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Stealing Light – Using Street Lights for Portraits

Turn the street into your studio by using street lights for portraits.

Most people that I see taking photos after dark around the city have a flash mounted on the camera pointing at their subject. If shooting outdoors with nothing to bounce the flash off, the result usually is that rabbit out in front of headlights look, and flat lighting that rarely flatters your subject. As a professional wedding and portrait photographer, I will share with you my secrets of stealing available light when taking portraits around cities. No need for softboxes, beauty dishes, just put that flash away and start hunting for good light available in a city near you. It’s liberating carrying less gear and after a few light foraging trips, you will be well trained to find that tasty light!

Types of light sources

Illuminated advertisement signs

Docklandsphoto 4

f/1.8, 1/100th, ISO 1600

One of my favorite methods is to light up my subjects with illuminated advertisement signs, every city has them. Above is a portrait of the couple lit with the bus stop’s advertisement. Just find a nice one with not too much colour if possible and it’s like photographing with a giant softbox. You get a nice soft light perfect for head shots. I’ve even used this method to great effect shooting friends in a nightclub with an iPhone.

Street lights

Tungsten streetlights are common, you see them everywhere. I prefer wall lights to give a nice directional light. The second bonus with using tungsten lights is that if there is any ambient light in the picture like you see in the back, it turns into a deep shade of blue. Great effect with no photoshop needed, all you have to do is to set your white balance to tungsten or if your camera has a manual colour temperature setting you can set it to 3000K (degrees Kelvin) during the shoot and play around with it. If I am under time pressure I usually leave the WB to auto and do the colour correction in post production. There is no loss of quality that way when shooting in RAW. Below image shot in London, notice how the background ambient light turns blue.

Docklandsphoto 1

f/2.8, 1/80th, ISO 1000, Tungsten White Balance

LED lights

LED lighting can be seen all over cites these days. They are getting popular as they are more power efficient than tungsten lights. They will offer a colder colour temperature compared to tungsten lights. The main thing to remember with LED lights is that there is a rapid light falloff. You need to have your subject as close as possible to the light source, normally within three feet, for the best quality of light. The couple below were lit with the LED lights attached to bridge hand rails. In the left image you can see where the light source was coming from, and I had to get the couple quite close to it for the effect.

Docklandsphoto 2

f/4, 1/30th, ISO 3200

Learn to see the light

When I first started out as a wedding photographer I would quiz other photographers and ask how they took their images. I recall posting on a forum asking a seasoned professional how he created such stunning portraiture, half expecting a response in the form of ISO, aperture, shutter values and lighting setup. He responded to a forum post with what I thought a rather abrupt and smug response. “Learn to see the light”. I now really do “see the light”, excuse the pun. For the photography that I shoot, it really is a case of training myself to understand and recognize good quality light. Below image left was shot after sunset and lit with the flood lights used to light St Paul’s Cathedral. A fast lens such as a 50mm f/1.4 comes in handy in these situations. The right image was just shot outside a Vietnamese restaurant lit with none other than a common halogen spotlight. The key to shooting with light source from above is to pose your subject so that their heads tilt up, to avoid the dreaded panda eyes!

Docklandsphoto 3

f/1.4, 1/80th, ISO 1600 left image
f/1.4, 1/100th, ISO 1600 right image

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Garry Chung
Garry Chung

is a wedding photographer and portrait photographer based in Hong Kong who shoot weddings and portraits internationally, capturing the magic moments of the day and turning them into memories. Visit his website, Garry Chung, to see more of his work. Please like his facebook page for more wedding photography inspiration.

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