Natural Light Portraiture HOWTO

amolitor

TPF Noob!
Joined
May 18, 2012
Messages
6,320
Reaction score
2,131
Location
Virginia
Can others edit my Photos
Photos OK to edit
It's theme on this forum that flashes are a good thing, and they ARE, make no mistake. I use flash a lot. Still, not everyone has a bunch of strobes and light modifiers. Maybe you don't want to take the softbox and the beauty dish on vacation. There's lots of reasons to not want to use flash. Let us not forget that 100s of years of portraiture went along just fine without it. Rembrandt did not use a strobe for his Rembrandt lighting. It can be done, it's just trickier in several dimensions (and simpler in others).

There are surely lots of ways to do this, and my approach is surely imperfect. Regardless, this can be done.

I want to sketch out how to approach doing more or less contemporary portraits using natural light. I attach some sample images to illustrate the points. I apologize for the focus, I shot these with the self timer and a manual focus lens so, you know, not necessarily spot on. The exposures are adjusted slightly to make them match, but the tone curves are left alone (since that's kind of the whole point). I confess that I did clean up a little dandruff on my shirt, and I cropped them a bit. They're in black and white because the point is the shadows, where they lie, and how intense they are.

Here's my suggested program.

Step 1: If you're not already familiar with contemporary portrait lighting idioms, go look 'em up. There's a lot of web sites on this. Make sure you find one that mentions the HEIGHT of the key light, since not all of them do, and height matters. If they've left height out, they're probably just copying some stuff, badly. Get familiar with what butterfly lighting, loop lighting, Rembrandt lighting, all look like on the face. Get familiar with where the key light goes in each of these.

Step 2: Get a small hand mirror. Pick a window. Ideally in a room with more than one window in it, but pick a window with "nice" light coming through it. Draw the curtains or blinds on all the other windows. Stand directly in front of the window, facing the window, and examine your face in the mirror. Now move around. Sidestep once, twice. Watch what happens to the shadows in your face. Squat or sit down. Turn your face toward the window, and away from the window. You should be able to get to all the lighting idioms pretty easily.

Step 3: You're going to use this window as a "softbox". Unlike a real softbox, you cannot move it around. Therefore you need to move the camera and the model around instead. You're going to be limited, since backgrounds are going to change as you move around. The model may need to be seated to get the "key light" (your window) up high enough. Situate your model to get the lighting idiom you want.

Step 4: Modify the light as necessary. You may want to block off the bottom portion of the key light window to "move the light up". You should experiment with opening and closing curtains on the other windows, if any -- these are your "fill light". Experiment with placing large light or dark objects just out of frame near the model, to brighten or darken that side of the model.

ETA: A good window is casting a clear image of the window into the room, but not a razor sharp one. If direct undiffused sunlight is simply streaming through it, you may need to hang a sheet, or draw the sheers if the window has them (I should be so lucky...) On the other hand, if there is no shadow outline of the window cast, and you simply have a generally lighter area on the floor, the light may be too diffuse. Select another window. Note that the light will change as you work, the sun and clouds move around. So, pay attention.

Here is a worked example. It has some technical problems, yes. It should nonetheless illustrate.

My front room has two large windows, one partially shaded. Since it was a lightly overcast day, I selected my un-obstructed window as the "key" light, since the light was already diffused by light cloud cover. The light was coming through the window at an angle, not straight into the room, but angled toward the middle of the room. I positioned my model (me) facing the wall beside the window, on the side the light was angled toward. The aim was basic loop lighting, as you can see.

I began with this setup just as described, no light modification at all:

$207.JPG

You can see the loop lighting. The key light appears perhaps a bit low. Yes, yes, my hair is far too dark on the shadowed side.

Then I blocked off the lower portion of my "key light" window with a towel. I literally propped it there with a couple of books. It doesn't need to be perfect -- any light that gets through becomes "fill", the goal is simply to manage ratios. The catchlight becomes more defined, as does the "loop light" shadow. In general, the lighting ratio has gone up. So, there are TWO effects here - I have reduced the amount of fill light bouncing around the room, which makes the lighting ratio more intense, AND I have clarified and defined the key light. Arguably at this point I should have used improvised white reflectors to bring the ratio DOWN while maintaining more more defined key light. I did not.

$208.JPG

Next, I simply closed the curtains of the other window. This effectively increased the ratio further:

$209.JPG

And finally I added an anti-reflector to the mix, positioning a black yoga blanket draped over a ladder just out of the frame on the left side, further pushing the lighting ratio up:

$210.JPG

And here they all are together for comparison (I hope I haven't botched the order up anyplace..). Note the depth of the shadow on the shadowed side of the bridge of the nose, and on the shadowed side of the cheek:

$All.JPG

How could I have done this better?

I definitely should have introduced a reflector to fill in the hair upper-left in the frame. With a lovely assistant I could have had someone simply holding a pillowcase or light towel just out of frame, up high. It's fixable in post, but so what? It was shot wrong.
 
