Before I start this article, I’d like to share one of my sources of inspiration. I watch cartoons to learn about lighting and composition. By that I mean semi-photorealistic cartoons from Dreamworks like Madagascar, Puss in Boots, Kung Fu Panda and so on. Very often, these cartoons can teach us a lot about positioning of light sources, using complementary or opposing light temperatures to create a desired look, and using lighting to isolate a subject to create a desired mood. Because they are created using CGI (computer generated imagery) they often have ideal compositions, which we can draw inspiration from.
At weddings, I frequently see many DSLR users who shoot with their built-in flash, or a speedlight pointed directly at the subject, in auto mode. When they look at the resulting pictures, I wonder if they might be thinking, “what difference is there from photos taken with a compact digital camera on auto mode?”
The answer is often, not much.
The effect of using the built-in flash, or speedlight pointed directly at the subject, is that the photos will have flat lighting, and run the risk of red-eye if taken in dark conditions. This is because the light from the flash is on the same axis as the lens, traveling on a straight path to the subject and returning into the lens on the same path. This results in ugly shadows (if taken indoors with walls nearby), hot spots (specular highlights on oily faces or shiny objects) and a generally unflattering look especially for human subjects.
In contrast to direct flash, directional (indirect) light creates a much better result. The light source can be from a speedlight or available light (which in turn can be either daylight, or any available artificial light, eg. a wall lamp). Directional light makes people look more three-dimensional and accentuates their features by its play of light and shadow.
To get directional light from a speedlight, it needs to be either bounced with a speedlight on-camera or triggered off-camera (as opposed to your speedlight sitting on-camera).
To get directional light from available light (compact camera users take note, you can use this tip too) you just need to position yourself so that the window light, for example, falls on your subject at an angle which is not on the same axis as your lens. This means that the light should be coming in diagonally from the side.
This also means that if the window was directly behind you (the photographer), it would be almost on the same axis as your lens (not quite, as a typical window would be slightly higher) but it would still look better than a direct on-camera speedlight due to it being a much larger light source than your speedlight, which means that the resulting shadows would be softer. The larger the light source, the softer the shadows. Watch out for dark shadows on one side of the face if the light source is way too much to the side.
But if you really had no choice but to use direct flash (say if you only had the built-in flash at your disposal) you can improve the color of the photo slightly by using a slightly warmer white balance, like Cloudy or Shade. I never use Auto white balance. Or you can find a way to bounce the flash using a white or silver opaque card, placed at the correct angle. This is better than using a translucent white material to only diffuse the light.
Try experimenting with mixing available light with your speedlight, this can yield interesting results as well. In the picture below, the rim light comes from a spot light from the ballroom (available light). Without using a speedlight to provide the fill light, the right side of the face would be very dark.
Found these portrait lighting techniques helpful? Learn these techniques in detail, and many more indoor and outdoor lighting techniques with my SimpleSLR Portrait Lighting Guide, which is available together with 3 volumes of Portrait Recipes, showing you how to do portrait lighting in 24 different scenarios.
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