Sun back lit or side lit?

Discussion in 'Portraits and Fashion' started by RaymondC, Oct 25, 2017.

  1. I just happened to be at an anniversary that had like 150 people and a group shot was done outside I chose side lit, worked OK. I was just reading a library book on portraiture and it said the sun behind the people is better since they are not squinting ... and one can let the background blow out ....

    Your view on this?

  2. Vincent Peri

    Vincent Peri Metairie, LA

    I almost never shoot portraits any more, but I think side lit to SLIGHTLY back lit is okay. I'd never shoot a portrait with the sun directly behind the subject. I always shoot with film, if that matters.
  3. Sandy Vongries

    Sandy Vongries Administrator Staff Member

    Old fashioned idea -- mostly works -- ask everyone to close their eyes and relax - on the count of 5 all open eyes & smile. Also -- if you always use fill flash outdoors when photographing people in the sun, you and they will likely be pleased with results.
  4. I have a long time love affair w/ backlight. For me the sun at about 45° and just over the shoulder (about halfway between side & back) with a couple of big bounces in front is just about ideal in many cases. Sometimes another bounce from the opposite side of the sun is needed for balance.

    I'm not sure I'd be happy with sun as pure sidelight. OTOH, in a dark studio a single strobe directly to the side can be interesting. One from each side and a bit of chin fill works well.
    Last edited: Oct 27, 2017
  5. Side lighting is usually uneven and harsh. Great for a lot of subjects but not usually for portraits. Back lit can be good if you meter correctly, I find a slightly cloudy day to give good results for portraits. Available light is all I ever use, and never a flash of any kind, although there are times when a reflector can help if you absolutely must due to crappy light.I would rather look around for better lighting though. What I always want to avoid is taking too much time setting things up, which will show in your shots :[

    Keep it spontaneous and fun.
  6. William Michael

    William Michael Moderator Staff Member

    Outdoor (large) Group Portraiture presents a few unique challenges. There's the getting of the one shot with all eyes open and all faces viewable; there's managing the shadows of the Subjects on their neighbouring Subject, (i.e. shadows from the sun or the flash as fill or both). Finding 'Open Shade' is often a good solution.

    On the other hand, provided the sun is not directly in the Subjects' eyes, then, most people will not squint - though some people can be quite sensitive and those with sensitive eyes can be judiciously placed in the group – the same judicious placement is appropriate for those with glasses, where reflections (in the shot) are problematic.

    What I don’t like about the Library book’s recommendation is “let the background blow out”

    Generally, I think it is better for the group, as a ‘portrait’ to sit on a darker and not a lighter background pallet, and this can be achieved by using Flash as Fill: in this manner the ‘portrait’ usually has more ‘pop’ off the ‘canvas’.

    michaelmowery likes this.
  7. In my experience and opinion backlight is (much) better

    With sidelight you'll have a lit and a shadowside
    Which strong light (mid day sun or sunset) will risk giving / most likely though will give
    a deep shadow and thus high contrast between the lit and shadow side

    Especially when shooting a large group, is again IMO (and experience) it's better to find a high position to shoot
    the group from

    With a low position you will have the people in front shielding the people behnd them,
    who then only will be visible with their face, or worse only part of their face

    Sure, could be solved with the people in the front lying down, next line on thier knees, third line
    standing up straight, line in the back standing on benches or someting similar
    But getting all of them in those positions, and the risk of getting clothes dirty eg when the ground
    is dirty, or people simply not willing to get their clothes dirty make it less easy and obvious then it seems

    The times I've had to shoot a large group (business meeting with around 300 participants)
    I had them standing next to each other, in three lines behind each other, and shot from
    several feet high standing on a collapsible stairs
    I then asked to look at me, due to my position that meant upwards, and thus avoided the risk
    of people getting hidden by the ones in front of them

    As they were looking to the sky and basically were lit frontally, it also meant less double chins,
    and less risk of unflattering shadows in or under noses, eyesockets etc
    (and looking up makes making a grumpy face harder)

    Also due to the higher position, I was getting more of the surroundings in the shot, and less sky,
    and automatically less risk of a lot of burned out sky

    My two cents
  8. Either scenario is fine. Keep in mind if you choose the backlight option you will need more flash power to fill in the faces. The side light scenario will expose for the highlight side of the face and you will need to fill for the shadow which can be a stop less power which means you only need half as much power as you would lighting it if it were back lit.
    William Michael likes this.
  9. When I did a group shot of the softball team I did a partial sidelight. aka compromise.
    The sun was about 60 degrees off center.
    So I got good illumination of the faces without them looking into the sun, and I did not have half the face in shadow.
  10. Gary “shadow” is a term open to interpretation. You either have highlight or shadow. What is not lit by the sun is considered shadow. Open shade is shadow and is highly desired for portraits. As the late Dean Collins put it its the transition from specular highlight to shadow
  11. William Michael

    William Michael Moderator Staff Member

    I don't understand, why is sunlight side lighting 'usually uneven'?

    michaelmowery likes this.
  12. I think he means can create a contrast from highlight to shadow when the sun is not diffused by a puffy cloud
  13. Actually I over looked the 150 people part of your question. That would require a lot of flash power depending on the lighting scenario. If I did not have enough light I would position the group mostly into the sun and let the sun do the lighting of the people and the background. It will all be lit evenly. No one will complain that the light is not soft. Worst case scenario is the sun is directly overhead in which case you need to fill in the shadows with as much light as you can.
  14. William Michael

    William Michael Moderator Staff Member

    Yes, thanks, and I understand that as an explanation: I was also wondering if he meant that the result of the sidelit sunlight for a group portrait would be shadows cast from one Subject onto other Subject's (faces) - hence creating 'uneven lighting' on those Subjects.

    It's possible that this "lack of clarity" is mine only, as I tend to read the literal meaning of written words: anyway it would be good if steve would clarify what he meant.

    michaelmowery likes this.
  15. William Michael

    William Michael Moderator Staff Member

    Groups that size and outside create several, probably unique difficulties for Flash fFill.

    As michael mention's, 'That would require a lot of flash power . . .'

    Expanding on that point:

    > it's necessary to SPREAD the Flash as Fill, horizontally (i.e. to cover evenly, the width of the Group)
    > it's necessary to pose the Group and/or adjust the Camera Viewpoint so that the DEPTH of the group is not too large such that the FLASH FALL OFF is a problem
    > also, it's necessary to balance the (wide angle) Focal Length of the Lens that will be required to frame the whole group, yet not cause issues like 'fat arms at the edges' and also have a Focal Length that will allow the placement of the Flash Head(s) close enough to the Group to be effective and not be in the shot.
    This last point about Focal Length choice, is especially important if you choose to use an elevated shooting position.


  16. Good point. I would hope the light was not not hitting the face at a 90 degree angle from camera. With a group that huge one needs as much sunlight hitting the mask of the face.
    Last edited by a moderator: Jun 27, 2018

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