Dappled Light

Today's post comes from the book Available Light: Photographic Techniques for Using Existing Light Sources by Don Marr. It is available from Amazon.com and other fine retailers.

Here we will challenge you to find the “buried treasures” of lighting. These are what I call Pockets of Light or Sun Spotlights. Normally we walk right by them, but I would like to invite you to slow down and find them. “Okay,” you say, “What the heck are they?” They are areas that seem to have their own special highlight on them, a spot where a little kiss of light seems to be telling a story. It’s a place that is lit with different light than anything around it, almost like a big stage light was put up in a tree to light the scene. This may sound like I want you take a trip to never-never land (Don’t go! The food is terrible.), but what I really want is for you to find these spots close by in your neighborhood. It could be the morning sun that comes in your window to light your spouse doing the Times crossword. It could be the lamppost on the corner that illuminates the pedestrians on the sidewalk at dusk. It could be the last bit of sunset light on the wall of your office.

One place to find a Pocket of Light is under some tree branches in an area of dappled light. Now, every bit of advice I’ve ever heard about making portraits has said to avoid this type of light. It leaves unappealing lines on peoples face and creates high-contrast edges. Shooting portraits in dappled light should be avoided at all costs. End of story, right? Well, all of that can be true—if you choose the wrong type of dappled light. If you choose the right kind, however, you can make beautiful portraits that are reminiscent of Hollywood portraits from the 1930s and 1940s.

When working with dappled light, you need to find areas with soft-edge shadows—and the best place to find soft-edge shadows is where there are trees. When shadows come from distant objects, such as tree leaves and branches that are perhaps twenty feet or more from the subject, the shadows created have a very soft edge. This is good. On the other hand, if the shadows come from leaves that are very close to the subject, then the shadow edge will be very hard and crisp. This is bad.

The key to working with dappled light is patience, on your part and your model’s. When you find some nice soft-edge shadows to work with, you will notice that the light acts like a spotlight; it will light only small areas. If the subject moves slightly, it can change the whole look of the shot. Where light may have been lighting their eyes a few seconds ago, it may now be lighting their ear. What happened? Chances are that your subject moved. Carefully coax them back to the original position (offers of money usually do the trick). This type of “spotlighting” can test the patience of your subject. Get them in a comfortable pose or position that they will be able to hold for a while, because you don’t want them to move out of the light. Reassure them by telling them that Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman held their poses, too.

Morning and late afternoon are the best time to shoot with dappled light, mainly as it relates to the angle of the light hitting your subject.When the sun is lower in the sky, the light will come at your subject’s eyes more directly and produce a nice catchlight. If the sun is too high in the sky, your subject will have to turn their head skyward for the catchlights to be seen from the camera.

It’s possible to get different contrast effects in your shots with dappled light, depending on the where you are shooting. I have found that shooting in an urban environment works best for getting extra fill light into a portrait, because a lot of light bounces off pavement and buildings to fill in the shadow areas. If you want more drama, work with dappled light in the forest. The dark forest floor and surrounding trees do not bounce as much light as a city environment. Your natural sun spotlights will create a higher contrast between highlight and shadow in the forest, adding drama to your portraits.

Visual High Points
Here’s an important idea: an interesting portrait, or any photograph for that matter, has visual high points and other less important areas. Important parts of the subject are emphasized with light, while less important areas are kept shaded. Beginning photographers often make the mistake of lighting their subjects too evenly. That may work for shooting evidence and medical photos, but it makes for a boring portrait. Taking a cue from the classic Hollywood glamour portraits, where shadows and highlights created mystery, drama, and visual high points, you can look for where the sun creates its own Hollywood sets—right in your own neighborhood.

A Pocket of Light exists just left of the doors.

Do some research on the famous Hollywood glamour photographers. George Hurrell was a master at creating beautiful interplay between highlights and shadows. Also, the work of Laszlo Willinger, Ernest Bachrach, and C. S. Bull should inspire you to look for your own natural Hollywood lighting.

