When I was first starting out on my own personal photography journey, I read a quote that stayed with me. “Once you begin to see light as a photographer, you will never see it the same way again”. I am reminded often of this quote, because it proves true for me day after day. I am often caught off guard by the way light splashes across my children’s faces, or by the way it pours in through the leaves on a tree. I usually determine whether a place is beautiful by the kind of light it draws in, rather than the colors or details surrounding it. I am captivated by light, or maybe haunted by it. I love to play with it, and I would love to encourage you to play with it too.
Today I want to teach you the first step to recognizing light when you’re taking photos. Today I want to teach you a few things about front lighting. Front lighting is just what it sounds like, lighting your subject from the front, having your light source behind you and the camera. It is the most common way that most people choose to use light in their photos, since in some ways it’s the safest. Your subject’s face is fully lit, you won’t get any silhouette or unflattering shadows, and the “flat” (not a lot of contrast) lighting is soft on those of us with… er, less young skin.
But for all of its safety and flattery, front lighting is not 100% perfect light. For starters, flat light can be a bit boring, although you probably already figured that out since safe is boring (sometimes). And sometimes front lighting is anything but safe. Like at 8am on a winter morning, when the sun is just rising, and in doing so blinds anyone looking anywhere near it. The light is safely directed at them, and the colors are beautiful, but what you get are squinty and somewhat angry subjects. Doesn’t sound too much like a fun portrait session to me.
So how to keep it safe, flattering, and less than blinding? Here are a few tips to keep in mind when front lighting.
The earlier in the morning, the better off you are. Same goes for later in the evening. As the sun rises in the morning, your subject will have to squint to handle the strong light. Then, as it rises still, you’ll be doing a bit more “top lighting”, which is basically just shining a light down on your subject, creating crazy shadows and “raccoon eyes”. Skip that altogether.
Have your subject look away from you. If the sun is too strong behind you, then don't make her look at it. Have her look to her side, or downwards, or have her close her eyes all together. She can even wear sunglasses! Just don't force her to stare into the sun.
I know some of you might be thinking, “I have a great solution! I’ll put the sun behind my subject and front light her with my flash!” Don’t do it. While using an off camera flash as fill flash (putting the sun behind your subject) would be very flattering, that pop up flash will do nothing but make your subject look like a deer in the headlights. That pop up flash should just never ever ever ever be used (ever- got it?).
Put something between your subject and the sun to defuse some of that light between her eyes and that fiery ball of light blinding her. If you don’t have an actual diffuser, then use something like a white sheet. Have someone hold it up behind you and between her eyes and the sun. It won’t affect your photo, but it will help soothe your subject. Be creative if you have to.
Another great tip for getting great portraits of your loved ones in strong morning light is NOT TO FRONT LIGHT! Great tip right? Don’t do it! But really, I have come to love backlighting my subjects in early morning sun or late evening light. In my next photography blog post, I’ll teach you a little about backlighting. You’ll love it too!
Until then, try your hand at front lighting, and have fun!