The Photography Student Answer To Soft Side-Light

If you want to learn how to light a portrait for a beauty or fashion shoot you can use the almighty school of Google and come up with over 10,000 results. Page after page of photographers explaining their expensive lighting equipment and where to go to buy it… Once you’ve maxed out your credit card getting their oddly specific set up you are ready to move on to your camera’s manual. Just a little light reading on deciphering histograms and flash syncing. Then, and only then, you are ready to hunt down the tab you had that set up saved on, reload it, and begin following instructions 2 through 200 with the use of a protractor and a measuring tape.

The best piece of advice my college professor ever gave me was use the sun as your main light. It’s cheap, for the most part readily available and always offers a new challenge and opportunity to experiment. Learn how the sun moves, go out and shoot at different times of day and practice. When you figure out techniques using the sun you will find the studio is the easiest set up. Why he gave me this advice after I graduated I’ll never know. It would have saved me a lot of cash and being on a first name basis with a rental shops unnerving associate. Nonetheless this is the advice I give to every students who assist me.

The average student cannot afford to go out and purchase or even rent top of the line equipment, but they do have to shoot every day, because practice makes perfect. I will get into the theory of developing your art as a graduating student later on, but this is about what do you need in order to set up a portrait shot with a soft side-light.

So… if you are a photography student… get your credit card ready… put it away, because you’ll need to save your money to pay those student loans.

Here is the equipment you will need, the sun (check), a window, preferably one that faces the east around early day to midday or west around midday to sunset. If the window has drapes, that’s even better, it will allow you to control the amount of light that comes into the room.

A digital camera/SLR,  film camera, your cell phone, disposable camera, a GoPro, a drone, camera obscura, pinhole camera whatever you can get your hands on that records light, we aren’t going to be picky. You would be surprised at what can be done with any camera or photography tool, as long as you understand how to work with light.

The camera I used for the above portrait is not a production beast, but one of my favorite go to travel cameras, it is the Panasonic Lumix GF1. Its small, light, has interchangeable lenses, and I take it pretty much everywhere I go.

Getting down to business., this light set up is referred to as a side-light, as we are using a main light position at the side of our subject. See what they did with the name there, clever eh?

Here is a diagram of my set up, as you can clearly tell from my fantastic artistry, this has been taken at a luxurious villa in a village in Southern Europe.

Getting into the mathematics of light might be a bit too much to get into in a post like this, but you need to understand that light is made of particles which move in a wave pattern, this wave pattern expends and bounces off objects and expends light in all direction. This is the reason my subject in the top photo is not completely dark on one side, just slightly shaded.

Your ideal day to shoot like this is when it is very sunny, if available it would also give you the opportunity to play with a window covering to generate varying results. When setting up your exposure, your main light (sun) will be constant, the subject needs to be directly on the side of your light source (in this case your window) the position of your subject from the window is quite important, one step towards or away from the window can have an effect on your subject’s face. The change can cause a darker/brighter shift on both sides. Different times in the day will give you a different effect by the window, as the sun moves throughout the day, the quality of your light also changes from intensity to color.

If you have drapes and you find there is just too much light in the room/setting, try to close them to control the light, if you find that it still is too much, continue fiddling with the setting, perhaps a lower ISO can allow for less light to be captured.

The key here is experimenting with your light and camera settings as much as you can. This will give you a better understanding of your cameras performance and the manual adjustments to compensate.

In this shot, I set my camera’s exposure to match the brighter side of the subject’s face (ISO 100 1.7F at 1/250 with a 20mm lens), different camera sensors, film type or lenses would require different settings requirements from the ones I had in this shot, so that information is utterly pointless.

The beauty of side light is that it can be extremely dramatic. If you make your shadows harsher it can make your subject more slimmed as it doesn’t highlight all of the subject’s shape even though it shows more depth. So with this simple set up play around and direct your subject. Directing your subject deserves a whole post on its own, but try to find samples of what you’d like to them to act like in front of the camera, expressive/silly/serious/etc. With enough time you are bound to get the hang of this set up and get some amazing results.

So there we go, lesson 1 in things I wish I had learned a hell of a lot sooner than I did. I hope that you use it, play with it and have fun.

If you need a better understanding of exposure, message me if I receive enough requests I’ll breakdown on how to set up your camera manually for a shoot.

Until next time.