Here is a series to show you the possibilities that exist right in your neighborhood. In this scene (above), there is an area that is a Pocket of Light. Can you find it? It’s the area of sunlight just to the left of the doors. On sunny days, look for these little spotlights created by the sun. They make for excellent portrait opportunities, but they will require a bit of work from you and your subject.

Look for pockets of light that are about half the size of your subject. This will allow the light to create highlights in the areas that are getting direct sun but also allow the light to fall off into the darker, shaded areas. In this case (below), the subject was placed at the wall near the spotlight effect of the sun. The sun lit her left shoulder, but her face was just at the edge of the shadow.

When the sun creates spotlights like this, it also creates shadows of various shapes, forms, and angles. For example, shadows from objects closer to the subject will have crisp edges, while shadows from objects further away will have softer edges. Notice the two types of shadows in this shot. There is a crisp shadow next to the model’s left shoulder from the overhang of the doorway. The shadows from the flowers also cast crisp shadows. But the subtle shadows on the left side of the model’s face are from the top of a plant to camera right, which is about twelve feet above the model. These will come into play in the next shot.

Hard and soft shadows are formed by objects that are close or far away.

Reviewing the above image a bit more, notice how your eye keeps looking to the back wall, because it’s the brightest area in the shot. It’s a nice wall—but this is a portrait of her, not the wall. Changing the point of view to take advantage of the shadows (below) helps to take some of the attention away from the bright wall. Also, we can really start to see the potential of the soft light and shadows from this direction. Moving in close to the subject has helped, as well.

A different point of view takes the emphasis off the bright wall.

Additionally, setting the aperture at wide open, to create a shallow depth of field, helped to throw the background out of focus and keep the emphasis on the subject’s face. It’s not necessary to have a lot of depth of field when doing a portrait. A shallow depth of field keeps the emphasis on the person you are photographing while blurring any distractions in the background. In fact, you need just enough depth of field to get the face in focus—and sometimes it’s even enough to just have the eyes in focus. Further still, sometimes it’s enough just to have the eye that is closest to the camera in focus. If the forward eye is in focus, then your portrait is “in focus.”

The light is just a bit brighter on the subject’s forehead and eyes than on her chin and neck.

For the next shot (above), the model was directed to turn her head up to the light. This produced some nice catchlights in her eyes. (Because of the soft-edge shadows, the sun was not too bright for her to keep her eyes relaxed. Squinting eyes don’t make for good portraits!) Notice how the light is subtly brighter on her forehead and eyes than on her chin. This is the subtle shadow edge of the plant twelve feet above her. It can be difficult to work with these sun “spotlights” since they don’t stay static. They move as the sun moves. Your model will have to be patient, too, as you instruct her or him to angle their face to the best light-catching position.

Converting the image to black & white shows the soft spotlight effect more dramatically.

Lastly, the image was converted to black & white (above) as homage to the great George Hurrell. Keep your eyes open to find these sun spotlights or Pockets of Light. Whatever you want to call them, they’re out there.

In our next series of dappled light shots (below), morning sunlight spilled through tree branches and leaves. The morning sun, as it passed through the leaves, was not difficult for the model to look toward. (Squintfree light!) A pleasing soft spotlight was created on her face from the softedge shadows. The light fell off toward her hair and right shoulder, keeping the emphasis on her face. Since the tree branches and leaves were about fifty feet away, the shadows formed were very soft. If you aren’t sure where to find these soft-edge shadows in the area you are shooting in, just look at the ground or a wall. Chances are the sunlight will be making both soft and hard shadows from different branches and leaves at varying heights and it will show on these surfaces.

The subject was positioned so her face and necklace were lit.

Light through the branches and leaves of tall trees, located fifty feet from the subject, createdvery soft shadows.

Corrective Posing

Today's post comes from the book Corrective Lighting, Posing & Retouching for Digital Portrait Photographers, 3rd Edition by Jeff Smith. It is available from Amazon.com and other fine retailers.

Personally, I think posing is the most fascinating part of what we do. If you put a person in front of a window, you can move their arm or their leg—or do something as simple as turn their head—and completely change their appearance. With light as a constant, posing the various parts of the body can be the difference between a happy client and one who walks out of your studio without buying.

