, we can work around it and still easily get photos that look great. It’s a topic that we’ve touched on a number of times on the Tangents blog, (see related articles at the end here). The simplest approach for me though, is where I can, is to just not deal with the hard sunlight. I find shade.

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bridal portrait – working with the available light

This striking portrait is of Rachel, a bride whose wedding I photographed yesterday. Yes, a Tuesday wedding! The prep was at a hotel on the Jersey shore, and when Rachel was ready, I wanted to shoot a few straight-forward portraits there in the hotel. There was a lot of light in the hotel room itself, but the decor was white – which helps for high-key portraits. But I wanted some variety.  

So I scouted around, and decided to do some photographs in the passage outside her hotel room. Since it was a wedding on the Jersey shore, and we did other portraits later on, on the beach, I thought this bright wallpaper wouldn’t be too inappropriate as a backdrop. Now it was just a question of light …

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even with high ISO settings, you still need great light

Still having fun with the new Canon 5D Mark III (B&H), I met up with Elmira again in New York. Elmira is the model I used in my initial tests of the Canon 5D Mark III high-ISO performance. Being a delightful model to work with, I decided to use her again as a subject.

New York was cold on this day, so shooting indoors just seemed a lot more attractive. We went to Grand Central Station – a grandiose building, but with light levels quite low. Low enough that I was glad that I brought the Canon EF 35mm f1.4L (B&H) along.

camera settings: 1/100 @ f/2 @ 3200 ISO
Even with a high ISO like that, I had to use a fast aperture.

An approach that I strongly believe in though, is that “using the available light” is not random decision. It needs consideration of what your light is actually like, and whether it is flattering. What I did here was to pull Elmira towards a light source, so that the light would come in from an angle over her shoulder …

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exposure metering – let your background blow out!

Too often there’s the desire for us to bring the detail in our backgrounds back in by adding flash. But there are times when the image will be stronger if we just allow the background to completely blow out. It especially works in our favor if the background is cluttered, because then by letting the background completely over-expose, we can simplify our composition.

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observing & using the available light, and maybe adding a little bit of flash (model – Alex)

When working with available light or flash or video light or any kind of additional light, the most important aspect of the light is the direction of the light. We need to take a moment and observe the light. Where do the light sources come from? What is the quality of the light?

This motif of looking at the available light has been a recurring theme here with various articles on the topic. Using this simple portrait of Alex, our model with a recent individual workshop, let’s look at a sequence of photos showing some of the thought process ..

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