How to find beautiful light anywhere

by Nick Kelsh

posted Tuesday, May 19, 2015 at 9:46 AM EDT


Beautiful, soft portrait lighting is all around us if you know how to look for it. Scout your house and neighborhood for a place that has this gorgeous light and you’ll be ready to shoot spontaneous headshots that have a classic, professional look.

By that I mean a place that has beautiful, flattering light and a simple, neutral background. Then, when you spontaneously want to shoot a simple headshot or small group you don’t have to flounder around wondering where in your house you can go–you’ve figured that out long in advance. It’s often next to a large window or an open door. It could be your garage. The soft light of a covered porch is a thing of beauty.

I recently made this recommendation on my Facebook page. One of the fans commented back that she had found her “happy light” place. The photograph she attached proved that her discovery was aptly named. I loved the description. It works on so many levels. If you have a place you can confidently take photo subjects knowing that both of you are going to love the finished product, you can spend more time relating to the subject and less time dealing with a lamp in the background sticking out of someones’s head.

And it’s very likely that there are locations within walking distance of where you live that can serve the same purpose. What you’re looking for is a place that’s out of the sun and the rain with open-air sides to let the light in.

When they were young I photographed them in a fancy photographer’s studio and more recently in the natural—and professional looking—light of my happy light location.

In the city, a neighborhood commuter train station could be your photo studio away from home. In the country, it’s almost impossible to beat a big beautiful empty barn for dramatic lighting effects. A picnic shelter at a park can work perfectly provided there’s a simple, non-distracting background that can be thrown a little bit out of focus.

(A parking lot background is absolutely out of the question. I almost always do everything I can to eliminate cars from backgrounds–I think I might have some kind of automobiles-as-visual-clutter phobia. But, of course, if the subject happens to be a race car driver or used car salesman all bets are off.)

Once you can find gorgeous light in your neighborhood, you can find it anywhere in the world. (Italy 1990)

Many headshot/portraits benefit from the use of a of a medium telephoto lens and “happy light” locations are no exception. Use a large aperture to turn the background into soft, buttery velvetness. (That’s a small number and a big opening like F2.8.) You are in control here and that background you put out of focus helps draw your viewer to the subject’s eyes which, as we all know, is the doorway to the soul. If this all confuses you, maybe it’s time for you to hop onto my Going Manual course!

(An exceptional educator and a world-class photographer, Nick Kelsh is the founder of How To Photograph Your Life, an excellent source of affordable photography training and tips. Nick’s courses can be conducted by yourself in your own time, or with feedback from Nick and your fellow students. If you appreciated this article and want to improve your photography, visit How to Photograph your Life and sign up for a course today!)