Sunday, November 1, 2009

Outdoor Lighting for Group Portraits


 Have a look at the classic family portrait above.  Easy shot, right?  Just put the camera on a tripod and press the shutter release button, right?  Nope.  This portrait has a classic look to it, achieved using an unintuitive lighting technique that wedding photographers use every day.  Have a look at the ground where the people are.  That's right, they're in the shade!  It's a bright, sunny day, but group portraits should always be taken in the shade.  Why?  Because harsh sunlight wreaks havoc on people's faces.  Strong, directional sunlight casts unflattering shadows under the eyes and below the nose, and worse, it often makes people squint. 


So what's the trick?  It's kind of deceptive, but it works very well.  You can still be outdoors, but put your subjects in the shade and illuminate them with your own, controlled light.  It could be a powerful diffused flash using an umbrella, or (as in this case), a 58 flash mounted on top of the camera.  That's it!  And technically the shot was easy to set up: The camera was set to Aperture Priority mode (f/8), and the flash was automatic.  Way easier than in the old days!

For those of you who still shoot film, here is the technique I used to use when shooting weddings with film to achieve this classic look (it's quite unobvious but the looks are unmistakably professional): Set your camera to Manual exposure and set the f/stop to f/5.6.  Set your Flash Exposure Compensation to -1, and take your handheld light meter and meter OFF THE GROUND.  You're essentially measuring for the light in the shadows.  Set your camera's shutter speed to let in one stop more light than what the light meter was recommending at f/5.6.  The idea is to overexpose the background (usually lush greenery); and remove any obvious evidence of a flash.  Of course this only works when shooting negatives (which are already being downrated from ISO 160 to 100) which, unlike digital cameras, can handle some degree of overexposure.  When custom printed to compensate for the overexposure, the results look quite nice!

For most people this kind of lighting technique is a subconscious thing - they sense that the pictures have a certain professional "look" to them, but they can't quite articulate why.  You don't appreciate how important natural-looking light is until you see it done poorly.  Now you know the secret - daylight is eschewed in favor of controlled light, and is done in a way that fools the viewer into thinking it's all natural.

There are other elements besides good light that go into a clean portrait.  Posing is one, and there are entire books devoted to the subject of "perfect, classic poses".  Here the formation of people is in the shape of a pyramid.  Having everyone dressing similarly, wearing understated, non-distracting clothing is important too, so that your eyes go directly to the faces and nowhere else.  Clearly that rule was violated for the baby (who didn't have a black shirt, and so the mother improvised), and in this particular case it was appropriate because the baby gets all the attention anyway.



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