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Controlling Light for Impressive Portrait Shots

When capturing a portrait subject outdoors, you can create a dramatic effect by making use of light and shadow. In this article, we will explain how you can do so using two techniques. (Reported by: Miho Kakuta, Yuriko Omura)

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Making a Cloudy Day Look Clear

EOS 5D Mark III/ EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM/ FL: 73mm/ Manual exposure (f/4, 1/125 sec.)/ ISO 400/ WB: 5,300K (A3, M1)

Even when you are photographing on a cloudy day, you can create a soft impression similar to that of a clear day by positioning the subject under the shade of a tree, for example.

When you are photographing outdoors on a cloudy day, there is minimal difference between the brightness of the subject and that of the background, making the entire image look flat. Although contrast is low as there is no shadow, which helps to soften the impression, it would be difficult to reproduce the atmosphere of a clear day. In this case, I would look for a roofed location where sunlight is shaded, such as under a big tree or a shelter. Doing so allows you to place the portrait subject at a place that is darker than the exposure directly under the sky, thus creating a difference in brightness with the background. By adjusting the exposure according to that of the subject, you will be able to obtain a bright background. However, in order to create the atmosphere of a sunny day, the background must be bright and unobstructed by objects. Even for places where sunlight is shaded, it will not be possible to create a difference in the brightness if the background is a building's wall, for example. Unlike a building, you can choose a background by going around a tree, and a large tree with thick leaves above your height is recommended. Adjust the white balance as well, as the impression of the colours is also a crucial consideration. While a warm tone reminiscent of a clear day can be obtained using preset white balance settings such as "Shade" and "Cloudy", you can create an even stronger impression by enhancing the amber and magenta tones in the detailed white balance setting.


Blocking the light to create differences in brightness

Photographing under a tree that shades the subject from sunlight

I wanted to create some difference in the brightness between the portrait subject and the background, so I made my way to a park with big trees. I checked a few trees to find the right shooting location where the background was not obstructed.


Skin tone leaves much to be desired with WB Auto

Even if you can make effective use of the brightness difference, the resulting skin tone would not look good without adjusting the white balance.


Using the Texture of Light and Shadow

EOS 5D Mark III/ EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM/ FL: 38mm/ Manual exposure (f/2.8, 1/125 sec.)/ ISO 400/ WB: 4,667K

I combined blue with green in the clothes of the model as well as the colour of the background to create a sense of unity in the image. To prevent the photo from turning out dull, I added motion to it by aiming at the moment the clothes flutter in the wind.

Model: Riho Akiyama (trumpeter)

Clothing supported by: Qu’il monu

Using the difference in brightness between light and shadow allows you to capture the background in the form of a texture. From a distance where the full body of the subject can be captured, look for a light-coloured wall surface where the black shadow of the leaves and the white colour of the light each occupies about half the space. To bring out the shadow, lower the exposure by one or two stops from the standard level. While doing so, take note to prevent the face of the model from being illuminated by strong light, as the face would turn out white and the facial expression cannot be captured as a result. Find the position where the facial expression looks best while making good use of the light and shadow in the background. You can add motion to the shot by capturing the moment when the hair and clothes of the model start to flutter in the wind.


Bring out the shadow by decreasing the exposure by 1 to 2 stops

Photograph at a place where light seeping through the leaves creates shadows on the wall

The recommended location for the shoot would be one where light seeping through the leaves creates a strong shadow. It will be easy to bring out the contrast between light and shadow when the black shadow of the leaves and the white colour of the light each occupies about half the space.


Moving closer weakens the contrast between light and shadow

You can also take a shot by moving closer to the model. However, doing so naturally reduces the area of the background, thus weakening the contrast between light and shadow. If you want a photo that effectively stresses the difference between light and shadow in the background, a full-body shot is recommended.

Miho Kakuta


Born in Mie Prefecture, Kakuta is actively involved in a wide variety of activities, including photo album publishing and holding her own photo exhibitions.

Yuriko Omura


Born in 1983 in Tokyo. After working as a shop assistant at a camera store, Omura is currently engaged in photo shoots for artists and photo albums.