Understanding Light

September 02, 2020  •  Leave a Comment

I truly believe there is no replacement for a professional portrait. A cell phone camera, regardless of how good it is, is just a cell phone camera. The photos are blotchy and not entirely clear. I once read a caption to a photo on social media that said “With portrait mode, who needs professional portraits?” I made a funny face and thought to myself, you do. The photo was taken by someone else; the subject was square shouldered and the lighting was terrible. These are subtle nuances, that perhaps an untrained eye would not notice. If you've been watching any news programming these last months, people who are not in-studio and managing their own panelist appearances could benefit from this, too!

I had to get my driver’s license renewed today. So, for the first time in about five months, I put on some make-up. This motivated me to forge ahead with this blog, which I’ve been planning for a while. If you’ve read my previous posts you know I’m not a fan of selfies as replacements for professional portraits.  BUT- for purposes of this blog, I did take these photos myself. The point isn’t the selfie, it’s the light and angle. There are many other considerations when photographing like how to frame a photo and at what points to cut a subject's body parts. But let's focus on light for now. 

(I used an iPhone X, front camera, portrait mode. No flash, filters, or additional accessories.)

The reason people are inspired to selfie in the car isn't the seatbelt. It is because there are so many points of light, the strongest being the front windshield. Facing light is the most flattering. It smoothes out skin. When the camera is directly in front of the subject, however, look at the chin line. It is not the most flattering. The stronger the chin line, the more flattering the portrait. 

IMG_3363IMG_3363 IMG_3359IMG_3359 IMG_3360IMG_3360Facing light- face to follow the camera

When the camera is lifted slightly over the subject, the chin line improves. As does the catchlight in the eyes. Catchlight is so important! It’s the little sparkle in the eyes that reflects life and vibrancy. Without it, the subject looks morose. When the subject’s face follows the camera, with a little tilt, we see a softening of the subject. The subtle smile also helps. (Be careful of shadows from the phone at this point. And for the love of everyone around you, do not make a duck face.)

IMG_3364IMG_3364 When the light source comes from the side, look what happens to the skin. It’s bumpy. The complexion has seemingly deteriorated. I love this angle and would experiment further. I’m guessing most people taking selfies aren’t looking for drama- they’re seeking flattery. There is also a difference in a portrait, say for the yearbook, and a dramatic portrait.  IMG_3371IMG_3371

Which brings us to laying down on the floor, and now the light source is below the subject. Laying down is an instant face lift. Gravity does its work. There’s a lot to play with here. The chin line is fantastic! Nice and crisp. The double chin has receded! It's just not a really natural way to be photographed.

Often it is said that photographers like cloudy days. That is somewhat accurate, but you still have to understand the light. Cloud cover  works as a ginormous diffuser, sending equal light around the subject. While this ought to be good, there are a few things to consider. Even on a cloudy day, it is preferable to keep your face toward the light. 

IMG_3377IMG_3377 IMG_3378IMG_3378 IMG_3379IMG_3379

In the first photo, with the subject’s back to the light, look at the details in the face. The under eye bags are quite pronounced as they hadn’t been previously. The eyes are shrouded in shadow. (This is potentially what your date sees when you sit with your back to the window. If aiming to impress, sit facing the window!) Once turned toward the light, there is significant improvement and then when the camera was raised the catchlight was finally present and the chin line improved!

Why am I teaching you this? As a consumer of social media, I’d prefer to look at good photos. :) These tips and rules can be applied when you’re taking back to school photos of the kids, group photos, or yes, even the selfie to show off your newest haircut. Understanding why something works well will invariably help you to know how to repeat it and continue to have success with your portraits; selfie or otherwise. 


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