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Portrait Photography with Available Light

Posted on: August 17, 2015 by Chris | No Comments
Juliana Ratcliff for MAKUP

Juliana Ratcliff for MAKUP Academy – Makeup by Matt Simpson

I’ve been lucky enough to team up with the MAKUP Academy in Birmingham recently, photographing some portfolio shots for their graduating students and the experience gave me a real opportunity to experiment with available light and some techniques that I hadn’t fully explored before.


Portrait photography with available light isn’t particularly hard. It does place the burden of getting a standout shot squaThe location was perfect. Regenerating Digbeth, an area of Birmingham familiar to those that have watched the Peaky Blinders. Victorian factories in a state of distress. Very photogenic. I liked the idea of the squared off bricks in the background setting off the curve of the head. You may not guess, but this is in fact a make up effect known as a ‘bald cap’. The model here, Juliana Ratcliff has thick waist length black hair!


For the this shot I used an 85mm prime lens on the Canon 5D body. Wide aperture to throw the bricks out of focus and a focal point on the eyes. The weather was pretty grey, a nice soft, diffused light that reflected well off the dirty white brickwork. I asked the model to stare past me, into the distance and fired off a couple of frames.


I added the high key effect in Lightroom, the original is exposed more or less evenly across the spectrum. When people talk about ‘getting it right in camera’ I usually agree, but to get this shot right in camera would have meant over exposing slightly and I didn’t want to risk losing any detail that I couldn’t get back from the original file.


My take on ‘getting it right’ with available light covers depth of field and composition, everything else can be done later in software.


A couple of other tips – you can massage the available light by using reflectors. I bought mine form Calumet in New York, a sprung circular frame with a reversible sleeve giving me three colours, gold for warmth, silver for cool, white for plain reflected light. If you want to highlight a particular area, remember that a large reflector will cast a wide circle of light. A small reflector enables you to get a much more clearly defined area lit.


I hope this is useful – the takeaway here is that you can get great portraits with available light, in some ways it’s easier because there are fewer variables to play with – but it casts the burden firmly on the imagination of the photographer and their knowledge of their equipment and the rules of light.

What's your view?