The pose can make even the most basic type of portrait come alive. Other than the expression, nothing will sell more than the pose. Posing can also do more to hide clients’ flaws than any other technique—and probably as much as all of the others combined. Posing alone can hide almost every flaw that the human body can have. For every person, in every outfit, there is a pose that can make them look great. You just have to find it.

Your first consideration in posing is the purpose of the portrait, not just making the client look good. Too often, a photographer creates beautiful images that the client never buys—and the photographer never understands why. Usually, it is because the portrait that was created didn’t match the client’s purpose for having the portrait taken.

A pose like this makes for a striking image—but if this were my daughter, I might get a little creeped-out looking at it (and receive some strange looks if colleagues saw the portrait on my desk).

I have children, and when I see a photo of them I want to see them the way I see them everyday—relaxed and looking like they are enjoying life. I also have a wife. When I see her, I want to see the beautiful woman that God has given me to share my life. I am a business owner and author, and when I see photos of myself in this light, I want see a traditional portrait taken to fit a specific purpose. If you mix up any of these portraits and give them to the wrong person it doesn’t work. I don’t think my children want an alluring picture of their mother any more than they want a photo of me looking like a sober judge.

In the same vein, many senior portrait photographers struggle with the fact that educators and books present very sexy, fashion-oriented portraits of seniors. Photographers love these, but they don’t sell well to the client—because most people want senior portraits to send out to family and close adult friends. Parents don’t want to send out a portrait in which their teen daughter looks “sexy.” However you can incorporate a fashion edge in less alluring portraits that will actually sell.

This is the difference between thinking like a photographer and businessperson: a businessperson knows that pretty pictures don’t pay the bills, pictures that fulfill the purposes of the client do. Here is an interesting fact: You can take a somewhat crappy portrait that has so-so lighting and isn’t posed or composed very well, but if it fulfills the purpose of the client, in all likelihood they will buy that somewhat crappy picture.

To be salable, portraits must sometimes please two different people. In the case of senior portraits, this means pleasing the senior and their parent.

Conversely, if your portrait doesn’t fulfill the purpose your client had in mind, even if it is an award-winner, they will walk out without buying the portrait that helped put a ribbon around your neck. While I don’t advocate taking so-so portraits, I think photographers could live a whole lot better if they would just think of each client’s wishes when they create portraits—and make creative decisions based on the client’s wants and not their own.

Once you know the reason the portrait is being taken and to whom it will be given, you can design a portrait to fit that need. This is the first step in designing a portrait. The clothing, pose, lighting, expression, and set/location/background should all be selected to produce that style of portrait, for that buyer.

Keep in mind, however, that in some cases you may need to balance the demands and tastes of multiple people. In senior portrait photography, for example, we have two buyers. This means that two different styles of portraits are required. The senior is the first buyer, and she will want to look cool for her friends. The second buyer is the parent, who will want a portrait that makes her little girl look like the young lady she sees when she looks at her daughter. If you don’t consider both buyers, and the end use of each set of portraits, you will lose half your business—or never get the senior through the door in the first place.

Once you understand the purpose of the portrait, you need to select a posing style that will be appropriate for the final portrait. Basically there are three posing styles to work with: traditional posing, casual (or “slice of life”) posing, and glamorous posing.Within a single person’s session you may use a variety of posing styles. This is a business decision you must make. But to learn posing you need to be able to distinguish between the various types of posing and know what type of situation each is suited for.

Traditional Posing. Traditional posing is used for business and yearbook portraits, as well as for photographing people of power or distinction. This style of posing reflects power, and to some degree wealth, respect, and a classic elegance. Whether these portraits are taken in a head-and shoulders or full-length style, the posing is largely linear, with only slight changes in the angles of the body. Whether sitting or standing, the spine of the body stays fairly straight and the shoulders stay fairly square. The back is straight and the chest is up (unless photographing a woman with a large bust).

