The human eye is attracted to areas of high contrast. Meetings of light and dark, black and white draw our attention, particularly when looking at a photograph. It’s a visual fact that can be used to great effect when shooting a portrait.
High contrast lighting is often avoided for portraits, because the harsh shadows that can appear on a face are not very flattering. The shadows beneath the brow, chin or nose are always best avoided. However, it doesn’t mean that high contrast light should never be used when photographing people. As long as you are aware of how this type of light plays across your subject’s face and body, you have the potential for some very creative and dynamic photographs.
The key to composing a strong portrait in high contrast light is the placement of your subject. It’s important to place your subject in the area of highlight and not in shadow, especially the eyes. Since the eyes are the most important element of the shot, you want to make sure that this area of the subject’s face is brightly illuminated. Always stay aware of how shadows are rendered across the face.
Often the best time of day to use this strong directional light is in the morning or late afternoon, when the sun is close to horizon. Photographing at noon will result in the poorest photographs as they produce the bad shadows on the face mentioned earlier.
Lisa in Directional Light
© Ibarionex Perello
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When exposing for the face, it’s best to set your metering mode to center-weighted or spot metering with your camera in manual mode. You may use an auto-exposure mode, but you will need to lock your exposure using the exposure-lock feature of your camera. Take a test shot and review your image on your camera’s LCD. Use the histogram to ensure that you are not severely under- or over-exposing your subject.
In this shot, the large area of shadow in the frame helps direct our eyes to her face, which is the brightest element in the frame. By placing the area behind her in deep shadow, I was also able to eliminate some distracting elements that were in the background.
While nice even lighting found in open shade eliminates the problem of harsh contrast and unflattering shadows, high contrast and direction light can be used to great effect when you pay attention to how the light interacts with your subject and background.
Have a great time taking portraits!