In part 3 of Mastering Natural Light Travel Photography, we dive into the many virtues of mastering shade photography, especially for travel portraits. Then we get soft and filthy with backlight photography. You can find Part 2 here, and Part 1 over yonder.
An Ode to Shade: A Canvas of Possibility
Shade. Many beginning and even intermediate shooters don’t really “get” the many advantages of shade. Embrace its embrace, a realm where softness reigns, colors sing, and emotions speak. In the cool of shade, the harshness of sunlight is gently subdued, unveiling a canvas of possibility for the discerning photographer. Or even an undiscerning photographer like myself!
Gone are the unforgiving contrasts and piercing glares; here, the light caresses its subjects, revealing a world of intricate detail. Faces and eyes glow with a natural radiance, and the textures of the world emerge in their full glory. Hey, how’s that for flowery writing!
Shooting in the shade can truly transform your images. First and foremost, when you work in the shade, you get this beautiful soft light that comes from the indirect sunlight. When you shoot in the shade, colors come to life like never before. Without the intense sunlight washing them out, colors appear more vibrant and true-to-life. Your photos will have this wonderful richness and depth that will surely catch the viewer’s eye.
Behold the golden hour! Yes, in the shade. As the sun sinks on the horizon and casts its warm light across the land, it imbues your shade with a dreamlike quality. Walk away from your average sunset and take full advantage of it. The already present ambient glow in the shade turns to gold, and your subjects make your heart beat faster with possibility.
Shade is a portrait photographer’s best friend. Ask Steve McCurry or David Lazar. Or just trust me, because I’ve already asked them. In the shade your subjects can relax and show their genuine selves, and you’ll capture those authentic moments that truly stand out. Portraiture, that delicate art of capturing the human spirit, finds a perfect sanctuary in the shade. Here, the subject’s essence shines forth, unburdened by squinting eyes and harsh lines. Amidst the gentle play of light, authentic emotions, however subtle, reveal themselves.
Shade is more than shade. With the sun moving and clouds passing, the shade’s character is ever changing. Shade is light made even, but with various colors and intensities. Colors will take on the hues of shaded areas. Experiment with the forgiving nature of light in the shade and you will be very happy you did.
We asked our own David Lazar to chime in here, but he told us to give him a big fat raise, or take a hike! So, we cleverly did a Google search and found an article he wrote for somebody, which we will excerpt from, for free. Take that, Lazar!
1. Quality of light, strength and angle to your subject is critical. Natural light is all I use in my travel photography. This means always be paying attention to it and the scene, checking the sky for its luminosity.
2. With portraits, it’s vital having the subject’s face angled toward the light in the way that captures the look I want. Straight on or side lighting is usually what I shoot, staying away from direct sunlight or even bright overcast days, which washes out colors. Heavier overcast can be good, which is essentially like shooting in the shade.
3. Avoid shooting portraits in strong, high angled light. Squinting and dark shadows under the eyes don’t do anyone any favors. Using a fill flash is a common “solution” I don’t use, because the subjects face and eyes are still dealing with the sun and won’t be relaxed.
4. Whenever possible position your subject in the shade with no direct sunlight hitting surfaces anywhere in the frame. If not completely avoidable try to minimize it and deal with it later in post.
5. In a shaded area where the indirect light is bright enough, the light on your subject’s face is often very nice, cast in the general hue of the area. This also tends to create engaging catch-lights in the subject’s eyes. These reflections can be the sky, other bright objects, or even your own shining face! Sparkling eyes in portraits add a wonderful dynamism that really capture the viewer’s attention.
• Use a low ISO to preserve details in shadow areas.
• Consider using a wide aperture for selective focus and background separation.
Tips & Techniques:
• Utilize shade to create flattering and even light for portraits and close-ups.
• Embrace the softness of the light for capturing details in architecture and textures.
• Include elements that lead the viewer’s eye into the shaded area, adding depth to your composition.
• Find a dark space and position your subject within it. You need a nearby light source from a window or door to create a concentrated soft-box effect. This makes for soft shadows that are brighter on the person’s closer extremities, lending a three-dimensional feel and a lovely blend of light and shadow on the subject
• Position your subject near the edge of the shade to create a gentle transition between light and shadow.
