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Lighting and Background

Whenever I make a portrait, the two biggest considerations revolve around lighting and background. Even before I’ve exposed a single frame, I’m thinking about the quality of light that I have to work with and where I’m going to place my subject. When I don’t consider these two factors carefully, the result is often a lackluster portrait. Even if I have the most beautiful subject in the world in front of my lens, bad lighting and a distracting background will reduce the impact of the photograph.

Though I produce portraits using a wide variety of lighting, including direct sunlight, I often look for an area of open shade. Open shade is an area where shade is being produced by a building or a tree. I look for a spot where the direct sunlight is transitioning into an area of shade. Then I place my subject just at the cusp of that shaded area so that the subject has the benefit of some of the reflected light; this creates an image that is both bright and contrasty. Such lighting often eliminates the harsh, distracting shadows commonly found in photographs made using direct sunlight, particularly during the middle of the day.

The other big consideration I make is with respect to the background. Many great portraits are ruined by distracting elements in the background, such as tree branches, cars, or other brightly colorful elements. Such elements can pull the viewer’s attention away from the subject and to the background, thus diminishing the impact of the portrait. So, I often try to choose as simple and as clean a background as I can find. This often calls for me to move my subject into a better location. I won’t hesitate to ask my subject to move if it means I’ll be able to make a better photograph (Figure 4.2).

Figure 4.2

Figure 4.2 I moved this subject from an area of open shade but with a cluttered background. I repositioned him against this wall that served as a better background, free of distractions.

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