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Real Life Portraits are Really Fun!

As a portrait photographer, it has always been important to me to “keep it real.”  I want portraits that I create to tell a story or reveal something of the nature of the subject, something that is real. For children, that means going into their world, letting them be real, even if it’s in my studio. I still want them to be their unique little selves. The key here is to have plenty of things around that a child would see and be interested in, such as toys or props that they can go to and play with. If outdoors at the park or their own home, usually there is enough in the natural environment that will get their interest.

The idea is to facilitate an environment that they will be curious about, and that will result in the opportunity to photograph them interacting and being and expressing themselves in a way that will show us those magical moments. The moments that are priceless to Mom, and/or Dad.


I’m always prepared to be interacting with a child in an entertaining way, more as a playmate than a photographer. If we want to get real expressions, we kind of need to get on their level and entertain them. That means either with plenty for them to play with, or by directly interacting and truly having fun with them. Here is one example of work that you should really have your heart into if you are going to be doing it.

But photographing children has always been a lot of fun for me. I have never considered it to be difficult, even when the child is NOT in the mood to be photographed. We have to be realistic in our expectations, as well as not try to force them to cooperate and smile. That just doesn’t work at all. Trying to force a session and bribe a child to smile is a very difficult approach to photographing children. It isn’t going to happen unless it’s real. Here’s a tip for the parents. Tell them NOT to be stressing the child out before the session by telling them to “,” or ” you better be good or else!” That just makes our job harder.

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Portrait of a Woman by Waterfall

I discovered several years ago that I loved this location, just a few miles out of town, for creating beautiful outdoor portraits. The light is quite nice as it falls into the steep canyons and onto the water, and rocks, below. There is an rich quality to this light, with the large sky acting as an oddly shaped giant soft box, providing a serene, soft light to the scene  most of the day. The wonderful dark rock walls assist in adding “shape” or “direction” to the beautiful light as well. I decided to do a session here for an illustration to add to my current book project.

Portrait of a woman by Michael Newcomb

Since the direction of the light is straight down, it works best for portraits with someone laying on the rocks, facing up toward the sky. I love this look, as the large open sky becomes the highlight for the eyes, The textures in the natural rock background are wonderful. and the tones quite even and deep, in the rugged black rock throughout the scene. We can capture some magnificent natural backgrounds that provide rich texture and don’t distract a lot from the subject. Since this area is right next to a waterfall, there tends to be a beautiful shine on the wet black rocks.

Portrait of a Woman 2 by Michael Newcomb

You  will notice some inconsistency in the color of my images here, due to the fact that I forgot to custom white balance until I had taken a few shots already. As  you may know, it can be difficult to correct for white balance perfectly, in post processing. Of course my practice is to always do a custom white balance, everywhere that I shoot, as that is the only way to get very good color consistently.

Portrait of a Woman 4 by Michael Newcomb

There is a beautiful “highlight to shadow transfer” in this light, due to the size of the light source being the entire sky, and the deep shadows, enhanced by the presence of all of the black rock surrounding the area. By simply being aware of the direction of the light and shadows on the subjects face, and adjusting the angle of the head and face accordingly, we can create portraits that look like they had the level of light control one would typically find in the studio.

Portrait of a Woman by Michael Newcomb

Portrait of a Woman 5 by Michael Newcomb

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Finding the Best Light

The awareness of light and using it effectively is one of the most important things we can to do create a memorable photograph. By picking our location well, and placing the subject appropriately, we can control light outdoors, as effectively as we can in a studio shoot.

Ideally, the light should be brightest on the most important areas of a scene.  With portraits, that is usually the highlights on the face. Generally, we want a feeling of the light coming from one direction, from one side of the scene. This creates much more interest and impact within the image, as well as defining the shape of the face.  Ideally lighting will be chosen that gives the  most pleasing shape to the subject’s face.  