Casual Posing. Casual poses show the person you are photographing as they really are. Watching people as they relax, read a book, watch TV, or have a picnic at a park will give you some of the best posing ideas you can find. Notice the way people lay, lean or rest their bodies, legs, arms, and even faces. See how people use one part of the body to support another. They will bring up their knees to support their arms and bring up their hands to support their heads. Casual poses are used when the portrait is to be given to a loved one, like a sibling or parent.

Glamorous Posing. Glamorous poses make the person look alluring—the way they wish they looked all the time. Ideas for these poses can be found in sources from fashion magazines to lingerie catalogs. If you want to add to your glamour posing style, look at a Victoria’s Secret catalog. Your clients may have more clothing on, but the structure of the posing will be the same.

The purpose of defining each type of pose, as well as determining the reason the portrait is being taken, is to have a direction for the session. This is the point at which a photographer’s own style and experience take over. For example, many of my traditional poses are much more glamorous in their look than what the average photographer would consider traditional. This is because, as human beings, I think we all want to appear attractive.

If you don’t have a great deal of time to spend with your client before a session, ask them to tear out images from magazines or catalogs that show what they have in mind for their portraits. This is a great way to get new posing ideas that are handpicked by your target market. (I keep all these tear sheets for my next test session.)

Less is More. The less you show of a person, the fewer flaws you have to correct. I can create a beautiful and salable portrait of a woman who is a hundred pounds overweight, provided I compose it as a waist-up image. With the right clothing, the correct lighting, and a cool pose to help hide the signs of weight gain, it will be beautiful. If this client wanted me to create a full-length image of her, however, it would be much harder. It could be done, but beyond a certain weight, it is extremely difficult to provide the client with full-length images her ego will accept.

The idea of “less is more” isn’t just for minimizing the flaws that the average paying client has. Some of the most requested poses for all clients, at least as of this writing, are the extreme close-ups. In fact, head-and-shoulders poses make up 75 percent of the portraits that people actually purchase. While photographers have always thought that full-length poses should be included in a session for variety, there are clearly times when they shouldn’t be—and from a business standpoint, spending time on portraits that are less likely to sell doesn’t make sense.

Stand, Don’t Sit. When weight is a concern, which it will be for about 75 percent of your clients, standing is often better than sitting.When someone sits, the legs push up the stomach, the stomach pushes up the chest, the chest hides the neck, and before you know it you have a lady with her head sitting on top of two large breasts. When you stand that same person, gravity works in your favor and pulls the weight downward, away from the face.

Camera Angle. When photographing larger people, elevate your camera angle so you are shooting down toward your client. With the client posed normally, simply raising their face up toward the elevated camera stretches and smooths the skin of the neck and face. This is very effective—and it’s all the rage right now even for subjects with average builds.

This technique works on portraits from head-and shoulders to full-length. With the camera in an elevated position (yes, you will need to stand on a ladder), the body can be included in the shot—but its size will be minimized because it is partially obscured by the face and shoulders.

Tighter shots make up 75 percent of what people actually buy—and, for most subjects, they are the most flattering type of images.

Avoid Mushrooming. When the subject’s body touches or rests on a surface, it should only rest on bone. If you have a client sit down, the butt and thighs are going to mushroom out, adding weight and inches to them in their portraits. If, on the other hand, you have the client roll to the side and shift their weight onto one hip (where there is a bone) the hips will look thinner and the bottom will be hidden from view.

The same is true for resting an arm on a column or tree branch. The average client will rest their forearm on the surface, making it mushroom out and appear larger. Instead, have them shift their weight to the elbow and slightly raise their forearm off the posing surface.

If a pose has a client sitting squarely on their bottom, lift their knees up. Bringing one foot or both closer to the camera keeps the pressure points on the two hip bones, lifting the thighs so they do not mushroom out.

Turn the Body Away from the Main Light. No matter what style of posing you are using, start with the body facing away from the main light. This is the thinnest view of the body and creates shadowing in which we can hide flaws. Then, turn the face back toward the main light to properly light it and stretch out the loose skin that most clients have under the chin.