View Full Version : Existing Light Portraits

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09-05-2008, 11:01 AM
I've been asked by a friend to do a portrait/figure study, and through conversations on the subject, we have more or less decided that we will use "existing light" (in this case some low, oblique lights) in a rather austere setting. This suits me, because I don't have much in the way of flash equipment, and nothing for hotlights or backdrops, etc. The one flash I have is a Sunpak 383, though I have not used it much in the last couple of years. I've got one slave strobe, GN unknown, that I could use for backlighting if need be. I'm afraid I would have to do some learning (again) to use these effectively. (hence our decision to use natural lighting)

Apart from family snaps and a few theatre headshots, I have not done portraiture in any big way. I have done still life studies in a similar environment, and it seems like this particular project more or less fits this category in any case.

I'll most likely be shooting MF on my Rollieflex, though if I use my N80, I'll gain more flash control at the expense of a smaller negative.
Does anyone have any hints that will help me attain success in this project? I think at best I have two sessions available to get two or three good shots.

Any help would be greatly appreciated.


Paul Goutiere
09-05-2008, 11:18 AM
Flash has never been my cup of tea with film cameras. I hate all the wires, bulk, batteries and the unnatural look that happens when I use the things. I only use available light.

I've used my Rolleiflex successfully with available light, it seems to suit as well as my Leica M4-P. To fill in dark areas I'll have someone hold a white piece of paper just out of the frame to fill
in the dark areas.

Mike Wilde
09-05-2008, 11:25 AM
think of white foam core as your best friend here - and try to see what you can do to hold it as needed - I find a few stacking chairs and some A clamp clips work when you are in a pinch.

For good available light indoors you may need to put diffusion over your natural light source. A trip to the art store for tracing paper, or fabric land/value vilage for thin sheer curtain material.

09-05-2008, 11:29 AM
From the little portraiture I tried, I definitely liked better the ones where natural light was used (with reflecting surfaces to fill in the shadows). Portraits with flash or strobes are ok for commercial work but they don't touch you, they lack the soul.

09-05-2008, 11:35 AM
Is there a window? If someone wants me to do natural light shots in doors the first thing I look for is the window and how close I can get to it and what is the background. If you have to use existing incondescent lights you might consider using Delta 3200 in the Rollei and shooting near wide open.

09-05-2008, 11:39 AM
White reflectors are a good idea...but also don't be afraid of wide apertures. You can handhold a rangefinder at a much slower speed than many other cameras. Of course, you're not going to get depth of field at those apertures but you will gain a wonderful glow.

Here's one at f2.0, a Zeiss Planar 50mm on a Leica M2...scan of a silver print.


09-05-2008, 11:49 AM
Most of what I'm hearing here reinforces my gut feeling about this project. As I've said, I've done still life studies using existing lighting. In such cases, I have the opportunity to arrange the scene and place shadows where I want them to fall, and reduce them as need be. The problem is I've never done anything like this with a living model. I'm afraid, more than controlling the lighting, working with a model will be the hardest part of this project.


09-05-2008, 12:19 PM
Go into it with an open mind. You don't have to know exactly what you are going to do in advance. Look at it as a chance to find out what happens in the situation and make it an experimental learning situation with no pressure to prove yourself.

Plus personally I would use a tripod as I find subject motion far more interesting than camera motion.

09-05-2008, 01:51 PM
Tripod. And cable release.

09-05-2008, 03:09 PM
Tripod. And cable release.

I use a tripod for just about everything I shoot anyway. (not so much on the Rollei, 'cause it's such a joy to hold)

I think I'm getting a pretty clear idea of what I want to accomplish here.

Question... if I'm shooting at night, how would a halogen work light work placed outside the window? I'd like to take advantage of the shadows created through a window.

Cheers, and thanks for the tips... keep 'em coming.

09-05-2008, 03:52 PM
If you are going to use a Halogen light then you have lots of options. Putting one on a stand outside the window would look pretty harsh and contrasty if it is raw. There is a lot of ambient light mixed in when the sun is shining in the window. The halogen light might look more like moon light.

