Photographing portraits with off camera flash is awesome. Even with a single flash and a small soft box, you can bend, shape and wrangle the light in any number of ways to accentuate your subject matter and get some very cool results.
However, there’s something to be said for going fast and light with minimal gear. You can move more much more quickly and grab moments that you’d otherwise miss if you had to worry about trying to set up your equipment, do test shots, and fiddle the buttons on your flash.
The reality is that we often find ourselves out in the world with only a camera around our necks and no flash gear. It’s important to know how to create compelling portraits using natural light so that you don’t have to rely on a flash in order to get great shots of people. Here are three very simple tips that you can try the next time you’re out.
1. Shoot at Sunset
This is an easy one. Nothing is going to make your portraits look more compelling than if you shoot in great light. As viewers, we’re so drawn to the magical warm glow of sunset light. Of course, you can get great shots at sunrise too, but you may have a harder time getting you models to meet you at 6:00 AM than at 6:00 PM.
Also, vary the angle at which the sun lights up your subject. At the very least, it should be hitting them from side, but experiment and try to move it further around to the back, until it’s creating a halo effect. In this case, it becomes more accent than direct illumination, and depending on your ambient light, you may be able to get by without any fill on your model’s face. If it’s not working, then rotate your subject just enough to bring it back.
2. Shoot in Overcast Light
Normally, midday is a terrible time for trying to create good portraits. If the sun is directly overhead, you’ll be faced with strong shadows and unflattering light. However, if you’ve got full cloud cover, you don’t have all those shadows do deal with, and you won’t be fighting squinting models, hot spots and blown out highlights on foreheads and noses.
Overcast light is soft and dreamy and it’s perfect for shooting close up. A couple things to keep in mind, though. Heavy clouds can make the ambient light considerably darker, so you’ll probably want to break out your fast glass. I shot this photo at 1/1,000 @ f/1.8 with my Fuji XF 56mm f/1.2 lens which is has an ideal focal length for shooting portraits with delicious out of focus backgrounds. The full frame equivalent for a lens like this would be an 85mm, although I also love the 100-105mm range.
Also, remember that overcast light has a blue cast, so you’ll want to adjust the white balance a little bit in post to warm up any shots you capture under the clouds.
3. Search Out Dramatic Light
As photographers, we’re always searching for the most dramatic light. That’s pretty much our job, right? Often times, we find it at Magic Hour, but that’s not the only place it lives. If you look hard enough, you can find dramatic light in the most unexpected places, like inside a dark roadside bar next to a window, like in this shot above.
Of course, you may not always know where to look, so that’s why you should always have a camera with you. That’s when compact cameras are great. They’re easy to carry, and they offer way more features than your mobile phone. I shot this with my Fuji X10, which I had slung around my neck in case an opportunity like this presented itself.
4. Don’t Be Afraid to Add Some Style
Sometimes it helps to add a little bit of style. If I’ve got a good subject but I don’t have great light, I’ll shoot in one of the film simulation modes like black and white, or even set up one of the other creative modes like miniature, toy camera or sepia. I don’t see this as cheating, I see it as using some of the tools that the camera gives you in order to pull off a compelling shot.
Remember, photographs are art, and you can make your art look any way you want to. Nobody says it has to be a certain way, or that you have to follow specific rules, and if they do tell you that, you probably shouldn’t listen to them. You don’t even have to listen to me.
In the end, do what makes you happy with your photography and make images that excite YOU the most. If that means using fun modes, then no one has any business judging you. If you’ve got any tips for shooting better portraits, feel free to share them in the comment section.