By Ibarionex R. Perello
I was nervous. I had been using a camera for years, but I was feeling the anxiety at the prospect of creating a portrait. Though she was a friend and I had taken pictures of her before, this was the first time I was attempting a portrait sitting. My heart was pounding in my chest. My hands may even have been little sweaty. I accepted her offer of some water as my throat had suddenly and unexpectedly gone dry.
As we talked, I began looking around her house, looking at the light coming through the windows in her kitchen, living room and hallways. I marveled at how beautiful the late afternoon light looked in her home and then another instinct took over, an instinct more powerful than my momentary insecurity and fear. It was an instinct of looking, finding and admiring the light.
I observed the light and her from the perspective of the many thousands of photographs I had made before this moment. I was looking at the light and my subject and thinking how I could make them work together. I recognized that I had all that I needed in order to make a good picture. I had the light. I had a great subject. And I had all the experience under my belt that had allowed me to make successful pictures in the past. I was prepared for just this moment.
I sat her against a door where the light from a nearby window was falling. Everything was in place and I began to make my pictures.
© Ibarionex R. Perello
Kisha Palmer was one of my first subjects who I ever asked to sit for me. My nervousness immediately evaporated when I saw the light from her window hitting the wall. I sat her down and began photographing, excited at the wonderful light.
Moving Past the Fear
The fear and anxiety that I experienced on that day is likely something you are very familiar with. If you have any level of desire to photograph people, you know about that fear and doubt that comes up when thinking about photographing a human subject. Where do I put my subject? How do I light them? All of these things can come up in a rush and easily become overwhelming. But despite those "feelings", you can immediately begin to make better portraits of people by becoming aware of two things: the light and the background.
Finding the light
Often when we decide to photograph someone, we make an image exactly where we found them. Whether it's your uncle at a party or a musician at a public fair, we can end up photographing them under less than ideal lighting conditions. The light can be too harsh with high contrast. There may not be enough light to be able to get a good exposure without using flash. Whatever it is, our desire to "get it over with" can lead us to begin taking photographs when all the elements for good photograph aren't there yet.
That is why I suggest looking for the light first, even before making the first exposure. When I photograph someone in his or her home, I'm constantly looking around to see where the light is coming from. Whether it's streaming through a door or window or it's found in the open shade of the backyard, the light helps me to determine exactly where I'm going to position my subject. If I see a subject on the street that I want a photograph, I am often already thinking of where I would place them in order to get the best light. If the subject says yes to the photograph, they are often very open to moving to a different location in order to ensure a good photograph. If you simply explain why you're doing it, most people understand and are more than willing to do so.
© Ibarionex R. Perello
It was an overcast day when I chose to photograph Jenoyne Adams. The diffused light was like that produced by a giant softbox, which provided a pleasing look to her features. I knew I would photograph her against the door, the moment I had arrived at her home. The light and the color of the door provided a perfection location for this portrait.
The kind of light I often favor is open shade. I don't like the look of direct sunlight in many of my portraits, because the contrast is often too high and you get some harsh shadows on the face particularly beneath the brow, the nose and chin. By finding some open shade, I have the benefit of more diffused and soft light, which produces a more pleasing result. A cloudy or overcast day is an ideal time to be making portraits because it provides the same kind of soft light provided by open shade.
I received a great tip from a great photographer and fellow Better Photo instructor, Neil Silverman. While we were walking in San Francisco making photographs, he pointed out that it was a good idea to look at the light reflected off large white surfaces like a building. The light reflected off the wall produced an amazing quality of light, which is just beautiful. It's similar to the quality of light produced by a giant softbox. It's taught me to not only pay attention to where the original light source is coming from, but also what it is reflecting off of.
Window light is another great source of light to photograph a subject with. The strong directional light is often well diffused, particularly when shooting someone by a north-facing window. What's important is to position your subject so that most of the light falls on ¾ of their face. I often try to make sure that the light is hitting both eyes. I will also use center-weighted or spot metering to base my meter reading on the light side of their face. In this way, I avoid overexposing the light side of my subject's face.
