Tips for Portraits With No Flash

There are plenty of people in the world who like and use flash photography effectively, but as a rule of thumb I prefer to avoid it whenever possible. I am not a professional photographer (at best I’d consider myself semi-pro as I’ve been paid occasionally to shoot here and there) therefore haven’t the will or the means to invest in professional grade lighting with multiple flashes, reflecting screen, etc. So, rather than trying to control light, I adapt to it by attempting to make the most of the available lighting. Here are some things I look at when I start to take portraits as such.

1.) In low-light settings such as with night photography, interior lighting, candles, or seasonal lights such as Christmas lights, I usually get as close to the light source as possible. Sometimes, I like to include the light source in the shot as a foreground element to help enhance the depth-of-field or set the mood for the shot. This is particularly nice with Christmas trees, lights, and candles. Interior lights can be harsh if they are overhead, so I will opt for lamp light if it is available for indoor portraits. In this case, I try and fill the frame with the subjects face and not include the light source.  Be careful not to get too close, especially with wide aperture lenses because the focus will fall off rather quick! I’m can count  how many shots I’ve thrown away because my depth of field was too shallow because I was too close! I shot this image in a cathedral lit mainly by candles. I bumped the ISO on the camera up and shot at f/2.8 with the candles in the foreground to help capture the reverential setting of the building.

2.) When shooting in bright sunlight such as outdoors or indoors next to windows and doors, I opt for shady areas to eliminate shadows. With windows and doors, having the subject stand next to the window or door can cast shadows across his or her face to create some drama in the shot. In the evenings and mornings, a sunset or sunrise can offer the same sort of effect. Also, bright sunlight can be used a back-light such that the background is overexposed but the subject it properly exposed. This gives sort of an ethereal effect. In this shot, I intentionally made the couple out of focus to give a silhouette-like effect and make the shot feel more dreamy.

3.)As with all photography, don’t be afraid to mess up, and shoot lots of the same pose. I try for quality and quantity to maximize getting good shots

4.) Because natural light is not always even like controlled light, I find it quintessential to focus and meter on the subjects eyes or cheeks.  Most cameras nowadays have some sort of facial detection built in which the camera uses to adjust the metering of the shot. DSLR’s nowadays having spot-metering which meters the image to a selection within a frame rather than the whole frame, which I use in portraiture. Backgrounds in portraits are, generally speaking, distracting, so under or over exposing them can actually help the portrait. I think I was a little too close on this shot, but it was a fun grab. I metered on her eyes.

5.)For this type of portraiture, as most all types, prefer a wide aperture (that is a low “f” number) and medium to long zoom to help increase the perceived depth of field. I typically shoot portraits at f/1.8-3.2 and use a 50mm prime or a zoom lens between 50mm and 100mm. This varies with cameras. I have a 50D with an APC sized sensor so the equivalent zoom for a “full frame” camera is something like 70-160mm at the same aperture settings. On point and shoot, the focal length may be between 25mm and 50mm.

These tips certainly aren’t gospel, just things that I do when I’m doing portraits. I hope that you find these helpful and happy shooting!

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