Last edited:

Gavjenks

TPF Noob!
Joined
May 9, 2013
Messages
2,976
Reaction score
588
Location
Iowa City, IA
Can others edit my Photos
Photos OK to edit
I know the goal is to not use flash, but if you want to travel lightly, you could still get much better results with one single flash handheld in one hand with the camera in the other. Try to find a white-ish room with a predominant window. Then use the (bounced off of a wall or ceiling) flash as key, with the point of bounce being basically where the key light "is" and the window as fill. This all requires no more space in your bag than a lens.

When you use two windows, you yourself still mentioned having to find "large white and black objects" or propping blankets in the windows to increase or decrease the ratio. Setting up yoga mats on ladders and other such effortful things is defeating the whole purpose of not having a flash. It would be more trouble than just carrying a single speedlight and a tiny radio remote connector around with you. And the ability to choose your backgroudn more easily makes it even more worth it to carry that speedlight.

tl;dr: if you want to gain any actual convenience advantage over flash, I think you would need to develop a much simpler setup than this for it to be worth it, without the need for any large objects or extensive manipulation of windows.
 
OP
amolitor

amolitor

TPF Noob!
Joined
May 18, 2012
Messages
6,320
Reaction score
2,131
Location
Virginia
Can others edit my Photos
Photos OK to edit
It is basically always easier to use flash, yes. My little tutorial ain't about "easier". Please re-read the first paragraph.
 

cynicaster

No longer a newbie, moving up!
Joined
Feb 27, 2013
Messages
756
Reaction score
301
Location
Ontario, Canada
Can others edit my Photos
Photos OK to edit
I know the goal is to not use flash, but if you want to travel lightly, you could still get much better results with one single flash handheld in one hand with the camera in the other. Try to find a white-ish room with a predominant window. Then use the (bounced off of a wall or ceiling) flash as key, with the point of bounce being basically where the key light "is" and the window as fill. This all requires no more space in your bag than a lens.

When you use two windows, you yourself still mentioned having to find "large white and black objects" or propping blankets in the windows to increase or decrease the ratio. Setting up yoga mats on ladders and other such effortful things is defeating the whole purpose of not having a flash. It would be more trouble than just carrying a single speedlight and a tiny radio remote connector around with you. And the ability to choose your backgroudn more easily makes it even more worth it to carry that speedlight.

tl;dr: if you want to gain any actual convenience advantage over flash, I think you would need to develop a much simpler setup than this for it to be worth it, without the need for any large objects or extensive manipulation of windows.

I think you're missing the point. The amount of kit that needs to be lugged around to do one approach over the other is but one consideration here. Let's not forget that there are many who couldn't use strobes if they wanted to because they don't have any and don't have the funds to change that.

@amolitor--good info. If you hand drew some sketches of what your setup looks like for these examples, I think that would be enourmously helpful. Thanks for sharing.
 

Derrel

Mr. Rain Cloud
Joined
Jul 23, 2009
Messages
48,227
Reaction score
18,929
Location
USA
Website
www.pbase.com
Can others edit my Photos
Photos OK to edit
Nice post amolitor. I agree with cynicaster, that a sketch showing your orientation to the window might be helpful to some people. Still, nice to see such an involved post helping people learn about window light portraiture. Great point you made about the height of the key light--that is I think one of the most critical aspects of portraiture.
 

cgipson1

TPF Noob!
Joined
Aug 18, 2011
Messages
17,143
Reaction score
4,350
Can others edit my Photos
Photos NOT OK to edit
I prefer the first one with no light modification at all, since all of the light mods made the shadow under the chin / on the throat / along the nose so dark. But even the first one is barely acceptable for any kind of portraiture. One properly used reflector would have made a world of difference.
 
OP
amolitor

amolitor

TPF Noob!
Joined
May 18, 2012
Messages
6,320
Reaction score
2,131
Location
Virginia
Can others edit my Photos
Photos OK to edit
No problem.

Here's the window: It's about 6 feet tall, and begins about 24 inches up. So, it's pretty big. Since the sky is the "main" light source in this scenario (lightly overcast sky), you still effectively get the upper part of the window acting as a key light, but there's a fair bit of fill coming from the bottom half. It's really that bottom half, that extra fill light. that I blocked up with the towel.

$window.JPG

And here is the, uh, "strobist" diagram. I see that I left out the anti-reflector when I sketched this in my notebook, so the black square crudely drawn in with GIMP to the right of the model indicates where it is. Imagine that the sun is off at about 11 o'clock in this diagram, and you'll see how the light is falling through the window.

$strobist.JPG

ETA: Good lord my handwriting is AWFUL. The captions are: "Key" Window; Light; Camera; Me (Seated). Hopefully you can work out which is which on your own.

Distances are not indicated because, frankly, my distances and your distances are going to be radically different.

