One of the most noticeable differences between portraits taken outside using natural light as opposed to artificial light is the background. Images using artificial light tend to have darker backgrounds. This is crucial in catching the eye of the viewer and allows him or her to focus on the subject. This article is a guide in achieving this look using natural light only.
In most cases when shooting portraits with natural light only, the background comes out very bright. Technically speaking, when taking a photograph using natural light, the exposure is generally set for the subject’s skin tone, which is typically darker than the background. If achieving that dark background and having perfect lighting on the skin is important, the key is to underexpose the image. This will not only result in perfectly lit skin but it will also help retain the most detail. It is a lot easier to recover shadows than highlights. Contrary to popular belief, bringing out details from an underexposed RAW file does not mean creating noise when it’s done properly. In this day and age, any DSLR on the market can handle bringing out details from the shadows without creating noise. Using the following steps, it is guaranteed to walk away with phenomenal results.
Before I get to the steps, it is important to address a popular concern. Have in mind when looking closely at the final results; the subject continues to look underexposed. Parts of the skin were lightened to make it appear properly expose. This draws the viewer straight to the subject’s face, as it is the brightest part of the portrait.
Why Not Just Get the Exposure Right in Camera?
Technically, underexposing IS getting it right in camera. If the goal is to achieve that dark background that generally only comes with artificial lighting, it is less work in post-production to lighten the subject. There is no argument here; the skin makes up 10% of the image and the background is 90%. Lightening the skin is undoubtedly easier than darkening the background in post. Read on to learn why.
When shooting, it is important to shoot RAW. This file type contains all the extra information in the shadows. It’s possible to using Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom, to brighten the shadows and make light pop. Personally, the main slider I use is the Shadows, Whites, Clarity and Luminosity ones under the HSL tab. Remember that underexposing the image and not properly lighting the subject are two completely different things. In order for this process to work, it is essential that the subject is properly lit. If the light hitting the skin is soft and evenly, brightening in post will be absolutely no trouble at all. When capturing the image, stay conscious of the light and the direction it is coming from. Once the subject is properly lit, underexpose the image SLIGHTLY.
Underexposing an image is no specific science. It varies from image to image, subject to subject and background to background. The best suggestion is to look at the images as they are taken and concentrate on the highlights. The goal is to avoid any blown highlights. If the highlights are blown, you can kiss the skin detail goodbye. Unless having overexposed Barbie skin is the objective, blown highlights should be avoided at all cost. In some cases, the background might have blown highlights like a sun flare or the sky. In instances such as those, overexposed pixels are fine.
An underexposed image makes dodging and burning three times easier. It’s a lot simpler to lighten the highlights on the skin than to darken the entire skin. When working with a darker complexion, shaping the skin and structure of the face is so much simpler too. Dodging and burning is vital if you want to have the perfect light in the final results.
I find the best setting for this method is to use Aperture Priority. I then override the camera’s auto settings by using the exposure compensation and underexposing with a few clicks. Every DSLR has this setting. I prefer to concentrate on the composition, light, pose and expression instead of wasting time and effort shooting in manual.
Using strobes is a fantastic method for lighting. I applaud all those who do it and do it well. However, I believe that when using strobes there are extra complications that can override a lot of the creative process. There is always a time and place for strobes. But when using natural light there is no need for an assistant, time is spent on composition, expression and communicating with the subject. As always, the methods used depend on a variety of factors. With this method of underexposing, using lights, reflectors and assistants is unnecessary to achieve amazing results. Natural light is quite powerful, one must take their time to master it and apply the correct methods for mind-blowing results.
Other before/after combos can be found on Dani Diamond Photography