Making Portrait Photography Easy

 Portrait on a bright sunny day made in open shade

Have you recently joined the ranks of the professional photography industry? Have you got a wedding, family portrait or fashion job coming up? Perhaps you're an enthusiast striving to make better portraits of your family and friends. You may have gone down the fill flash road and found it to be too expensive and/or too difficult. Don't worry, I have the solution right here.

Beware of Bright Midday Sun

You've probably been out and about on a bright sunny day making photos. (And that's were it suddenly began to go wrong, your honor). You may even have been lulled into a false sense of security by the subject of your photos, themselves swept up in the positive vibes associated with just such a day. Likely the results were average, to say the least.

The Problem

You just can't make great portraits under bright outdoor light without converting the light back to something more like a winter's day. If you don't you'll find your subject will be adversely affected in one or more of the following ways

  • Eyes closed due to the intense brightness of the sun
  • Dark eye sockets as a consequence of bright overhead sun
  • Burned out highlights on forehead, cheeks and nose

Back Lighting

Placing your subject with their back to the sun will allow them to open their eyes, but it won't be much good because, without the use of fill flash or a reflector, they'll photograph as a silhouette.

The Solution

The trick is to scatter the light so as to make it a larger, more diffuse light source. By doing so you'll produce a softer, more flattering quality of light that will illuminate the subject more evenly and allow them to open their eyes and engage with the camera and, by extension, the viewer.

Open Shade is Your Friend

The easiest way to control the light is to move the subject so that they are in the shade. And I don't mean deep into the Amazon jungle. I mean into open shade which you'll find by moving the subject a few steps back from the demarcation line between sunlit and shaded grass, path, road, etc.

The amazing thing amount this is that, as you're just out of direct sun, enough light gets in so that your subject will appear to be illuminated by a lovely, soft light. Their skin will begin to glow.

I've been using this very technique for around 30 years and it underpins the vast majority of my portrait photography. Of course there are always a few caveats including the following:

  • To place extra emphasis on your subject, and help prevent underexposure, make sure that your background is darker than your subject's face (and I mean all of the background)
  • As a result the background (e.g., Eiffel Tower) may not feature as prominently, if at all, in your new composition

To achieve the desired color try setting your camera's white balance to Cloudy so as to cancel out the bluish colored light, reflecting from the blue sky above, commonly found in shadows. This works for around 90% of the outdoor photos I make. Very occasionally I'II use Sunny/Daylight/Direct Daylight (it's called different things in different cameras) if the resulting white balance is too warm or Shade in it's still too blue. But again, around 90% of the time Cloudy is the white balance setting I employ when photographing outdoors. 

The above photo was made on a very bright sunny day on the back steps of the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne, Australia. Because our lovely young model, Jessica, is out of the sun she can open her eyes. A more engaging portrait ensues, without the creation of wrinkles caused by squinting. As I'm well used to identifying color casts it was clear to me that, on that particular day, the light in the shade was a heavy aqua/blue color. A cloudy white balance saved the day.

Image Processing

Most digital cameras, from my experience, render Caucasian skin too pink. What's more most skin types tend to photograph too orange for my liking. I use a variety of simply techniques in Adobe Lightroom to reduce these problems and, thereby, produce more natural looking skin tone. There are also some options folks photographing in JPEG mode can use in camera that will help in this regard.

A Call to Action

If you're interested in learning how to make great portrait photographs you can book me for a one-on-one photography class. It can be a totally hands-on practical session, supported by appropriate notes, if that suits you best. Many folks follow up with a one-on-one Lightroom session so as to improve their photography even further.

You'll find all the details HERE. And, dare I say, I'm running a 3-hour for the price of 2 special offer at the moment. That means the usual price of $330 is reduce to just $220.

Any questions, feel free to Contact Me directly.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru