We love to use natural light, and even when I have to shoot in the studio, I’m usually trying to mimic natural light. While not all natural light is great light, one simple quality to search for is light falling from the side. In the studio, I put my softbox the side, maybe slightly higher than my subject’s eyes. When I’m outdoors, I can find this kind of light anywhere there’s a porch.
What Is a Porch?
A porch is just a roof with at least one wall, and at least one side open. I made the portraits in this post on the porch on the front of my mother-in-law’s house on Thanksgiving. The roof overhead is essential because it blocks direct, hard sunlight from shining on my subject. The open walls allow light to come in from the sides. I usually position my subject so that the brightest light is shining from off center of the nose, so it’s in front and to the side.
Find the Bright Light
It’s important that I get catchlights in my subject’s eyes, which means I need the brightest light outside the porch in front of her so it sparkles in her eyes. The simplest way to find the brightest light is to stand in my subject’s place and look out of the porch and whatever direction makes me squint the most is the brightest. Now, I don’t need my subject looking straight at that spot because it’ll make her squint, but as long her face is towards it, I’ll probably see the glint in her eye (also called a “catchlight”)
I find I also prefer a darker background, so I try to frame my subject in front of something darker than her skin tone.
Make a Porch
You can improvise a porch any place you are by simply blocking the light overhead of your subject. I often use a 5-in-1 reflector for this job. One of the five sides to the 5-in1 is a black cover, and that is made to be a flag and block light, subtracting it from the scene. Just hold it over the head, and position your person facing the bright area for the catchlight.
When I find light coming from the side, I’m halfway to making a great portrait. I can always find that kind of light on a porch, and if there’s no porch available, I can make one with a reflector, or a piece of poster board, or anything I can hold overhead for shade. Besides porches on houses, I’ve found porches on school campuses, at office buildings, at pavilions at parks, in parking garages, and under trees. Start looking around and you’ll notice all kinds of porches waiting to give you great light.