Soft light is portrait light. If I step outside on a soft light kind of day, three kinds of photography come to mind: small intimate landscapes, flower portraits, and people portraits.
Most of the time, most people look best in soft light. There are exceptions of course, but I usually look for soft light when I want to do portraits.
My favorite kind of day for portraits is a “cloudy bright” day. That means just enough clouds all across the sky to soften the light, but not so many clouds that it gets dark and gloomy. It is cloudy bright when you look down at the ground and there are no shadows. It also means cloudy enough you can look up at the cloudy sky without squinting. I photographed Selina on a perfect, cloudy bright day.
I have been photographing Ava since she was about 2 years old. She knows what good portrait light is. When I told her I wanted to photograph her on a sunny day, she said “Is this some kind of a bad light example for one of your photo workshops?” Smart girl.
Ava has a lovely face, but the light in this portrait is terrible, starting with the harsh shadows. Her beautiful eyes are lost in the shadows.
Ava looks so much better in softer light. Now you can see her eyes. Soft light really is portrait light.
When I am doing portraits with someone local we can pick the kind of light we want, especially if we both have somewhat flexible schedules. Rachel and I picked a soft light kind of day to do portraits in the park.
But what if you don’t have a choice? Some of my photo shoots are booked days or weeks in advance so we have no control over the weather. So what happens if it is a sunny day? There are several options you can try.
Christian and I used the north side of a building to get out of the direct sunlight.
Cat and I used some stairs on the west side of a building when the sun was in the east. I use these stairs a lot for portraits, but always in the morning when the stairs are in shade.
This portrait was created on a south facing covered porch on a bright, sunny day. The light on Kristina is soft.
You can shoot right out in the sunlight if you keep the sun behind your subject and the sunlight off the face.
Sometimes having the sun behind your subject creates some great backlight on the hair. So I have nice, soft light on Tiana’s face, and her hair in the sunlight looks great.
Another option is to get back in the trees on a sunny day. You can see sunlight coming through some of these leaves, but Kristina is in soft light.
It was a hot sunny day in L.A., but the sun was behind some vines so there was nice, soft light on Jim and Jen.
So you have lots of options for finding soft light on a sunny day.
But cloudy bright days are easier to work with. You don’t need to worry about where the sun is so you can put your subject exactly where you want them to be. Even if it is a concert violinist outside on a cold winter day. We were shooting a bit late which created nice cool light on the new fallen snow.
If you are new to portrait photography, the soft light of a cloudy bright day is the best kind of light to start with. You won’t have to worry about the light. That leaves you free to focus on facial expressions, poses, depth of field, camera angles, focal lengths, apertures, shutter speeds, ISO settings, backgrounds, and everything else that goes into quality portrait photography.
Soft light is portrait light.
If you want to be a better people and portrait photographer, check out the books at the second link.