For Better Outdoor Portraits, Add a Little Flash-Even in Winter

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In the photo on the left, I did not use a flash. There are harsh shadows all over the girl’s face, to the point where you cannot even see her eyes. By popping up the flash, even outdoors in winter, you can eliminate the harsh shadows on a bright sunny day and capture a much more flattering portrait of your subject. This is called fill flash. I had my camera in regular program (not green box) mode and popped up my flash to get the photo on the right. Now there’s the eyes! And notice how the camera/flash system automatically balances the daylight with the flash to maintain the saturation in the blue sky, brown trees and green grass.

Bounce Flash So Much More Flattering Than Direct Flash

RT_SE27380Using an external flash on top of my camera instead of the pop-up one built into my camera gives me much more natural-looking photos. So I use it a lot; but because I feel I have not really mastered flash lighting, I keep everything in a program mode. My camera is set to “P” and my flash is in its program mode. The real trick, however, is the bouncing of the light off of the ceiling. With many external flashes, the head of the flash swivels so that you can make the light from the flash bounce off of a wall or ceiling. Below are two examples of direct flash, like your built-in pop-up flash, versus bounce flash. The images with bounce flash feel more natural – the shadow in the background disappears and the overall result is not harsh. An external flash does make your camera heavier, but the results are so flattering that to me it is worth the extra weight. Be sure when you bounce a flash, the wall of ceiling is white or very light. If you bounce off of a green wall, for example, the photo will have a green cast.

Flash Comparison 2 Fash Comparison

Natural Lighting for Mother’s Day Portraits

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Before mom or grandma comes over for Mother’s Day (May 13th), think about a great spot in your yard to take a beautiful mother’s day portrait. Look for a spot that has open shade. Open shade will give you even lighting and really make the eyes sparkle. Great choices are in a doorway, under a covered porch, or under the perimeter of a shady tree. Position your subject just inside the lens of shade. Rule of thumb for positioning is if she can take just a step or two forward, and she is in sun the sun, then the step or two back is perfect! Too far back and you will lose some of the brightness and highlights in the eyes that the open shade provides. Try to get just a little higher than your subject so she looks up slightly towards your camera. Use a wide open aperture like F/2.8 or F/3.5 to blur the background. If you can use a tele zoom position, then your background will be even more blurred. So scout out your location and do a few test shots before your special guest arrives on Mother’s Day. Read more about open shade here and here).

Use Structures In Your Surroundings As a Reflector for Better Outdoor Portraits

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On a beautiful fall day, I posed my subject next to a tree facing the back of the house, which acted as a reflector. The sun bounced off the house and lit the girl’s face and gave her a really nice highlight in each eye. Reflectors can be any white or near white surface, such as a painted brick wall, a sign on a door, or more. Position your subject in the path of the light as it bounces naturally off the “reflector.” If you are in a place where there is no structure that can act as a reflector, then break out a white piece of foam core or oat tag to bounce light back into your subject’s face and eyes. If you love this technique for posed portraits, then you might consider buying a reflector from your local camera store. So look around to see not only where the light is coming from, but what it is bouncing off.

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The lit leaves in the background add some drama.

Don’t Let Bright Sun Ruin a Candid Portrait- Move into the Open Shade

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We are not nocturnal by nature, so our photo-taking time is usually during the day. And now that it is almost summer, there will be plenty of bright sunny days on which you want to take photos of vacationing kids and visiting guests. So what do we need to do to get a decent outdoor portrait? The simplest solution is to look for open shade. Open shade is the step you take back from the sunny to the shady. It can be just under a tree. Or a step inside a door frame or porch. Or a tent or any overhang. The open shade eliminates all of the contrasty shadows that appear on the face and clothing of a subject standing in the sun. Look at the side by side comparison, especially the eyes and the shirt of the girl on the left. (Pls ignore the color as I did not reset my white balance from sunny to shade and consequently have some funky color going on; pls be sure to set the WB to auto or shady). Below is a shot that shows you the line between a good and poor candid portrait. The girls were first on the sunny side of the line, and then took a step back into the shade. I love how the light catches in their eyes when you shoot in open shade. For more on open shade, see this post too.
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Lighting Diagrams for Window Light Photos

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Click the link below to download Photo Tips Card #4 and add it to your d-ring with the other tips cards. Window light is one of my favorite ways to take portraits and still life shots as you well know since my blog entries frequently feature this type of shot. I felt by sketching out how I position the camera and the subject might be helpful. I am going to ask you to not laugh at my funny sketches, but I am sure you will not be able to help yourself. I laughed too as I was making the card.
http://www.4shared.com/document/Nuyubuu8/TIPS_CARDS_WindowLightDiagrams.html

Take a Candid Holiday Portrait by Window Light, and Add a Prop!

easter_portrait_1The window is your best photo accessory for portraits. It’s so easy to use, always there, you don’t need an assistant to hold anything, and you don’t have to pull out your auxiliary flash. I just love the light that streams through my windows in several rooms. Positioning your subject very close to the window, like in the shot at left from early Easter mornning, can give you a nice dramatic light since the light falls off the opposite side of the face quickly and the eyes have a nice sparkle from the window catchlights. To get more of an even light, move your subject just a further away from the window (as in the first photo below- the subject was across the room from the window), or, face your subject perpendicular to the window instead of parallel. In this case, you can actually stand right in front of the window with your subject in turn in front of you and you will not block the light! See this post here for an example of this type of positioning. You can also “fill in” the other side of the face with a pop of the flash as you can see in the second photo below. If you find there is still a slight “artificial” feeling, you can adjust how much light the flash puts out by adjusting the flash +/- button usually found near the flash. Hold the button in and dial it towards the minus side. Perhaps -.7 or -1.0. Review the flash section in your camera manual to see exactly how to set this on your camera. And don’t foget to add a prop that gives your portrait a sense of time. In my case, the tulips scream spring and the eggs of course will remind me this was Easter time when we look back at these photos years from now. (Watch for a forthcoming download card with lighting diagrams for window light positioning).
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Holiday Portraits Using the Night Portrait Scene Mode

