How to Eliminate Shadows from your Daytime Portraits

When you take portraits on a bright and sunny day, you may notice that at times harsh shadows are cast on persons’ faces causing at times severe underexposure. Yet at the same time the background is well exposed. What is happening is that your camera has automatically adjusted its exposure settings for the background and not the foreground of which your subject is a part of. You’d think that with the abundance of light in the daytime it would be enough to produce a well-lit portrait, but the nature of light is such that it may not be so.

Fill-in Light Techniques and Ideas

Fill-in Flash Using a Built-in Flash Unit

There are ways to get around this challenge of underexposed faces in the daytime, and one of the most common ways is to use your flash. Fill-in flash, as it is technically called, involves using a low intensity light just enough to get rid of most if not all shadows cast on a person’s face.

If your D-SLR has a built-in (pop-up) flash, this is good enough to do the trick. Since the light from the built-in flash is effective for only a few meters, it can supply just enough light to illuminate a face without disrupting the exposure of the background. You may adjust your setting to [Program] and get your flash ready. The built-in flash will most likely not pop-up in a well-lit environment, so you’ll need to manually initialize it.

Using pop-up flash in the daytime.

Using pop-up flash in the daytime.

There’s typically a button on a D-SLR that has the ‘lightning’ icon, as in Canon D-SLRs, that you can press for the flash to pop-up. Other D-SLR models may require something else to access the built-in flash, so it’s good to check your manual to find out how to do this. The camera will automatically produce reasonable exposure settings based on factors including the flash. If you try this method and the person seems to be overexposed you can always reduce the intensity of the flash, i.e. lower the value, or just simply step back a little.

Fill-in Flash Using a Flashgun

You can also use a flashgun to fill-in light, and you’ll have more creative power too. With the flashgun, you can point it away from, or directly at the person using a low intensity – preferably with a -2 stop. You can further soften the light by using a diffuser.

Flashgun with a diffuser attached.

Flashgun with a diffuser attached.

Alternatively, you could bounce the light from your flashgun on an umbrella. You could also place the flash on a light stand and hold it over the person to simulate natural light, thereby creating even more natural looking portraits.

Fill-in Light Using Light Reflectors
Impact 5-in-1 Collapsible Circular Reflector Disc

Impact 5-in-1 Collapsible Circular Reflector Disc @ bhphoto.com

Alternatively to a built-in flash or flashgun, you can also use a light reflector which can be as simple as a sheet of paper as used in the image below. Other makeshift reflectors that you can make use of are:  white/silver cardboard and Styrofoam

However, you’ll get better and more creative results if you use one of those 5-in-1 collapsible reflectors like the Impact 5-in-1 Collapsible Circular Reflector Disc. Not only will you be able to fill-in light but you can also control or manipulate the color of the reflected light. Chose from white, silver, gold, soft gold and translucent to get different effects with the outcome of your images.

You may need a bit of help from an assistant or even the person you’re photographing, because the reflector needs to be shifted around to bounce natural light on to the person’s face while at the same time not ‘blinding’ him/her. Otherwise, a stand can be enough to do fulfill the need.

In order to reduce shadows on your portraits, you can utilize fill-in light techniques. In this case, a simple letter-sized (A4) white sheet of paper (which can be seen in the center photo) is used to reduce the shadows on Tom’s face. The effectiveness is clear.

2 Steps in using a Reflector

  1.  With the help of an assistant move the reflector in such a way that natural light bounces off it onto the face of the person your photographing. Make sure in framing your photograph to exclude the reflector. (The paper was shown in the image above for proof of the technique used.) With the use of a collapsible reflector you can try out how each color affects the outcome of your image.
  2. Focus on the face of the person, more preferably on an eye and take the shot!

Using Spot Metering to Properly Expose Faces

Spot metering symbol encircled.

Another tip that a number of photographers like to do is to use spot metering, which will force the camera to use a specific focus point (of your choosing) on the person’s face as a reference point for exposure. You can get great portraits by doing this, and you may not even need to use the flash. Using this method means that your foreground may be nicely exposed at the expense of the background. The background may be ‘blown out’ with the details of a blue sky being overexposed to a brilliant white. This effect can really look great, and it’s a common technique used by wedding photographers. The argument may be that the person is the subject of the image, so the background can be overblown. Depending on your taste, you may opt for this method or another with the background moderately exposed.

Test Out Each Method to Find Out What Suits You

Each method requires a bit of experimenting, and in some cases you may want to combine them. But they can all be effective in getting those well-lit faces on your portrait shots. The weirdest of all methods may seem to be using flash in the daytime, as it is commonly believed that flash should only be used indoors or at night. They’re no rules written in stone for the use of flash, and it is proven to be highly effective for daytime photography. When finished using the flash for filling in light, remember to return your camera to regular settings, including turning off your flash or putting it back down, so that you won’t make the mistake of over-blowing the foreground instead of the background, as all daytime portraits don’t require fill-in light.

About Shane Brown-Daniels

I'm a freelance writer and event photographer who is always up for an adventure. From capturing the beauty of a woman, the strength of a man, onto the adrenaline-pumped action scene, you'll find me aiming for the shot.
  • http://www.browndaniels.net/ Shane

    Hey Alex, I am not sure of the settings for this image. It’s a stock photo we purchased from phovoir via depositphotos. It is not film though. I’ll try to find out nonetheless to satisfy your curiosity. :)

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