Its Quality & Direction

by Flo Deems

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Direction of Light

During three photo workshops that I took in the spring of 2009 in Savannah, GA, the instructors, Craig Tanner, Marti Jeffers and Bryan Allen, took us around to various locations to show us what to look for and how to take advantage of available light. During one workshop, Craig had us down in the Catacombs in Savannah. He had half of us facing the light and the other half facing away from the light. Then we changed positions, so we could observe each other in these two qualities of light. See the first image below.

When the instructors took us around the Historic District, they pointed out to us how the quality of light changed from one side of a street to the other, and around buildings. They encouraged us to deliberately look for light bouncing off of the sides of light-colored buildings. And then choose a position and just wait for someone to walk into that kind of light--or else ask someone to pose there.

All three instructors showed us how we can make use of the mouths of the alleyways off the streets in Savannah! These locations offer lots of intriguing possibilities--like backgrounds with interesting textures, in addition to the light bounce. I'd have never considered using these alleyways right off the streets for shooting portraits! Providing the locations are in safe areas, mouths of alleyways in other cities also offer a range of possibilities.

When the sun is positioned to the left or right of the alley direction, brick walls bounce warm light; white walls bright neutral or bluish light. Dark walls on the shady side make nice dark backgrounds. Also, look for very directional light, if the sun is shining directly down the length of the alley, either during the early morning or late afternoon/evening. At night, light from street lights or store fronts may be found shining into the alley mouths.

We can use strong directional light for rim and back-lit portraits. We might have to use a reflector or flash for fill light to open the shadows if the backlight is too strong.

My biggest weakness when shooting people outside is not considering all these factors--including finding an uncluttered background, or one with colors that harmonize or complement the person's clothing colors. I'm so concentrating on the person's face and personality--that lots of times, all the rest of these considerations go out the window--and then I'm disappointed in the results. I'm writing this for all those who may share this trouble with me.

In the above image, Craig is facing straight into the light. But since I was at his side, I caught his face lit by the morning sun from image upper right. From this angle or point of view, the light falls off from his nose across his cheek to his ear. Beyond his ear, his dark hair receives very little light. The details of the side of his face are well sculpted by the direction of the light--from my point of view. Those who stood in front of him, however, got a view in which the full force of the light hit most of his face. Therefore the details would not be well-defined to them and his face would look "flat" with little if any sculpting.

I shot this image to have a dark background of a repetitive brick pattern that adds a tad of interest to that otherwise blank negative space. No reflector was necessary, as it's his face and not the back of his head that's of interest here. In post processing, I had to lighten the background slightly, as the camera rendered it almost black. Also, his ear turned out bright red, so I "calmed down" that color.

In the series of images below, the direction of the light seems to change as it hits the subject--but only from my point of view. Remember, as we walk around the subject, the light's direction itself doesn't change. It is our angle of view in respect to the direction of the light hitting the subject that changes.

Also discussed below are the differences between "soft" and "harsh" qualities of light.

My position is the same in relation to the light direction as in the photo of Craig above. Less of Wes' face is in the light than Craig's face, because Wes has turned his face away from the light a little. Details of Wes' face near his ear are still evident, because the light is bouncing off of other objects onto the dark parts of his face.

My position hasn't changed, but Craig has turned his head away from the light enough so that less of his face is strongly lit. We can still see details in the shadowed side of his face. Also, there seems to be a little more light reflected onto his face than was reflected onto Wes' face. So we can say that the quality of the light on Craig's face is "softer" (less contrast between light and dark) than that on Wes' face.

Bryan's face is lit by daylight coming into Murphy's Law via a tall window at image left. My position allows only a small rim of light to be seen striking his face. Since this was shot inside a bar, the rest of the light in the room was low. I did not use a reflector, so most of the details on his dark side are not revealed. The quality of light here is called "hard" or "harsh" light (great contrast between light and dark).

This portrait of Jim was shot in a darkened room with only one strobe light positioned to the right slightly behind him and a little above his eyes. The strobe had a honeycomb attached, which restricts the light from spreading so that only the subject is lit. No reflector, so no details show in the shadowed part of his face. This is very harsh quality light. If I had introduced a reflector, then some of the details on the shadowed side of Jim's face would become visible and the quality of the light would seem less harsh.

This image was made in the lobby of the Telfair Museum in Savannah, GA. The walls are white, the grand staircase to the upper floor is white marble and the floors are almost white. Overhead are enormous areas of skylights. Thus the whole huge lobby is bathed in lots of light that bounces off of all these surfaces. This is very "soft" light.

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Go to Light (Color) Temperature

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A Perfect World Image

Light: Quality & Direction

How We "Read" Images

How I Broke Out of the Box

A Few Examples of Breaking the Rules.

Using Props To Break the Ice

Great Photography Magazines

Photography Home Page

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