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I rarely use the scene modes on my camera, but the one I find myself using from time to time is the Night Portrait mode. This scene mode is the one with the icon featuring a person and star  or moon (see typical camera mode dial below). I use this mode when I want a person as my main subject, but the special lighting in the background, like Christmas lights, Times Square lighting, or a sunset, is equally important. In this photo, my subject posed in front of the town’s decorated gazebo and lit tree.
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The Night Portrait mode sends out a burst of the flash to capture the subject and than makes the shutter stay open a little longer to capture the lighting in the background. The trick in this mode is to be sure both you and your subject hold still to avoid unwanted blur from camera shake or subject movement. In fact, my subject did move and her hands are slightly blurry due to the very slow 1/10 sec shutter speed required to achieve the effect. But the expression was just what I hoped for, so for me, it’s perfect. I boosted the ISO considerably—to 1000— and I opened my aperture to F/5, the widest setting for this situation, in order to make the lights softer in the background. Using the Night Portrait mode helped me take the guess work out of deciding how to set my flash and shutter speed and instead concentrate on snapping away until I got what I was looking for. So pose your kids in front of the tree or outdoor decorations, or position your family along the railing at sunset on your next cruise, set the camera to Night Portrait mode and see what you can get!

Using Flash for Indoor Photography

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I have to admit it. Flash is my least favorite type of photography. I suppose since it seems so technical and the results can vary from situation to situation, looking artificial, too dark or too washed out. Luckily, today’s flashes can run pretty much on auto pilot and can be used for creative effect with just a little practice. But this time of year, and for the next four or five months, we’re all stuck indoors a great deal of the time, especially during the holiday season when we take so many candid photos at get-togethers. So I thought I’d share just a few basic flash tips to improve your indoor photos:

1) Your pop-up flash, the one that is part of the camera and pops up automatically if you are shooting in the “green box” total program mode, can cover just a short distance. Most of the time, any subject further than ten feet cannot get enough of the flash illumination for a properly exposed shot and that is why they look dark. You can boost your ISO to higher than normal (try 800 or 1000) to try and get more reach.

2) When you position your subject too close to a wall and use your pop-up flash, you are bound to get harsh shadows behind your subject. Eliminate this by having your subject step a few feet away from the wall and by shooting from a little bit above the subject (which is also a more flattering angle for portraits).

3) Your pop-up flash can cause red-eye quite often. This is because the flash is so close to the lens. It is worse on point-and-shoot cameras than DSLR cameras, but typical in either case. To eliminate red-eye, you can use the red-eye reduction function that throws out a pre-flash to make your subject’s eyes close down, but I find often that people think you’re done and move before the photo is actually shot. You can also try turning up the lights in the room to help the iris naturally close down a little.

4) If you are in a very dark room, the camera/flash may over-expose your subject (you know, the white face that appears to have nothing but eyes and lips) since the camera reads the room as very dark and wants to make it brighter. This also happens if you are too close to your subject. One solution is to back up to correct the latter, and turn up the room lights if you can for the former. If you cannot control the lighting, try moving your subject closer to a room light like I did above.

An on-camera auxiliary flash, like the one for my camera shown above, elevates the flash away from the lens and helps to reduce red-eye dramatically. This type of flash also helps in other ways: a) it can throw the flash further allowing you to be further away from your subject; and b) you can change the position of the flash to get more even lighting with much less shadows. This is called “bounce flash.”

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The photo above of my very Thanksgiving-weary subject was taken with the auxiliary flash in a bounce position. The flash bounced off of the ceiling and back down onto my subject. You can see the lighting looks much more natural and softer than in either of the two photos below where the shots look more artificial and harsh. In the photos below, you can also see the harsh shadow under the lamp and on the futon frame. And, there are hot spots on her cheeks. You can also see how quickly the flash “drops off,” meaning the couch gets darker, whereas in the photo above, the couch and subject are all evenly illuminated since the bounced flash showers the whole area with light. One caution–always bounce off of a white wall or ceiling as the flash will take on the color cast of what it is being bounced off of (e.g., a green ceiling will produce a ghoulish effect).

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Like learning how to control your depth of field to blur backgrounds, mastering your flash is a must for anyone who is looking to take better people photos. So this season, try to remember some of the tips above when shooting your flash candids at family gatherings. And if you can get an auxiliary flash made for your camera onto your wish list, it will be a worthwhile investment for many years.

Photos by Candlelight

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Taking a photo by candlelight can be a little tricky. But boosting your ISO and opening your aperture to its widest opening can really help. In this photo, I asked my subject to move his face close to the cake (but not so close as to get burned). My ISO was set to 1600 and my aperture at F/5.6. I held my camera as steady as possible and used the image stabilizer on my lens. I metered on his face and zoomed out a little to compose and focus. The result is a warm image from the candles, and a nice highlight in his eyes. Use a high ISO and position your subject close to candles for any birthday celebration, or for the lighting of the menorah this holiday season.