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It’s essential you know how to read the light to make good available light portraits. Nuances can make the difference between a good or great image. If the light is ideal, the chance of creating a great one is higher. If the light is not ideal, the challenge is higher. So why is it that even when the light is perfect, some people struggle to obtain a great available light photo of a person? Use the following tips to help take your available light portraits to the next level. (See the portrait tip I wrote a few weeks ago entitled Learn to Read the Light - Part 1: Portraits)


Bright Sun: I live in Colorado and it’s known for its 300+ days of bright sun. As a result, I try to do most of my portrait shooting early or late in the day. With the sun at a low angle in the sky, the light creates texture and modeling to the face. It’s also a much warmer color. Additionally, the light is softer which is conducive to creating a portrait with greater impact. Depending on who I need to photograph, I find out if they’re a morning or evening person and schedule the session accordingly. Aim the subjects toward the sun and work with them for short periods so the sun doesn’t aggravate their eyes. If you skew them slightly, the light will still be excellent and they won’t need to stare into the light. This is why learning to read the light is important.


Portraits Available Light

©Russ Burden


Bright Overcast / Open Shade: This is the easiest light with which to work. The light is soft and wraps around the subject. He or she can be placed anywhere in the environment and the light will remain the same. A caveat does surface when the subject is placed under the shade of a tree and light spills onto the background as it produces bright distractions in the image. Again, learning to read the light is essential. Take a meter reading of the background and if there’s a wide discrepancy between the light on subject and it, find a different shady place or simply move in close to do head shots as there will be less background in the image.


Portrait photography Lighting

©Russ Burden


Light With Impact: Here’s where learning how to read light is of great benefit. If the background is brightly lit and the subject is in deep shade, go for a dramatic silhouette. Keep in mind that this type of image becomes a story teller so make sure the silhouette depicts something significant about the subject. If the sun is low on the horizon, look for how it can give hair a glowing effect when backlit. A small turn of the head can make a tremendous difference in the image. Inclement weather can actually be beneficial if you work it into the theme of the photo. Snow and skiing work well together as does rain and a slow stroll under an umbrella. Someone with long hair photographed on a windy day can make for a very moody image.  


Portrait Photography Tips

©Russ Burden


Although the topic of the article is available light portraiture, if the light is not ideal, there are ways to make images that have impact. I use flash a lot outdoors. I do this as it helps in two key scenarios. If the sun is bright, the light from the flash lessens the contrast by filling in shadows in the eyes, under the nose and under the chin. A direct benefit is the highlights are tamed as the meter doesn’t open up as much and blow them out. The converse of bright sun is dark, flat light created by heavy cloud cover. Once again, flash to the rescue. Avoid making it too bright where the person is artificially lit. Instead, dial down the amount of fill to simply add a twinkle to the eye. You’ll be amazed at how much it makes the person look alive. 


To learn more about this topic, join me on one of my Nature Photo Tours. Visit and click on the NATURE TOURS button for more information. Also, email me to be placed on my Tip of the Week list and to receive announcements about upcoming tours specials or to pick up a copy of my book, Amphoto’s Complete Book of Photography. You can purchase a signed copy directly from me or visit your local book store or Amazon. Contact me at to order your signed copy.

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