The first thing I notice when I look at a photograph of a person, is his or her expression. For my last blog post I talked about “Why I Never Say Cheese.” I strive to capture real expressions from my own children and my clients. Sometimes we get it with little effort and sometimes we have to earn it. If you missed my first post in this series, check it out here.
Next to capturing a great expression, I think finding the right light enhances so many aspects of a great portrait: like nice skin tones and sparkly eyes. It also helps create the mood. The first thing you will want to do is turn OFF your flash. I did this with my point shoot and with my first DSLR camera as my first step to taking control of my camera. Now I shoot manual mode, and I don’t even have a flash. I work exclusively with natural light. I am very particular about what time of day I work with clients, and I only showcase my own personal photos that have been taken in good light. I take photos in wonky light; you just won’t see them here.
Next, find the light! For this post, I am going to focus on window light. I am incredibly fortunate that the majority of our windows face north. We get mostly indirect light 365 days a year. During the summer months, when it is a bit harsh in the mornings, I shoot in our front room where we have a south facing window. So, if you see pictures of my kiddos in pajamas in the playroom, it’s morning and summertime (I just had to clarify, because we have been known to have a few pajama days).
Here is one of my favorites photos shot in our playroom. There is soft light coming in from behind the kids (south facing window) and some light coming in from our kitchen (north facing window). They are far enough away from the harsh light that was coming in, so there aren’t any harsh shadows on their faces.
Also, turn off your overhead lights, lamps, and even light from adjoining rooms. When I say natural light, I mean natural. Here is a picture from a newborn session that I love, but I kick myself for not turning off the hall light. See the yellow door camera left, that color was created from the overhead hallway light. The door was not yellow. You might not know that, but I do. The homeowner might as well.
Now, if you have a kiddo that can hold still, you can play around with how you position your child in the light. My almost 4 year old can hold still for a very short amount of time. A lot of times, I place her on a stool or chair. This helps me keep her positioned.
For this photo, I positioned the chair at a 45 degree angle from our north facing sliding glass door. I shot this with my 50mm 1.4, and I shot it at 1.4 to blur out my messy kitchen. Observe how one side of her face is bright and the other has shadows. The shadows help create dimension to her face. The dimension is nice, but I don’t think her skin tones look that great. Miss S. skipped her nap that day, and she has a small bruise on her cheek; but I think the yucky skin tones have more to do with the light.
This photo was taken within minutes of the previous. This time she is facing the sliding glass door. Did I mention that I used to hate sliding glass doors until I got into photography? Now I can’t imagine a house without them. The light I used in this photo is called flat light. I tend to favor flat light when I photograph children because I love how it draws attention to the eyes AND the skin tones look almost flawless. I did not retouch her skin in post processing. It looks this good because of the light.
Here is a pullback shot of my dining room and north facing sliding glass door. It was an overcast day, but still created beautiful light for a naturally lit portrait.
If you have a younger child, say a 2 year old boy, you might need more than a stool to contain him. The crib works just fine too. Here is one of my son after his nap. My son is perpendicular to a north facing window, and it is about 2/3p.m during the summer. In this case, I like how one side of his face is shadowed. I think it highlights his silly expression.
My last photo share combines both tips: how to get a real expression and how to use light to flatter your subjects. It is a family shot. I stacked up some books (I really need a tripod), and got out my wireless remote control for my camera. My husband and I grabbed the kids and sat on the couch. I said “Daddy’s stinky”, which my daughter and I thought was hilarious; the boys, not so much. Getting fantastic expressions out of 4 people (while taking the shot) will have to be covered in a future blog post. We are seated in front of 3 large north facing windows, and it was around 6pm in early September. I have wrinkles, crows feet, and sun spots; but in this light, my skin looks pretty good.
Don’t be afraid to turn OFF the flash, the artificial lights, and find a nice window with indirect light. Then move your subject around until you get the position that flatters your subject and creates your intended mood.