I thought it might be fun to breakdown a specific image, a portrait, and look briefly at all the elements that go into an image – a blow by blow, if you will. I picked this portrait of a young teen girl, mostly because I love the dreamy feel, the natural setting, and the relaxed expression. I’m also especially fond of the person in it!
Location: I really like the texture of long grass, especially dry winter grass, and I chose this spot precisely for this reason. It helps that it is an open hillside, so there is loads of natural light. If I shoot portraits with similar lighting near buildings, I try to use white/light buildings as they help bounce light back onto the subject. But no buildings here, just a grassy field and some winter trees.
Styling: I chose the model’s clothes to fit with the location. I was after a country look with muted colors. Layering looks great for modern portraits, so the sweater and the hat work well. Obviously, this is to taste, and the opposite tactic (dressing to contrast with the setting) can work really well, too.
Time of Day/Light: I wanted to shoot this as the sun got very low in the evening, but I misjudged the time (darn time change), and then had to contend with a less than enthusiastic model, so I couldn’t hang around and wait for the lighting I wanted. The sun was a bit high still, and it was casting some harsh shadows and very strong light onto my subject. So I do what I always do in this situation, placed my subject’s back to the sun. This is called backlight, and it is my favorite kind of light. Backlight throws the subject’s face into full shadow, thereby eliminating those contrasty shadows and bright spots, and it creates a beautiful, defining rim-light around your subject. However, it can be somewhat tricky to expose for. I’ll talk more about that in the Camera Settings section.
Shoot Angle: In a nutshell – low. The success of this shot lies in being down on the same level as the subject, thereby connecting with the subject’s eyes, and also filling the rest of the frame with the long grass. Using “hidden perspective” is a favorite technique of mine, and shooting through the grass gives that sense, and adds beautiful blur into the foreground. Just be careful not to obscure the subject’s face. In addition to blur, I was also trying to achieve some texture here, so by getting down low, the backlight was shining through the grass and highlighting the shapes and textures. Good stuff, that grass and backlight!
Camera Settings: For backlit portraits, the subject’s face is in shadow, so exposing for the scene in general will cause the face to be underexposed. So to address that, I usually set a +1 exposure compensation (basically means to let one extra stop of light in, which is more light than the meter thinks it needs). This causes the background to get really bright, and the face to be exposed correctly. Using a reflector or a flash can also really help here, by evening out the light so there isn’t such a huge difference between the background light and the light on the face, and either method can also provide some nice catch-lights in the eyes. I didn’t do that in this particular shot, though. Mostly because my gear was on the other side of the field! I shot in aperture priority mode, using an 85mm prime lens with my aperture set to f/1.8. The prime lens is great for any types of portraiture, as the ability to set a really wide aperture creates beautiful, soft backgrounds and sharp subjects. My ISO was 400, and shutter speed was 1/2000. Lastly, for these types of shots, I advise shooting RAW rather than JPEG, as the extreme lighting can necessitate some significant adjustments, and RAW files give you so much more processing latitude.
If you are interested in the post-processing on the image, watch for another post addressing that very thing. I will be showing a SOOC image and detailing my full edit done in Lightroom 4. I took 2 shots using the exact same settings and techniques that day. Leave a comment and tell me which one you’d prefer to get the post-processing lowdown on, color or black & white, and the one with the most votes, wins.