Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Sometimes The Future Looks Too Bright

Harsh lighting can be unflattering even for the most beautiful people
How often have you seen someone with a camera outdoors posing another person for a portrait and saying,
"You're in the shade there, move over there into the sunlight so that I can get a good shot."?

Well it sounds logical. The more illuminated something is, the clearer it is to the eye, right? But then you wonder what's wrong with your camera because the pictures suffer from heavy shadows, blown highlights and weird skintones. And what's up with all those squinty-eyed people! Even a basic point and shoot camera is a very sophisticated piece of equipment capable of analyzing all kinds of subjects you might choose to point your camera at and shoot.
The result is that you can invite your family and friends round after a vacation, or your child's acting debut on the school stage, lock the doors and then entertain your hostages with the 400 frames you fired off during the event.

I actually love looking at pictures but rather without the blow by blow commentary and explanations, ("...and this is us sitting at the dining table, oh and this is us when we asked the waiter to take our picture..."). And with the convenience of digital, quantity is king and editing is barely existent in many circumstances.

Anyway, getting back on track. The metering systems on cameras today will generally give you a reasonable rendering of any scene you point them at. But even the most expensive pro-dslr cameras will protest to some degree when you ask it's metering system to make something of a scene that is primarily harsh sunlight.

So do you have to settle with harsh squinty shots from your travels when the thing you want to photograph or be photographed with isn't practical to move? It's 11:00 am and your tour bus has stopped by the Great Pyramid at Giza for a half hour. You realize that the angle that will give the best composition of you with the pyramid in shot means that the already brilliant sunlight is directly in your eyes. You take a quick look at the first shot that is taken and you see that your white linen outfit has become featureless, your skin blotchy, and the area under the brim of your sunhat has became a dark void where your eyes used to be.

Bright sunlight with fill-flash
The quick fix here is not to ask your friendly guide, Ahmed, if he could have the pyramid moved slightly this way or that. No, the trick is to set your camera to under-expose slightly (If you have this function on your camera your manual will tell you how to set it), and then turn on your flash. This time when the shutter is pressed the flash will work as a fill light and keep you more evenly illuminated cutting down on the harsh shadows on your face, while the background will still be well lit from the overall sunlight.

If you're taking photos of your friends outside and want really beautiful, naturally lit results. Get them to step out of the bright sunlight and stand in the shade of a tree, the shadow of a building, or such. You'll see that all the harsh shadows have become softened and you still have the option of being creative by introducing some flash if you want to. By the way, off camera flash is the way to go if you want really great results here.

Which brings me round to the joy of a bright overcast day. When shooting portraits, much of the time photographers are looking for someway of lighting their models to give nice flattering skintones. Although not always the case, you may be after a super edgy look or some other creative experience. But to get the classic look, many people have reverted to shooting in a studio and using softboxes to modify bright lights into an evenly diffused glow.

Well the largest softbox know yo man it actually free to everyone although not always available on demand. It's the bright overcast sky! So next time you're contemplating doing some portrait work, don't put it off if the sun isn't out and you don't have access to a studio. Get outside and play with that glorious, free, soft lighting.

And most important of all — enjoy!

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