How to See the Light for Portraits: A Quick Tip for Beginners

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As a beginning photographer, one of the easiest ways to move from taking average snapshots to more professional looking portraits is to develop a good understanding of light. Harsh and uneven lighting can often be distracting and make the photograph look amateur, whereas even lighting allows the viewer to focus solely on the subject and is more visually appealing.

Spending some time learning about the exposure triangle, the quality and direction of light is a great first step, something that I highly recommend to everyone. That said, even if you understand the theoretical aspects of light, it can still be difficult to walk into a park with your children, or clients, and know intuitively where to situate your subject for the best possible portrait lighting. So, I’d like to share one quick and easy trick that you can use to help you “see” the best light if you’re unsure of where to begin:

The Circle Trick

Step One:

Have your subject stand facing you, at the appropriate distance for whatever focal length you’re using. Think of the two of you being like a clock, with you in the center tether position and your subject as the clock’s hour arm in the 12 o’clock position. Take a photo.

In this instance, I was photographing my daughter in our backyard at about 6:30pm. My starting (12 o’clock) position was with the sun behind her.

Step Two:

Have your subject move to the three o’clock position. Pivot with them so that you continue to face each other. Take another photo.

Now, I’ve moved her into the 3 o’clock position. You can see that if you’re looking at her, the sun is predominantly on the left side of the image.

Step Three:

Have your subject move to the 6 o’clock position. Again, pivot with them. Take another photo.

Now, she’s moved into the six o’clock position, and is looking into the sun. You can see that’s going super well.

Step Four:

Have your subject move to the nine o’clock position. Continue to pivot with them, and take another photo.

Finally we’ve moved into the nine o’clock position. As you’re looking at her, the light is primarily on the right side of her face.

Step Five:

Review the four photos that you’ve just taken, and decide which one offers the most appropriate lighting for the look you’re trying to achieve.

Unless you’re shooting at high noon with the sun directly above you, you’ll probably notice that the lighting will vary dramatically between each of the four photos, with some being much more visually appealing than others. This gives you a great starting point to be able to visually “see” the light and quickly determine which direction you’d like your subject to be facing for your portraits (or in a large park, which general direction you may want to head for your session).

Bonus Tip:

If you notice pretty severe backlighting as in the photo for the 12 o’clock position above, and that is not the look you’re trying to achieve, try having your subject sit down!

This image was taken in the exact same location as the “12 o’clock” image above, only with my daughter sitting on the ground instead of standing.

Keep in mind that the circle trick works in the reverse as well, with your subject standing in the same location and you walking around them as the positions of the clock. Sometimes it’s easier for the photographer to do the bulk of the moving around rather than the subject. On the other hand, I spend a lot of time photographing elementary age children, and find that they really enjoy getting to be a special helper at the beginning of a photo shoot. Getting them engaged early on is a good way to help them to feel comfortable with me. In fact, even though I don’t actually need to use the circle trick anymore to be able to see the light, sometimes I still use it as a quick ice breaker at the beginning of sessions with younger children, showing them the four different photos at the end.

For many people, understanding the quality and direction of light is something that’s learned practically – the more you practice, the more you’ll eventually begin to be able to “see” the light intuitively. This is one really simple (and quick!) way to begin to train your eye to begin to see light – so if lighting for portraits is something that you tend to struggle with, grab a friend and give it a try!

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Meredith Clark is a wife, mother, native Oregonian, complete bookworm, Top Chef lover, and new quilting addict. She believes that photography is for everyone - it is a gift that allows us to capture and document both ordinary and extraordinary moments in our lives. You can see more of her work at Meredith Clark Photography or connect with her on Facebook.

  • jonsar

    HERE’S MORE DETAIL

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  • Lucy

    Thanks Meredith, really helpful tips for this newbie 🙂

  • Tim Lowe

    Yeah, but you want to pick your background. Take a reflector. You can use it to add or subtract light as needed without breaking your back carrying strobes, stands, batteries…

  • Meredith

    Tim- I do love reflectors, and they are great for instances like you mentioned when you want or need to pick your background. That said, I also think it’s really important for beginners to develop a good understanding of light BEFORE learning how to alter it, which is where the circle trick comes into play.

  • Meredith

    I’m so glad you found it helpful, Lucy!

  • Tim Lowe

    No argument, if you can move your model to the proper lighting, do so. But you know photographers. Control freaks…

  • Dominic Bolaa
  • E.L. Bl/Du

    yes it is a good tip for us noobs. Esp since I am struggling to learn basics, so this will be a good experiment like you said, to learn to see the light. Read a few articles about seeing the triangle in the cheek, but Cant manipulate it until u know where its needed to be manipulated. OR if its a suitable shot to add to a composite due to the lighting..Like you said, lighting is first. thanks, I love these exercises, I learn better by doing than reading about it. This will help.

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