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Portrait Tips: Subtle Spice Not Ketchup

When people see your picture, they should say, “Wow, that’s a great photograph,” not, “Wow, that’s a well-lit photograph.” Once you start using flashes, it’s like having a hammer in your hand: everything looks like a nail that needs to be lit. That’s ok, and it’s fun. The trap is feeling like you need to crank the flash up so that it’s apparent and obvious in your photographs–and there’s a place for that, and it’s fun, too. But instead of using your lights to overpower the sun and the ambient light every time, try augmenting the existing light and blending yours with it so that your light is totally incognito. At the risk of mixing metaphors, use your light like a subtle spice and not like ketchup.

Slow Down & Look

Lumix GH4, Leica 42.5mm f/1.2 Nocticron lens @f/1.2, 1/13s, ISO 500.

The key to blending your light with ambient light is finding some light worth augmenting. In this photograph, this alcove is on the side of a large building right on a main street downtown. We had been walking around the building looking for spots to shoot. I was specifically looking for backdrops to include and was prepared with lights to completely make my own light. When we found this spot, though, I was intrigued by the light over the doors and the light shining from the balustrade on the left. Without any flash, the light from the side cast soft light on my subject’s face as it reflected off the sidewalk, but it just wasn’t bright enough to allow her to stand out. I decide to use my speedlight to boost that little light. I put it in a small softbox and positioned it right next to the light and shining down onto the sidewalk as well. I used a tripod for my camera so I could use a very slow shutter speed to gather the available light and keep a sharp picture. The flash boosts that original light but maintains the direction and quality of the original without screaming out that I’ve added flash. While you’re looking for a spot to shoot, slow down and look for the kind of light that would make a great picture and then augment that to meet your needs.

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

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