Available Light Portraits


Side Lit–Delia lit by strong sidelighting coming off of Lake Evans. The fill light is provided by a gold reflector on the right. Fill flash would have also worked but it would have required a Canon Speedlite capable of high sync speed. Exposure was ISO 100 1/350 sec @ f4 with a 50 mm lens.

Contrast can be friend or foe.

The more adept you are at controlling it, the better your pictures look.

In a portrait, if there’s too little contrast, the colors may look muted. Skin tones look drab.

Too much? You have to decide where in the scene you want to retain the detail.

If this all sounds alien to you, the beginner, it’s actually a real-world lesson on exposure.

Front Lit–The sun is over the shoulder of the photographer, behind the camera. There is little modeling to suggest 3 dimensionality. As with most situations, backgrounds are important. A lighter background would have been better since our model is a brunette. That provides important separation so her head doesn’t blend into the dark background.

My students met up with me at  Fairmount Park.

It was the golden hour around 6 pm.

I use this park a lot because of its proximity, 15 minutes from the classroom.

But I like this location because there are a lot of possibilities for different lighting.

It’s also important to realize that you may not have to travel far to find good locations to do portraits.

It’s important to pay attention to natural light as you’re driving around,  note the time of the day, season & position of the sun. When you recognize this, you’ll have a collection of good locations and learn how to use of natural light.
The assignment is fairly straightforward.

Without over-exposing or losing detail in the highlight areas, produce 4 portraits:

  • Front lit
  • Side lit without a reflector
  • Side lit with a reflecor
  • Back lit with a reflector

We also experimented with a diffuser.

The waters of Lake Evans in Fairmount Park is like a mirror at this late hour.

Even after the sun disappears behind the horizon, light still bounces off the water, so we had about 2 hours of light to work with.

Side Lit–These 2 were side lit. The one on the right is with the reflector as a fill. Audree changed his camera position and framing. The image with the reflector was cropped tighter and has a more intimate feel because Delia’s face is much bigger.


Back lit— This image by Mary Stover shows how you can get nice rim lighting for Delia’s hair simply by changing the direction you shoot from. Mary is practically shooting into the sun. I’m holding the reflector high and she’s shooting slightly beneath me and remaining in the shadow of the reflector. By so doing, no light is shining directly into the front of the lens and ruining the image with flare which causes loss in contrast.
Also note that to accentuate the rim lighting, choose a background where it’s dark like in this case, we had a stand of trees in the lake for our background. Exposure was ISO 200 1/500 f4.


Next time, I’ll remind my students to bring their own lens hoods and reflectors. The reflector need not be anything fancy beyond a shiny silvery car sunshade. I use one all the time since this fold ups like an accordian.

You might consider taping this sunshade to some cardboard to give it some “body.” That makes it easier to aim your light and control.


To get to Fairmount Park. See the map below

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