To change the lighting, imagine that the camera and the model are both fixed to a stage on wheels:

- to get butterfly lighting, EITHER roll the stage to the left, OR rotate it counter-clockwise around the model. You may need to lower the model ("raise" the key light)
- to get Rembrandt lighting, EITHER roll the stage to the right, OR rotate it clockwise. You may need to raise the model ("lower" the key light)

The effects will be slightly different rotating versus going left/right. You might like one more than the other.

If you get a mirror and stand around in front of a window with decently defined light coming through it, and spend a few minutes moving around, you'll see the pattern pretty fast. It's really very very easy to see and mess with, once you get tuned in to looking for the right things (that nose shadow!)

ETA2: This demonstrates, also, one of several reasons that this is harder than simply using strobes. You have to move the model and the camera around simultaneously. If you want to do loop lighting straight on, and then "broad", and then "short", you're leaving the model alone and moving the camera, and then cursing because the background for "short" is all horrible because there's a bookcase that cannot be moved there or something.
 
Last edited:

Derrel

Mr. Rain Cloud
Joined
Jul 23, 2009
Messages
48,227
Reaction score
18,929
Location
USA
Website
www.pbase.com
Can others edit my Photos
Photos OK to edit
One really critical thing to keep in mind when doing window light portraiture like this: the closer to the window, the harder the shadows! Being close makes the lighting ratio high. Moving away from the window, and more toward the center of the room, creates lighting where the shadows will be softer.

Closer = crisper (in other words, harder shadows, higher-ratio lighting)

Farther = milder (in other words, dimmer light, with softer shadows, and lower-ratio lighting)

Of course, the exposure levels do vary as the distance from the window to the subject change, so metering changes must be enacted as needed.
 
OP
amolitor

amolitor

TPF Noob!
Joined
May 18, 2012
Messages
6,320
Reaction score
2,131
Location
Virginia
Can others edit my Photos
Photos OK to edit
I should mention that this is all pretty much based on Henry Peach Robinson's little book "Pictorial effect in photography" where he has a couple of chapters on doing portraits in a nineteenth century studio. I simply updated the lighting idioms (Robinson is frankly rather vague on what it's supposed to look like in the end), and thought through how to work with windows available in a typical home rather than the wide bank of giant windows a studio would have had in that era.

This is an excellent, albeit somewhat limited, book, and you can download it free from books.google.com since it's out of copyright.
 

ronlane

What's next?
Joined
Aug 3, 2012
Messages
10,207
Reaction score
4,934
Location
Mustang Oklahoma
Website
www.lane-images.com
Can others edit my Photos
Photos OK to edit
Thanks Andrew for starting this thread. It is very helpful. Also than you Cynicaster, Derrel and Charlie for adding to the discussion.

Questions that I have.

1) What time of day is best for these types of portratures? Is it better with sunny days or overcast?

2) What lens and focal length were you using?

3) In looking at the pictures and diagram, it appears that you are pointing your chin away from the light source, correct? Is this to add to the shadowing?
 
OP
amolitor

amolitor

TPF Noob!
Joined
May 18, 2012
Messages
6,320
Reaction score
2,131
Location
Virginia
Can others edit my Photos
Photos OK to edit
For this particular setup, it was morning and these are east-facing windows. So the sun was more or less "coming through" the window, which gave me quite a well defined light. As of right now, the sun has risen out of view of the window, but the sky has cleared up. So, I have a very bright clear sky (nature's softbox) behind my window. The light NOW is quite soft but still well enough defined for a portrait, I think. I am pretty sure I'd get better portraits out of it now, in fact.. As the day wears on, the eastern sky will get less and less bright, so the light in my living room will get more and more diffuse and soft.

I *think* the standard "ideal" is an expanse of clear sky casting light through the window, but with the sun itself not casting light through. This morning, I was able to use the sun+clouds, and wound up with a slightly harsh result.

Any time of day that you can achieve this is a fine time of day!

But seriously, 5 minutes with a hand mirror will teach you everything, once you know what the nose-shadow patterns are supposed to look like.

This was shot with a 50mm on a crop sensor, but then cropped further. It's probably something like "100mm equivalent" at this point (i.e. the look of a 100mm lens on a full frame camera, give or take 10mm). f/5.6, since I had tons of room behind and knew focus was going to be an issue. The camera was at or slightly above my eye line.

I was TRYING for a straight on shot, tilting my head slightly back. Now that Derrel has revealed the secrets of Feminine Head Tilt, I was trying to look manly ;) Shoulders slightly turned, face straight-on to the camera, chin out slightly. I did NOT play "chin-thrust, tongue on the roof of the mouth" games, because I was too busy thinking about light, and about hitting the same pose each shot!
 

PhotoTish

No longer a newbie, moving up!
Joined
May 14, 2011
Messages
539
Reaction score
52
Can others edit my Photos
Photos OK to edit
Brilliant thread to bookmark. Thanks for all the info. I shall be printing this off to read properly. :thumbup:
 

Most reactions

ClickASnap

New Topics

Top