How to Take Portrait Photos Like a Pro: Light Quality

In this third part of the How to Take Portrait Photos Like a Pro series article, we will continue to explore what we started in part one and part two. In the previous parts we covered the equipment required to take professional shot and the lenses you need to consider for the best results. Also, we explored how to setup the photo composition to get interesting results.

Also, we explored the light-related tips such as the different between the soft and hard light in your shot, and the usage of reflectors and diffusers to control the light.

We will continue to explore the role of light in taking great photos including the difference between the quality and quantity of light used in taking portrait photographs and how to use the off-camera flash professionally. Additionally, we will continue with the portrait tips such as taking night portrait photos and selfies.

Quality of light vs. quantity of light

As a beginner portrait photographer all you would want to do is to nail the exposure and get the right amount of light when the quality of light is not perfect. At this juncture you need to also understand the difference between quality and quantity of light. A lot of photographers, even professional ones, don’t make an accurate explanation of what quality of light is compared to quantity of light. They tend to use the term quite interchangeably most of the times.

Portrait Photos light
United Nations Photo by Nomad in West Darfur

Quantity of light is completely different to quality of light. The light can be insufficient and yet it can be good quality. On the other hand it can be sufficient and yet of a quality that is unusable. A flash whether external or otherwise should only be used when the quality of the light is unusable. If the quantity is insufficient then your DSLR is quite capable of handling it. All you have to do is increase the ISO.

What is poor quality light?

Situations of poor quality light are when there are multiple sources of light and they all cast different tones difficult to manage using manual or auto white balance. Poor quality light is when you are shooting pictures under the mid-day sun.

Use of off-camera flash

As a photographer the sooner you learn the disadvantages of on-camera flash, the faster you become a better portrait photographer. An on-camera flash will invariably make the portrait flat and lifeless. It will also cast a strong shadow around the subject’s background, especially when he is standing against a wall. The end result will be less than desirable.

An off-camera flash will ensure that you can control the direction of the light giving the portrait dimension. You can alternatively point the light from a specific angle and distance to increase or decrease the harshness and also to catch some Catchlight in the subject’s eyes.

Metering

The camera’s metering system enables the camera to assess the amount of light that is present in the scene and accordingly adjusts the exposure. There are three different kinds of metering systems in modern digital cameras – (a) evaluative or matrix, (b) spot and (c) center-weighted.

Evaluative or matrix metering system divides the entire frame into a number of ‘zones’ and then decides to adjusts the exposure accordingly. There are specific advantages of using this type of metering in landscape and group photos and or generic other situations where the entire frame is important. Since this metering system takes into account the whole scene it makes an average of the light and shadow areas.

Portrait Photography Metering
Photo credit – Tribes of the World

Spot metering evaluates the available light at the point of focus. Usually that point of focus is at the center of the frame because most users tend to not move it around. This is a tiny bit of the entire frame which is why in a scene where there is a lot of light and shadow spot metering is not the way to go.

Center-weighted metering focuses on the region that is towards the center of the frame, again. However, unlike spot metering the area for metering is larger than spot metering. Also, the camera senses the available light across the frame but tend to give more importance only to this center area.

Night portrait photography

Ostensible taking night portraits is all about getting the right amount of light on the subject’s face, ensuring all the while that noise is suppressed. Contrary to popular believe it is easier to shoot at higher ISOs these days with the latest image processing technology and resultantly better noise handling.

Night portrait photography
Man in the Market by Daniel Peckham

You have a few options to shoot excellent nigh time portraitures. These tools are ambient light, a wide aperture, higher ISO and flash. I prefer using a combination of flash, ambient and aperture and cracking up the ISO whenever required to ensure a proper exposure. There is no one single combination that will give you the right exposure in all situations.

Use the ambient light as much as you can, even if that means you need to open up the aperture. The flash whether pop-up or external should be used at around 1 or two stops slower exposure. Your specific flash / camera manual will tell you how to set it to fire at a lower than normal exposure.

Don’t be afraid to use a higher ISO if the ambient light is enough to create a decent enough portrait. It will allow you to not use the flash. I am not a big fan of the pop-up flash as the light can often make the portraits flat and lifeless.

If you really have to use the flash, try using it off-camera using a TTL-wire or a wireless master flash controller. That way you can make the light more directional.

Taking Selfie photos

Selfie is a photo that a user has taken of his own either by the help of a camera or a smartphone. There is nothing new about selfies as they have been around pretty much as long as photography have been. The most vintage Selfie ever to have been taken is the one by Robert Cornelius, a chemist from Philadelphia way back in 1839. Apparently he had taken the lens cap off and then ran into position for the roughly one-minute exposure time.

Taking Selfie photos
After Dark by Alex Holzknecht

Selfies are easy to take but that is why it is important to do it in a way so that it looks professional. These days almost any camera with a timer function is suitable to take selfies. If you are a bit more lavish use your remote shutter trigger to take a Selfie.

You will need a camera, a way to make it sit still through the exposure and a way to trigger the shutter mechanism. Mark a spot on the ground where you think the picture will look the best. Place the camera on a spot that is parallel to the eye level (a ledge, a wall or even a book case), turn on AF and AE, and set the camera to continuous AF. Also turn on the timer so that you have enough time to run into the spot after pressing the shutter button.

If you shooting a Selfie while hand holding the camera ensure that you have the correct camera angle. Usually the distance between the camera and your face in a hand-held Selfie is less than the desired distance for portraits. A slight change in the angle can make your face look odd. Keep experimenting until you have the right camera angle.