By now you’ve probably realized one of the great ironies in good portrait photography: the flash is your friend when working outdoors. So guess what the great secret is for indoor portraiture? That’s right; sometimes it’s better to turn off the flash. Some of the most artistic portraits use nothing more than an open window and a simple reflector.
The problem with using your on-camera flash indoors is that the light is harsh and creates an image filled with contrast. “Harsh” and “high contrast” are two words models don’t like to hear when it comes to picture descriptions.
Fill flash works outdoors because everything is bright. The flash “fills” right in. But ambient light is much dimmer indoors, and the burst of light from the flash is much like a car approaching on a dark street.
Of course, there are times when you have no choice but to use your camera’s flash indoors. It’s very convenient, and you do get a recognizable picture. But when you have the luxury of setting up an artistic portrait in a window-lit room, try natural light only.
First, position the model near a window and study the scene. You can’t depend solely on your visual perception, because your eyes and brain will read the lighting a little differently than the camera will, especially in the shadow areasâ€”you will see detail in the dark areas that the camera can’t record.
This is why you’ll probably want to use a reflector to “bounce” some light into the shadow areas. Many photographers swear by collapsible light discs, but a large piece of white cardboard or foam core will work just as well. Place your reflector opposite the window and use it to “bounce” the light onto the dark side of the model’s face. This will help “fill in” the shadow area so you can see some detail.
Now put your camera on a tripod and slowly squeeze the shutter button. Review the image on the LCD monitor. If the shadow area is too dark, you may want to add another reflector. If the overall image is too dark, turn on exposure compensation, set it to +1, and try another picture. If the color balance of the image is too “cool” (that is, bluish), you may want to set the white balance control to Cloudy and see if that improves the rendering.
Remind your model to sit very still during exposure, because you may be using a shutter speed that’s as slow as 1/15th of a second, or even longer. You can increase the camera’s light sensitivity by adjusting the ISO speed to 200, but don’t go beyond that settingâ€”the image quality will degrade too much for this type of shot.
Once you’ve played with these variables, go back to the artistic side of your brain and work on the composition. Try to get all the elements in the picture working together, and let nature’s sweet light take it from there. When it all comes together, natural-light portraits are magical