Tuesday, August 1, 2017


First and foremost if you don’t Love doing portraits of families, children and teens—don’t do them! Family history and milestone events like a graduating senior are too important to entrust to a photographer that is indifferent or worse to the subjects in front of them.

The following tips come from over 25 years of full time professional experience doing portraits and weddings, and, they work. So, lets just right into it…

FINDING AND USING LOCATIONS:   I put this first because it’s the most important. 

This is my foundation: I Build The Portrait From the Background—> Forward. 

And that’s not all—besides providing the background—my ideal locations also create a directional lighting pattern on my subjects. Because I place my subjects near the locations light blocking features, such as trees, rocks, bushes or buildings, which I use as negative fill; this technique, called Subtractive Lighting, and is by far the most natural of all outdoor lighting techniques.

Here’s my procedure:
  1. I go out about 2-hours before sunset to WALK the site I’ve chosen.  You can’t just drive by, you need to get into the location!
  2. I approach from the EAST so I’m LOOKING WEST towards where the sun will be setting.
  3. I’m looking for GLOWING LEAVES being back-lit by the sun.  If there’s no glow happening you may be out too early or the tree foliage may be too dense.  If the foliage is too dense I don’t use the area because without back-light I’m going to have a DEAD BACKGROUND.  I want my backgrounds to be glowing with light—I WANT IT ALIVE! That creates depth and visual interest AND sells Wall Portraits!
  4. Next, I pretend I’m the subject and turn my back to the background and look Right and Left. Ideally I want to see a large patch of sky on one side and some more trees on the other (to block the ambient light on the side creating some dimensional shading on my subjects faces.). If I also have a nice place to seat my subjects—like grass or some rocks-even better!
  5. The key to finding and using an outdoor location is placing your subjects at the edge of something (like a tree line) that will only allow that big patch of blue sky (the sky is my soft box) as your light source.
The mantra I always use was taught to me over 20 years ago by my first teacher, Leon Kennamer, (the originator of subtractive lighting in photography.) He said that “The Light is at the Edge of the Forrest!” Which means that if you venture INTO the forrest the nice directional light turns into dull flat light coming from the top creating raccoon eyes on your subjects.

The other condition that can create this effect in an otherwise great location is Full Overcast Sky; Something I try to avoid at all cost!

The following two portraits, done in the same location, show the difference between the light quality of clear sky vs. overcast sky.

In this family’s portrait I have my usual CLEAR BLUE SKY coming from the left, creating a beautiful light on all their faces, light in their eyes, and nice back light in the background provided by the setting sun behind them. This is how true, subtractive, natural light portraiture can look with careful placement of the subject within the location at the right time of day.

With overcast sky this is the result….

Usually I would cancel a session with these conditions, but when you have family members that come into town just for the session, it is not an option.  As you can see, in this overcast sky portrait the light is VERY top heavy creating dark eye sockets (raccoon eyes!) in my subjects and that the background is dark (there’s no back light) and the overall lighting is dull.  

Next week I’ll show and tell about the importance of clothing consultations for your clients.

’Til next week…should you have questions don’t hesitate to ask…

Author:  Jerry W. Venz, PPA Master Photographer, Craftsman
Training site:  http://www.LightAtTheEdge.com
Client site: http://www.TheStorytellersUsa.com

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