The important thing to consider when using window light is what is happening with the shadow side of the face. If the room is reflecting a good amount of the window light, you have a natural source of fill light. This will reduce the contrast and minimize the appearance of the dark shadows on the opposing side of the face, which can produce a dramatic look. However, if I don't want that, I will position a reflector on the shadow side of the face to reflect some of the window light and thereby reduce the contrast.
Paying attention to my light source and how it affects my subject makes a huge difference in the quality and look of my photographs. As with anything we choose to photograph, the better the quality of light and there more effective we are in using it, the better the end result.
Finding the background
The moment after discovering the light I wish to use, I begin looking for my background. Because most portraits are often ruined by what is in the background, I pay particular attention to what is behind my subject. I want to keep my background simple and clean. I don't want distracting elements like tree branches, cars, wires, or anything that draws attention away from my subject. It's easy to do if your focus is entirely on your subject, but it's really important to stay aware of what's happening to your entire frame in order to ensure you get a great result.
I enjoy using colored walls. I'm especially drawn to walls of very saturated colors. I often find juxtaposing my subjects against those simple walls adds vibrancy to the image that might not exist if it were just a simple white surface. A simple white surface is always a good fallback for any portrait, but I favor more saturated colors when possible. A big tip for using any wall though, is to avoid placing your subject right against the wall. I suggest having them stand several feet away from the wall. This helps reduce that the subject's skin tone will be overly affected by the wall's color and allows me to throw the background nicely out of focus when using a telephoto lens.
© Ibarionex R. Perello
When I saw this green wall, I immediately knew it was the ideal place to pose my friend Charles Cuyjet for a portrait. The green complimented the color of his hat and skin and the overcast lighting provide the ideal illumination.
Even if you have a background that has some distracting elements that you are unable to get rid of, you can minimize their impact by using a narrow depth of field. You can achieve this by using a telephoto lens of 75mm or longer and using a moderate or wide aperture such as f/4 or wider. I recommend an aperture of f/4 or f/5.6 in general as this keeps most of the face sharp. You can use even wider apertures, but then you have to be very sure that the camera is focusing on the eyes, because of the limited depth of field that you are working with. It's too easy to end up having focus on the nose and ear or chest and the eyes to be slightly soft.
When I critique images, the biggest weaknesses I discover are distractions along the edges of the frame. We are often so focused on the subject that we aren't paying attention to what's happening behind or around them. It was a frustrating thing for me to discover those distractions well after the picture was made and I didn't have the opportunity to fix it.
© Ibarionex R. Perello
We were in an open courtyard when I made this portrait. I was getting diffused light from his left as well as getting some naturally reflected light from his right, which controlled the contrast. I framed the shot so that the two different colors helped serve as the backdrop. I like the two different colors meeting right behind him.
I wasn't interested in spending wasted time trying to clone out the distractions using Photoshop. So, I began to train myself to quickly scan the edges of the frame for potential distractions or elements that would compete with my subject for the viewer's attention. Almost always, I can immediately recognize what will be a problem and I will recompose my image by slightly shifting the framing or zooming the lens in or out. It takes just a couple of seconds, much less time than it would take me to correct the image in software.
Learn by Looking
If you look at the work of the best portrait photographers out there, you will soon discover that the quality of light and the background makes all the difference in the world. One of my favorite photographers, Steve McCurry, who is known for making that famous image of the Afghan girl for National Geographic is a perfect example of someone who make careful use of light and background. He keeps things simple. Great light + simple background + interesting subject = great photograph.
When you begin to pay attention to the light and background, you are developing and nurturing the way you see. Regardless of your experience level as a photographer, the ability to "see" will have a greater impact on the quality of your images, more so than the camera you use or Photoshop technique you learn.
See the light. Find the background. And you will discover how wonderful your portraits and the process of making those portraits will become.
- Ibarionex Perello teaches a number of excellent online courses at BetterPhoto, including:
- He is also a contributor to two recent books co-authored by Jim Miotke and Kerry Drager: