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A Simple Exercise on Working with Natural Light in Portraits

Today I thought it might be fun to share a little exercise that we feature in our Natural Light eBook (by Mitchell Kanashkevich) – both because it gives you a taste for the content but also because I think it’s a useful exercise to do to help you understand light and photograph portraits using it.

This exercise is particularly useful because one of the differences in shooting with natural light as opposed to artificial light is that with artificial light you’re able to ‘direct’ the light (by moving lights around your subject and changing how much those lights output).

When it comes to working with natural light we need to learn to direct ourselves and/or the subject in relation to the light source.

Rather than moving lights around… it is us (and the subject) that may need to be moved.

The exercise is simple:

Find a room with a window allowing fairly bright diffused (indirect) light.

Get your subject to move to different spots in relation to the window. Move around with the subject, take photos, and pay attention to what effect the movement of both of you has on the way that light makes the subject look.

For the eBook Mitchell did this exercise with his nephew. Below are the images and corresponding diagrams of where the subject was in relation to the window and below are descriptions of the shots, EXIF information and what Mitchell did and what impact that had on the shot.

3 directions window light

1. The subject is turned at approximately 45° towards the window.

Result: A very smooth progression of light to dark tones.

EXIF: 16-35@35mm, f/2.8, 1/125s, ISO 2000

2. Subject is at 90° or parallel to the window.

Result: Very harsh contrast between the side of the face close to the window and the side further away from the window.

EXIF: 16-35@35mm, f/2.8, 1/200s, ISO 500

3. The subject is at 90°, parallel to the window, with his head turned towards it.

Result: Light still works the same way, but instead of one side of the face being dark, the face is well lit and it is the back of my nephew’s head which is dark.

EXIF: 16-35@35mm, f/2.8, 1/125s, ISO 500

Mitchell also notes: Having a light source such as a window also gives you control over the intensity of light. The further away you are from the light source, the less intense it is. Less
intensity also means less contrast between light and dark.

I did this exercise recently with a family member and was fascinated with the results and was also reminded what an incredible variety of styles of shots that you can achieve – all in the one setting but by simply changing up where you position yourself and your subject.

Give the exercise a go and let us know how you go!

Get more exercises and teaching like this from Mitchell in his Natural Light eBook.

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Darren Rowse
Darren Rowse

is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals.

He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

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