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Portrait Tips

Portrait Tips: Don’t fight the light

If you give a boy a hammer, everything looks like a nail and he will pound it. If you give a photographer a flash, everything looks like it needs to be lit. That means that you’re doing the right job for the tool instead of using the right tool for the job.

As a photographer, you need to disregard the tool that provides the light and just focus on the light itself. Your toolbox is light, and it doesn’t matter if it’s coming from a flash or a window or a light bulb on the ceiling. Use light and learn to work with all the lights on hand.

Don’t fight the light

The problem with using your flash as a hammer is that you’ll try to overpower the other light sources. A powerful flash can do this in daylight, and sometimes even a little speedlight can. But when you do, you’re missing out on the subtleties of the light around you.

Instead of fighting the ambient (available) light, learn to balance your tools and utilize the ambient with your flash. That’s what makes this photograph work.

We were walking around downtown making senior portraits. I saw these doors and noted that the colors worked well with my client’s clothes and that the light was interesting on the doors. Without a flash on my subject, there wouldn’t be any light on her face. But with too much flash, the good light on the doors would become invisible. There are two skills you’ll need to master to utilize all the light available for your work.

Balancing the exposure

First, you need to learn to balance the exposure for all the lights involved. Start by turning off your flash and finding the settings that make everything not lit by the flash look good. In this photo, that meant using f/1.2 at 500 ISO for 1/13th of a second. That’s a slow shutter speed, but it’s the key to letting the light on the doors come through well. That means I used a tripod to ensure everything ended up sharp. The tripod also ensured that I could adjust the composition perfectly and try different poses without adjusting the camera.

Once you’ve got the proper look with the ambient light, turn on the flash and adjust it to look the way you like. In this case, I wanted the flash to look like a part of the scene, so it is not too bright. It just casts a soft light on her face. I used a small soft box on a light stand. If I were buying tools right now to do this kind of work, I’d get the Magbox system from MagMod. The softbox is excellent, and the gel system makes it easy to master the second skill for working peaceably with light.

Balance the color

The number one thing that screams “I used a flash in this picture!” is when the colors of light on your subject and the background don’t match. When you work to balance the light in your picture there are a few colors you’ll work with all the time. A gel allows you to change the color of your flash. You can change it to match the available light, or you can color it creatively to change the mood. I use MagMod’s gel kit because it’s fast and flawless, but I used the Rosco swatchbook for many years, taping them to my lights, and got great results.

You’ll commonly balance your flash with sunlight, orange light bulbs (tungsten or incandescent orange color), greenish fluorescent lights and skylight (light coming from the blue sky). The lights in my scene were the greenish fluorescent kind, so I added a green gel to my flash to make all the lights the same color.

Use the whole toolbox

Once you learn to balance the brightness of your flash with the brightness of the ambient light and adjust the color of your flash for your creative needs, you’ll be using all the light. You’ll be using all the tools in your box. You won’t just be a “natural light” photographer, and you won’t be walking around pounding everything with your flash. I’ve been there, stuck using one or two tools only, and you can see it in the history of my work. As you and I keep learning to use the whole toolbox full of lights, we’ll both end up making better and better photographs for the rest of our lives.

Portrait Tips come out each week, and you can see them all right here.

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