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Lighting is Everything

Photography is all about capturing light, so the most important thing in all of your images is the quality of the light on your subject. When you photograph people, you typically have a lot of control over when and where the image is taken, so you can manipulate your environment and find the best possible light for your subject.

Before I get into what you should do, let me first talk about what not to do. It's a common misconception that bright sunlight is great for portrait photographs. Of course, this is not entirely untrue, since there are some creative and amazing ways to use harsh natural sunlight and make great portraits. The problem is that when the sun is at its highest point, in the middle of the day, it's going to cast some very harsh shadows on your subject and probably make them squinty-eyed as well.

There are several easy ways to achieve beautifully lit portraits in an outdoors setting, and here are my two favorites. The first is to find shade. It might not seem like it at first, but on a sunny day an extraordinary amount of light fills shaded areas, for example, on the side of a building or underneath a covered patio. This light is diffused sunlight and will give a very soft, even light on your subject's face (Figure 4.3).

Figure 4.3

Figure 4.3 The light was diffused evenly across the little boy's face in this image, taken in a shady area on the side of a house.

The second way to light your images outdoors is to use the light that occurs during the "golden hour" of the day. This is the time period that occurs one hour after sunrise and one hour before sunset (many photographers are more likely to use the evening light since it's more convenient). The quality of this light is soft, warm-toned, and very pleasing for portraits.

When to Use the Pop-Up Flash

I'm not usually a big fan of using the pop-up flash or any type of on-axis flash, which is a light source that comes from the same direction as the camera. It usually results in lighting that is very flat, and often adds harsh shadows behind the subject. But you won't always have the perfect lighting situation for each photograph, so keeping an on-camera ready-to-go flash on-hand can be very practical. It's also good for those moments when you just have to get the shot and there's not a lot of light available, for example, if your baby takes his or her first steps in a dark room. You wouldn't want to miss that, and the pop-up flash is a handy tool to help capture those moments.

The flash can also be useful if you are in a situation where the afternoon sunlight is the only light available and you need to use a fill light. A fill light will "fill in" the areas in your subject that are not already lit by the main light, in this case the sun. When photographing people outdoors in the direct sunlight, you don't want them to face directly into the light. Try to position your subject so the sun is off to their side or behind them. This is a good situation in which to use a fill light, such as the pop-up flash on your 7D, to properly expose their face (Figure 4.4).

Figure 4.4

Figure 4.4 I positioned this family with the sun out of their faces and filled in the shadows with a flash.

Setting Up and Shooting with Fill Flash

  1. Press the Flash button to raise your pop-up flash into the ready position (A).
  2. Press the ISO/Flash Exposure Compensation button (B).
  3. Turn the Quick Control dial to change the flash exposure (this is similar to exposure compensation, but you are only affecting the amount of light that your flash will generate for each shot).
  4. Take a photograph and check your LCD Monitor to see if it looks good. If not, try increasing or reducing the flash meter in one-third-stop increments until you get the correct amount of fill-flash for your shot.

There are other options for filling in areas of your image that need additional light. A reflector is a very common and inexpensive accessory that you can use to bounce light back onto your subject (Figure 4.5). You can buy these at any camera store, but you could even use a large piece of white foam core or anything that is reflective (like a sun shade for the windshield of your car) to get similar results.

Figure 4.5

Figure 4.5 A reflector was used to bounce light back onto this woman's face.

Metering Mode for Portraits

Your camera gives you four different metering modes that tell it where and how to meter the light. Each mode has a unique way of reading the scene, and which mode you use will depend on the environment you are shooting in.

I use the Evaluative metering mode for the majority of my work, and this mode is ideal for portraits. However, sometimes you'll run into situations where the background is much darker or lighter than the person you are photographing, which could give you an incorrect exposure. In these cases you'll want to use Partial metering, which will meter a smaller portion of the center of the frame (Figure 4.6). The great thing about digital SLRs is that with instant feedback on the LCD, you are able to make adjustments as needed if the metering mode didn't measure the light properly.

Figure 4.6

Figure 4.6 The shaded circle in the center represents the area in your image that the Partial metering mode will meter from while you are looking through the viewfinder.

Shooting with the AE Lock Feature

Once you select your metering, you can lock that setting in your camera temporarily if you want to recompose your image—for example, if you are in an environment where there is sufficient light on your subject but the background is significantly brighter or darker. The metering in your camera is continuous, meaning it will change depending on where the center of the viewfinder is pointed. If you have composed the image so that the person is off-center, the camera will meter the wrong part of the scene.

To correct this, you can meter for one part of the image (your subject), lock those settings down so they don't change, and then recompose the scene and take your photo. Here's how to use the AE Lock feature on the 7D:

  1. Find the AE Lock button on the back of the camera and place your thumb on it (Figure 4.7).
  2. While looking through the viewfinder, place the center focus point on your subject.
  3. Press and hold the AE Lock button to get a meter reading.
  4. Recompose your shot, and then take the photo.
  5. To take more than one photo without having to take another meter reading, just hold down the AE Lock button until you are done using the meter setting.
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