The Luminous Portrait
by Elizabeth Messina
April 01, 2012 —
High-profile wedding and portrait photographer Elizabeth Messina’s new book The Luminous Portrait debuts this month, outlining how to capture the beauty of natural light for glowing, flattering photographs.
Editor’s note: Each year at WPPI, Elizabeth Messina speaks to standing room-only crowds on her romantic, lush and ethereal imagery. The first year, the fire marshal showed up because her lecture room was over capacity—a space that typically holds about 1,200 people. Whether giving a lecture or holding a workshop in Napa Valley or France, Messina says her audience is usually comprised of mostly digital photographers, though she herself only shoots film. As far as she is concerned—whether you’re shooting film or digital, or photographing children, weddings, maternity and boudoir, or portraits of any kind—the art of making flattering images that appear lit from within can be achieved by all photographers who are serious about photography and aware of the light around them.
“There are several components that make up a beautiful, luminous portrait,” Messina says, “including how you interact with your subject, composition and balance, finding the perfect moment and location, and, of course, the light.” In her new book, she outlines how anyone can achieve this.
Here is an excerpt by Messina from Chapter 2, “Discovering The Light Around Us.”
Variations on Luminosity
All it takes to make a stunning portrait is the realization that every type of natural light—sunlight, window light, open shade, overcast light and so on—can be simply breathtaking in your work if you know how to see the light and use it to your benefit.
The Sweetness of Sunlight
Sunlight is perhaps the most obvious natural-lighting situation, but understanding sunlight and knowing how to work with it can be challenging. For instance, when you find yourself outside on a particularly bright day, there is one thing I always like to do: backlight my subject.
The best thing to do is to have your subjects face you with the sun behind them, so their faces are in shadow. Then simply expose for the shadow. Not only will you get a more relaxed facial expression, sans squinty eyes, but you’ll also end up with a truly stunning, “lit from within” portrait.
Understanding your exposure in this type of light is crucial, whether you use a handheld meter or the camera’s built-in light meter. I advise you have your camera on manual so that you can control your exposure. When metering, you’ll find that if you expose for the bright sunlight, you may be at f/4 for 1/1000 or even faster, but when you meter for the shadow, you’ll be at f/4 for 1/125. This may seem like too much of a range, but trust me, it isn’t. When you properly expose for the shadow, the overexposed sun creates a beautiful glow.
If you are shooting directly toward the sun, be aware of unwanted flare going directly into the lens. There are, of course, times when lens flare is absolutely delicious, like later in the afternoon, but when it’s very bright and the sun is high in the sky, it’s a bit difficult to control the amount of flare. I sometimes use a tree to minimize the direct sun from going through my lens, or I’ll have my assistant help shield my lens with a reflector to give me a little more protection.
The Overcast Sky is a Softbox
Cloudy days make me feel a little weak in the knees, not because I miss the sun but because I can pretty much shoot outside all day long from virtually any angle I want. Overcast days are Mother Nature’s gift to photographers.
Why is overcast light so amazing? It’s gentler than direct sunlight. The softness of a cloud literally translates to softness on your subject. Overcast conditions diffuse the light, much as a softbox will in a studio or the way a scrim will filter the bright sunlight on a summer day. You may have a disappointed client who thinks sunlight is best, but it is your job to reassure him or her that this soft light is not only ideal but also very flattering.
On an overcast day, I also like to overexpose my shots. I love the depth of field I get and the way the light becomes almost celestial looking. I still bracket to make sure I am getting the best possible exposure, but 9 times out of 10, my shutter is at f/2 and my exposure is 1/60. Most of my work is shot like this.
When I have my shutter wide open and I am creating a portrait, I focus on the person’s eyes. If the eyes are in focus, the viewer will be engaged with the image, and even if everything else looks soft and out of focus, the image will have an undeniable impact. When my focus is on the eyes and my exposure is 1, 2 or sometimes even 3 stops over, the image is absolutely luminous. The soft look is very flattering and evocative. It’s what allows someone to feel the image, not just look at it.
The Whisper of Window Light
There is something so quiet about window light. It whispers to you, and it beckons you to come closer. It’s gentle, it caresses your subjects, and it protects them from even the brightest, harshest light of day.
Believe it or not, there is a right and a wrong way to see window light. The first thing I do when I’m in someone’s house is to walk through and assess all the windows, and then decide which will provide the most beautiful light. If the sun is coming directly through a window, it becomes the same lighting scenario as a bright, sunny day, and you will need to backlight your subject and expose for the shadow.
But that’s not my favorite window light. I usually avoid direct sunlight coming through a window and look for softer, gentler light instead. The gentler the light, the moodier the image. I prefer to have my subject stand near the window so that it is adjacent to her. Then I’ll stand in front of my subject, so the window is to the side of me as well. The light is as bit more on one side than the other, but because it’s such gentle, filtered light, it’s still soft. In this situation, I always expose for the shadow, or for the side of the face farthest away from the light. Exposing for the shadow is one of the best ways to create a luminous image—the light will just glow.
If you’re photographing in a room with more than one window, don’t worry about light from one window competing with that from another. The only time it might be an issue is if you have direct sunlight coming in and creating a harsh, contrast-y look. Otherwise, the more windows there are, the better the portrait will be. If there is direct light coming in through a window and it’s more than you want, use a reflector to block some of it from hitting your subject, thereby diffusing it. You can even hang a sheer curtain on the window and close it to diffuse the light.
Open shade is a desirable lighting option on a particularly bright day, because it is protected from direct sun yet still full of ambient light. I usually look for this type of light near a building or under the protection of trees. A building can also act as a large reflector, creating beautiful light all around your subject.
When using the shade from a building, look at the light and be sure you are not getting a severe line in the background from the sun. Also, be sure the shade you use is big enough to frame your subject within. I like to put the sun behind my subject, in the open shade of trees, and then expose for the shadow. This produces a beautiful, soft look, similar to open, backlit sunlight but a little more mellow. This effect is wonderful for group shots and can also come in handy at weddings.
It’s a Process
Once you’ve discovered how to see the light around you, the next step is to learn different ways to work with it, so that you can choose whichever one is most advantageous to the type of portrait you are taking. This includes understanding how to guide your subject into the most flattering light; how to choose which part of your subject to expose for; and how to use various tools, such as reflectors and scrims to block, bounce or diffuse the light.
Remember, the more you see the light and aware of how to capture it, the more your images will be transformed from “nice” portraits into ethereal images with true impact.
Elizabeth Messina was named one of the top 10 wedding photographers of 2010 by Adorama, one of the top 10 wedding photographer’s of 2008 by Pop Photo and American PHOTO, and one of the 25 trendsetters of 2008 by Modern Bride. For more about Elizabeth, visit her award-winning blog, kissthegroom.com.
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