There is no single style of lighting that is best to light any subject.. Everyone is different, we must simply find the lighting situation that places our subject in the best light. That means scouting out many locations and keeping track of where that magical light is, at various times of the day, and seasonally as well. It is well worth putting in the time and effort to do this, to know I am getting the best lighting possible each time I go out and shoot.

Notice that the highlight on this girl’s left cheek is the brightest area of the scene. It is also the area of greatest contrast in the scene. As a result, our eye goes directly to her face with little else to distract . This is absolutely straight natural light. There were not even any reflectors used. We simply placed the subject according to the direction and quality of the light that we wanted to use.


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Taking Portraits by Window Light

By the time I moved into my last studio, I hadn’t even paid attention to those grand old North facing windows. But those windows proved to provide the finest light I  have ever had to work with in my portrait studio work. I ended up using those windows to take some of the finest studio portraits I have ever created. Once again I would find that it’s hard to beat natural light for creating great portraits. 

Within a very short period from when I moved, I was doing a newborn baby portrait in a bassinet, and discovered that the best way I could light this baby was with the light of one of those old windows. The sale from that baby portrait was my highest sale while at that location. Over the next six years that I was in that building,  I ended up shooting window light portraits of almost every portrait session I did, even if I was already doing some of the portraits with regular studio lighting. It seemed that those windows offered a quality of light that simply could not be reproduced with artificial lighting.

The large size of the old windows produced an amazing soft light that was simply incredible. I found many ways to use the light, whether with a reflector on the shadow side of the subject, as above, or with no reflector at all, simply letting the shadows go black, to add  to the emotion of the image. I particularly love shooting images with the main (key)  light almost behind the subject as above, and below, to get a dramatic “rim” light. simply adjust the fill for the lighting ratio to fit the mood  you  are capturing.

For you newer photographers who may still shoot in auto modes on your camera, your camera isn’t gonna want to expose this correctly. It will try to lighten up the entire image, over exposing the highlights on the subject’s face. You need to expose, preferrably with a grey card, for the light entering the window and reflecting off of the grey card. Or, expose for the subject’s faces, adjusting for brightness level of their faces.

The only draw back I have found to window light portraits is that I can’t move the window, so I’m limited to having the subject looking more or less toward the direction of the window.  Generally, we want the subject looking at least slightly into the direction the light is coming from.  In most of these images, I am 90 degrees from the window. The subject could be looking directly at the camera and we would have a “split” lighting that could be acceptable and that may work very well, depending on the style and feel of the image we are creating. However, anything where the subject is looking more away from the window will start looking like bad lighting because there will be deep shadows in the eyes, etc.
maternity portrait with Dad
I have found that everyone I ever photographed using this window light loved the images and were particularly drawn to them. I have tracked my sales and found significantly higher sales and more poses selected from these window light images than from portraits taken with traditional studio lighting.
I actually end up shooting more window light images without fill reflector for the shadows, because the more dramatic deep shadows with no detail adds to the intensity of the image. And, yes, I know, technically, a well exposed image will have detail in highlights and shadows. But I got bored with the rules a long time ago.
You don’t want to shoot with indoor lights on if you are shooting window light. If your tungsten household lights are on and you are white balanced for the outdoor light, you will have a red cast to the shadows in the image. But the highlights ( on the window side ) will be correctly white balanced. This can be a real problem when trying to color correct an image. So, best to have no interior lights on. Go for a silver or white reflector on the shadow side of the subject if you want to lighten up the shadows and add some detail. But remember to expose for the light coming in the window.
Something about leaning into these old window frames, and gazing out on the street below, helps people relax and forget about the camera, an essential step on the pathway to  creating amazing portraits.

Window light is best suited for a single subject, or perhaps two people.  It would be hard to get an even exposure for the highlights on a group of people because some would be further from the window than others. But window light is certainly a fantastic option for individuals, or poor photographers who can’t afford a lighting system.  The good news is, this is probably better than studio lights anyway!