Finding Good Light for Street Portraits – Part 1 (#326) 16-06-13

While roaming the streets looking for interesting faces, I am also looking for good light and backgrounds. When I find a person to approach, I have already prequalified the light. I have yet to develop the confidence to ask a person to move far away. I want to be able to make a portrait where I meet the person, or within a few feet. I allow myself 360 degrees to turn the person, but that's about all. I never use flash or a reflector. Instead, I seek natural reflectors. Buildings work great.

Direct sunlight never works. The subject is uncomfortable and has to squint. Plus, the harsh, direct light leads to dark shadows around the eyes, and on a cheek, caused by the nose. For me, when faced with direct sunlight, I just say "No!".

Deep shade can be useful. It is safe, you very seldom accidentally overexpose an area – there won't be any "hot spots". If the subject is in deep shade and faces a lighter area, catchlights become prominent. Nice! But the light tends to be a bit flat, the entire face has the exact light. Some people prefer that, I don't (although I often have to settle for that look).

I prefer more dynamic light, where different parts of the face receive different amounts, (and/or qualities) of light. This often makes one side of the face brighter than the other. Often the cheeks and nose become brighter than other areas. I always check for catchlights prior to clicking.

OK, so I'll explain how and why I found a favorable location, three blocks from my home. The main street through our town, Venice Avenue, runs approximately east – west. In the northern hemisphere, the sun is always to the south except for summer solstice, when it is directly overhead.

I found an alleyway, about 15 feet wide, that runs approximately north-south. In the afternoon, the west side of the alleyway is in shade. The east side is in direct sunlight. The bright east wall reflects sunlight into the shade on the west.

This diagram roughly depicts the situation. Now I know what you're thinking, so let me make this clear; no, I do not have professional art training. I am self taught!  :-)  But crude as this lighting diagram is (Joe McNally, eat your heart out!), you can imagine that the reflected light will be diffused, and that one side of the subjects face will be brighter than the other. So, I first waited for an interesting person to appear, and along came Barbara. I positioned her like the stick figure in the diagram, and here is the result.

The light is diffused with no real hot spots or dark shadows. The eyes are fairly bright, with catchlights. And her right side (our left) is toward te reflected wall and therefore is brighter than her left. Notice that her head is turned a bit, so the nose divides the face into a small side (her right) and a large side. The small side is brighter, so-called short side lighting.

And this is all with no fancy gear! I am much too lazy for that.

In a few days I will have a post about a different lighting situation, one I encountered just yesterday.'