But if you have a curtain or light translucent cloth or material over the window it will of course soften quite a bit. If you can bring the halogen light in the room you could bounce it off a (hopefully light colored) wall and get very nice broad light quality... sort of like a huge soft box. You will lose a lot of brightness in doing that but it will be brighter than the existing light fixtures. You will still need a tripod... and cable release.


09-05-2008, 04:59 PM
Thanks, Dennis. I'm kinda just thinking out loud right now. I really don't want to get fancy with light. I'm basically looking for a subdued look with deep, but not harsh shadows. There are lots of examples here on APUG of this kind of look. For me, it's a learning experience, for my friend, it's a personal goal. We kind of agreed to help each other out on this. (I'm liking the challenge)


09-06-2008, 08:59 AM
I have had some nice and surprising affects with using, not only white foam core for fill, but also a white foam core covered with aluminum foil. You can move the foil around and find a particularly pleasing affect; it adds a certain crispness to the catchlights in the eyes. It's cheap but it can be overdone.

Lee L
09-06-2008, 01:58 PM
I've had occasion lately to come up with some good, inexpensive reflectors that store compactly. I was browsing the art stores for foamcore and came across something better for my "temporary studio" needs. In the US we call them something like "project display boards" and they come in corrugated cardboard and lately in foamcore. They are a good size for lighting reflectors, and two side flaps fold inward to cut storage size in half, 24 x 36 inches folded, and 48 x 36 inches opened flat. Here's one sample: http://cdn.dickblick.com/items/131/35/13135-group3ww-l.jpg They are readily available at any store that has school or business supplies and relatively inexpensive.

As you can see, they come in other colors and can be self-supporting. I've taken to making a tape hinge between two of the center parts, then velcro-ing the side panels together to make them double height, but still self-supporting with the side panels only partly open for larger subjects. This will still fold down to 24 x 36 inches, four plys thick.

I've also been able to find foam core in 2x3 ft panels that are covered on both sides with aluminum foil that's got a rather rough surface for a diffuse reflection.


09-06-2008, 02:46 PM
What a great thread and some really inventive ideas! I feel inspired to go play now with my new (to me) Mamiya and try some natural light portraits. Gotta LOVE this site, and it's participants!

09-06-2008, 03:56 PM
What a great thread and some really inventive ideas! I feel inspired to go play now with my new (to me) Mamiya and try some natural light portraits. Gotta LOVE this site, and it's participants!

I agree. Now if I can only get over my nervousness about having a real person in front of my camera... :rolleyes:

BTW, in discussion with my friend today, the project as it stands looks to be more of an abstract detail study than a full-figure modelling. ie. hands, shoulders, collarbones, feet, legs etc. This sounds interesting, and more in line with work I have done in the past. I am looking forward to attempting some compositions of line, light and shadow. Keep the ideas coming.

Cheers to all,

09-07-2008, 10:50 AM
I am pretty new here, but why not take a look at CJ Nicolai's work -
She is a member here, though seems not to be seen much, but she has to be one of the best at natural light photography..!
I don't know if she is doing workshops, but hers are so inspiring.

Just seen that she has a portfolio here on APUG - well worth 2 minutes of anyones time !

09-07-2008, 02:16 PM
Just seen that she has a portfolio here on APUG - well worth 2 minutes of anyones time !

2 minutes??? Not a chance, I've just spent the last 45 minutes looking at all of her images and going back for 2nd and 3rd looks on many of them. Her work is gorgeous; thanks for pointing her out.

I would encourage all that have the time to read through her blog as well. I'll try not to sound too crass but, really, the only way to say this is that she really has her shit together.

09-07-2008, 02:19 PM
Okay, I'm a little ADD this morning, I was looking at her website, NOT the gallery she has here (that might only take a couple of minutes, haven't looked yet).

09-07-2008, 03:17 PM
I was slightly tongue in cheek when I said 2 minutes - She is, as those of you who have looked will know, very good at what she does...
I attended a workshop of hers in England a while back, and learnt more in 2 days that I ever have before..

Glad to hear that you seem to approve !