Common Mistakes & How to Correct:
• Mistake: Failing to balance the exposure between the shaded area and the brighter background.
• Correction: Use spot metering on the main subject to achieve the desired exposure. Avoid those bright areas when possible.
• Mistake: Missing out on opportunities to use shade creatively due to a preference for direct sunlight.
• Correction: Reading this article! Embrace like it was your long lost love returned. Shade as a versatile tool to control and shape light in your compositions.
Master Photographer Inspiration: David Lazar. David Lazar’s travel portraits are most often taken in the shade. He never uses flash or even a reflector. This beautiful image of young monk in Myanmar shows clearly the even light advantage, rich colors, and the catchlights in his eyes from looking toward the sunlight. The second image of the joyous old woman from Bali speaks for itself.
Backlight: Angling for Ethereal Captures
What is backlight and what are the potential etherealities of using it? The former isn’t exactly rocket surgery. Backlight is when the light is coming from the back! Feel illuminated? Backlight is often overlooked by novice or intermediate photographers as they are usually taught that subjects are best and most easily lit from the front or side. Easily, yes. Best, not necessarily. You can really knock it out of the park and advance your skillset by utilizing backlight for some special and even ethereal image making. Learn it and you’ll love it. Or your money back. No refunds for differences of opinion!
Use manual for most accurate exposures. If you don’t know how to use manual settings, it’s high time to get started, yes? Todays’ cameras are fantastic on auto settings in normal lighting situations, but when shooting into the light or in high contrast scenes, they will still get it wrong just about every time. You will need to overexpose, not the opposite.
• Use spot metering for accurate exposure on the main subject. This will get the exposure/shutter speed only from your subjects darkened face, nothing else.
• Keep the sun (Golden Hour sun is best for backlit portraits) or another light source obscured by the subject or just outside the frame.
• Consider a wide aperture to create a sense of depth and separate the subject from the background – f2.8 to f5.6.
• Your ISO can be at 100 or even lower, since there is a whole lotta light coming in.
• Note low ISO might be ideal but often isn’t possible if the light on the subject is too weak and may result in a blurry image. In this case, better to increase ISO/shutter speed.
• Wide aperture can be good for blur separation backgrounds, but also consider medium apertures if you want to feature the background to some extent – if it’s relevant or complimentary to the subject. With wide apertures and ultru waide lenses you risk parts of the face being out of focus which may not be what you want. If the face is angled for example, one eye might be too soft. Experiment!
Tips & Techniques:
• Frame your subject directly against the light source to create a beautiful halo effect.
• Silhouettes: Adjust the exposure to capture the subject’s outline while retaining details in the background.
• Experiment with different angles to find the most captivating backlighting for your subject.
• Use a lens hood or your hand to block direct sunlight from hitting the lens and causing unwanted flare.
• Utilize lens flare creatively to add a dreamy and ethereal quality to your images.
• If you need more light on your subject’s face, this is a time you can cheat on our “natural light credo to use a soft fill flash, diffuser, or tilting the flash upward at an angle. Since your subject’s back is to the light source, there is no squinting. If there is, shout loudly and watch those eyes pop in fear! Just kidding, for those of you who missed the name of this fabulous, no award winning blog.
Common Mistakes & How to Correct:
• Mistake: Overexposing the entire image, resulting in a lack of detail in both the subject and background.
• Correction: Use spot metering on the subject to maintain proper exposure while preserving the highlights in the background.
• Mistake: Missing focus due to the challenging backlight conditions.
• Correction: Use manual, back-button, or focus lock to ensure sharpness on your subject.
Master Photographer Inspiration: David Lazar often takes advantage of backlighting to create an ethereal quality to both portraits and landscapes.
Part 4 of Mastering Natural Light Travel Photography will cover Window Light and a mystery light heretofore unknown to the eyes of Man. To learn about a variety of light expressions and how to work with each in the field – where the learning is best – consider a photo tour workshop with one of our wonderful pros!
For further review, here’s a nice article by Michael Frye with gorgeous backlit landscapes.