Step away from the light!
Watching proud parents shoot pictures of their new graduates can sometimes be quite painful.
One of my daughters recently graduated from college. I, as a photographer/father, chose to attend the event without my big bag of gear, taking only a Canon G10 compact camera. Like most of the proud parents present, I would be point-n-shooting this rite of passage.
With 12,000 graduate candidates and spectators crowded in a tiny space, opportunities for shooting were severely curtailed. There was little room to stand and few areas designated for photography. When you did stand, well-meaning wardens ushered out you out of the way and back into your seat. The light was poor as the overcast melted about 9:00 AM and the sun created some harsh shadows. The opportunities for photos had to wait until after the ceremony and even worse noon-day light.
After paying tens of thousands of dollars for an education, you would like to have a picture of your child in their cap and gown to document the event. Upon commencement of commencement the clusters of now-graduates and respective entourages spilled into the campus at large, looking for a quiet nook in which to take a grad-portrait. Many of them opted for the mottled light under the trees. I was looking for more substantial shade.
I snapped this picture of my daughter at 11:14 AM in atrocious photographic light. It was bright sun, approaching the zenith and the shadows were heavy. I took advantage of the fact she was posing for a different photographer to get a very natural off camera pose. Some of your best portraits will come when your subject is posing for someone else.
Shelly Paulson and I cross paths occasionally as we speak at many of the same photographic societies. I have seen her presentation on Natural Light Photography three times now and her message of Open Shade reverberated in my head as I set up for the point and shoot. I moved my daughter into the open shade cast by a campus building to maximize the quality of the light available and improve the quality of the portrait.
Open shade advantages:
- No Squinting
- More iris in the eye and less pupil
- No harsh shadows
Contrast (no pun intended) this with a shot fired a 180° to the original portrait. Note how poorly the faces look and how heavy the shadows fall from the eyes, nose and chin. Also notice how bright the background is compared to the subjects. I have enlarged my daughter in the image on the left for harsh- shadow illustration.
What a difference 20 feet and a change of direction can make! This day, open shade was the photographer’s friend and the sun, our nemesis. The background for the portrait was a little cluttered but with 2400 people having their picture taken individually and simultaneously, you had to take what you could get for backgrounds or wait your turn.
Later on, at the reception, the photographing of graduates by their parents continued all around us. Here is a sampling of some of the things I overheard.
“Move out of the shade where we can see you.”
“Step into the bright sunlight. Don’t squint.”
“No, I like the way the dappled light falls on your face.”
“I don’t know why you keep coming out so dark in the picture”
(I did. Your background was sunlit grass!)
“Should I turn on the flash?” “Should I turn off the flash?”
(Both uttered by the same man moments apart. The answer from his wife was ‘yes’ to both.)
From all the scattered comments I could tell that well-meaning parents struggled with the nature of the light. They also didn’t understand fully the operation of their cameras. I knew from watching their subjects at the moment of shutter actuation that they were going to get harsh-looking pictures. Maybe that’s ok and perhaps they will be happy with the snapshots. With full open shade so deliciously close at hand, it was sad to watch.
Moving my subjects back into the shade and providing a tiny bit of fill flash resulted in the best look overall. Without worrying about the light, there was more time to concentrate on the pose and get a playful shot my daughter will remember.
If the light is harsh-move away from the light. Shade can be your friend.
Rikk Flohr © 2009