Lighting is in the Eye of the Beholder

by | Aug 20, 2020

Today’s Post by Joe Farace

Light has four basic elements: quality, quantity, color, and direction. If there’s any secret at all about shooting portraits using natural light, it’s learning how to see the range of shadows and highlights that occur within a scene. Italian Renaissance painters called this chiaroscuro, being able to use contrast to achieve a sense of dimensionality within a two dimensional frame.

All of the ingredients needed for successful outdoor portraits are easy to find: All you need are a subject, camera and light but like any good recipe it’s how all of these components are prepared that goes into cooking up a delicious portrait.

How I made this shot: I photographed the wonderfully talented and beautiful Tomiko a few years ago during a group model shoo in Phoenix, Arizona.  I was only able to photograph her one more time at a similar event the following year but I have always enjoyed these few shoots and we always made great images together. The camera used was a Canon EOS 50D with was shot using one of my favorite lenses, the versatile EF 28-105mm f/3.5-4.5 II USM lens (at 80mm) that I stupidly sold. It’s been discontinued by the manufacturer but you can pick up used copies of this lens from many sources, including KEH Camera and Amazon. Exposure was 1/200 sec at f/5.6 and ISO 200. A little fill flash would have been a big help for this mostly backlit subject but alas it was not used. Instead I used this technique for fixing slightly underexposed portraits.

Here’s more tips:

  • Watch the background. It’s so easy to become so enthralled by the person you’re photographing that you forget about the background where you’ve placed them. I believe that if you watch the background, the foreground will take care of itself. Busy, ugly backgrounds can be thrown out of focus by using longer lenses and wide apertures but it’s not uncommon to have to physically clean up an outdoor site before you make a portrait. While you can always digitally remove beer cans and fast food wrappers, taking the time to clean up the trash before you make an outdoor portrait leaves it clean for everybody else too.
  • Talk to your subject. I’ll never forget the advice that one of my mentors gave me many years ago. When I asked him what was the worst thing I could do when photographing people, I expected him to give me some technical tip but his answer surprised me. “If you don’t talk to the people you’re never going make a good picture.” I’ve never forgotten that advice and would like to pass it on to you. Photographing people combines elements of psychology as much camera technology and how you personally interact with your subject will have more to do with the success of your session than the camera or lens that you use.


If you’re interested in learning how I shoot  available light glamour portraits, please pick up a copy of Available Light Glamour Photography which is available new from for $19/57 with used copies starting at $18.12, as I write this. The Kindle version is $16.99 for those preferring a digital format.