The Art of Light in Portrait Photography

Any photograph capturing a special moment is beautiful, I think we can all agree on that. But what makes one better than another? The light.

The word “photography” is based on the Greek words phos meaning light and graphê, meaning drawing or writing. Photography, therefore, is “drawing with light.”

Sometimes you just get the most gorgeous light and it turns a photograph into a piece of magic. And sometimes it’s cloudy and rainy and that’s what you deal with, and it doesn’t mean you can’t still get great images, because you can still show emotion on a cloudy day, and often you can’t reschedule a session last minute.

But when that light hits… it’s amazing. Late afternoon and evening is when you hear about the golden hour or magic hour. It’s true! That nice warm light in the afternoon can take an image from good to downright beautiful.

These images were all taken in late afternoon and early evening and show gorgeous golden light spilling onto the subjects from behind.

I’m not saying you can’t shoot in the middle of the day or in the morning. There’s a little bit of a golden hour REALLY early when the sun just comes up (but the dust and pollution that builds up during the day helps make the afternoon light a little more golden and special, ironically!), and if you’re shooting in open shade, a midday shoot can work. But sometimes it’s difficult. I have shot in midday before because it’s convenient for the client, and I don’t think I’ll budge on that again unless I’m really familiar with the session location and I know we have some nice shaded areas to work with. Don’t shoot in an open area unless you’re prepared with heavy lighting… which can definitely take away from the beauty of an outdoor natural light session.

These images were taken in the middle of the day, but I had lots of open shade to use to my advantage to make nice images. Notice that nobody has harsh light in their face and there aren’t any dark shadows under chins or noses, or black shaded eyes, and every person has a nice catchlight in their eyes, which gives soul to the images.

Now, I could try to dig up old portraits I took before things clicked (ha!) and I realized how important the surroundings are- not so much your backgrounds, but the quality of the light around the people you are photographing- but I won’t embarrass myself and my clients from so long ago.

Next time you get out to take some portraits, remember these tips and see the difference!

Want to schedule a beautiful light session with me? If you’re in the Kansas City area, check out my website and contact me. Don’t forget to follow me on Facebook and Instagram!