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Portrait Photography FuelTip: How to Use Available Light for Your Environmental Portrait

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Kathleen Lavine, author of Environmental Portraiture: Tell Your Subject’s Story and Create Dynamic Portraits with One Bag of Gear, offers tips for how to use available light to tell your subject's story.

Fuel Books

From the book

When on assignment, before I grab anything, I look at the light around me. It could be overhead fluorescents, incandescent light, natural light through windows, open shade, or direct sun. I use as much of what is happening with the available light as possible. It makes for more natural-looking photos, as if the viewer is a fly on the wall.

After looking at the light, I revisit the story in my mind and ask, why I am taking this picture? And how can I use the available light to tell the story? For example, you can use existing light or natural light from a window to create a soft, introspective mood. Or use direct sun to convey power and forthrightness. Here are two images that illustrate ways to make the most of your available light.

I used window light to highlight the banker’s face. His casual expression and the position of his body—turned slightly toward the window—help make the photo.

Overcast days provide soft light (like a big softbox, a device placed over a light source to diffuse and soften the light). This is nice for photographing people because it eliminates shadows and creates flat, more even lighting, which is typically flattering.

In this image, you can see that harsh shadows are minimized. Yet there is a touch of sun highlighting the top of the subject’s head and separating her from the background.

On bright, sunny days, look for open shade when photographing people. Also, avoid placing your subjects with a background lit by the bright sun. Turn them so that the background is dark. Your subject should be the brightest thing in the photo.

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