As with old-time master painters, beautiful light makes a big impact on the “look” of a portrait. In my opinion, the most beautiful type of light is a soft light. Soft light has many benefits, the most important of which is smooth, even illumination for your portrait subject. Soft light can help decrease skin blemishes. Soft light can help when trying to achieve even and accurate exposure.
One principle to learn is that the larger the light source you have, the softer the light will be. Alternatively, the smaller the light source, the harder the light. This can be seen with sunlight. While the sun in itself is massive in size, it is quite a small light source in relation to a human being on earth. This is why the direct sun produces a hard light. An flash or strobe is also a small light source, and will produce hard light, unless modified. Fortunately, even on a sunny day, you will be able to get soft light.
Outdoors, soft light can be achieved in a number of ways. Diffused light is light that has been scattered in some way. On an overcast day, the direct sunlight is scattered all over the place, producing beautiful, soft light. Basically, the sky is acting like a humongous studio softbox. While an average person would think a sunny day would be perfect for portraits, good outdoor photographers will tell you that an overcast day is what they hope for when scheduling an outdoor photo shoot.
Bright sunlight produces hard shadows and contrast in lighting. While effective portraits can be created using direct sunlight, it is better to either modify the sunlight, or to find soft light in another way.
One way to get soft light when the sun is bright is to use a light modifier. This could be either a reflector or a diffuser (scrim). A white reflector will produce soft light, while a silver reflector will act more like a mirror, reflecting the direct sun’s hard light. If you are on a tight budget, a piece of white foam core, or even a white poster board can be used as a reflector. A diffuser, or scrim, will allow the light to pass through, while scattering and softening it. On a budget, a white sheet, curtains, or other similar translucent fabric can be used to diffuse the light. Five-in-one reflector kits of various sizes can be purchased relatively inexpensively and include a number of options for modifying light.
Indirect light is another type of soft lighting. It is a great way to get beautiful portrait lighting on a bright, sunny day. Indirect light is any light found outside of direct sunlight. Some examples of indirect light could be the light wrapping around under a porch or awning overhang, the light just under the shade of a tree, or the light wrapping around the side of a building. The key to getting beautiful indirect light is to position your subject as close to the direct light as possible, without being in the direct light. For example, if you are using the shade of a tree, try to have your portrait subject be just inside the shade line, with the direct sunlight striking the ground close by your portrait subject.
Some benefits of this positioning your subject just outside of direct sunlight are direction of light and reflection of light. Indirect light will usually be brightest coming from one particular direction. You can use this to your advantage to produce a light pattern on your subject’s face. Also, you will get some fill light from the direct sunlight bouncing off the grass or other ground surface. This will help even out your exposure.
For studio photography, use a white umbrella to reflect and soften the light, or a softbox to diffuse the strobe light. Remember that the larger the light source, the softer the light. A large soft box placed close to your portrait subject will produce a beautiful, soft light. If you don’t have a large softbox, an off-camera flash and a large white sheet will produce a similar effect.
Next: ACCURATE EXPOSURE