Choosing a Light Source


Portraits at Night


Lesson Info

Choosing a Light Source

Tonight we're gonna explore how to provide you with a framework to choose the right light source for your night portrait. We're gonna work through from the simplest to the most complicated, the cheapest to the most expensive, so you know all the options and the pros and the cons of those. First we're gonna start with available light. What's available light? Whatever is around. I found this street lamp out on a bridge in Seattle and this happens to be one of those new lights. It's an LED light which will soon change nightscapes forever but it's kinda daylight balanced. Other lights in the city aren't as daylight balanced as this but it's a powerful single source that provides a very strong portrait light, it's kinda soft for a point source and we've got these beautiful shadows leaning across the bridge here, so let's bring our model Kaitlyn in. Come on over, Kaitlyn, and I'll walk you through how we set up for this portrait. I pre-focused by setting this focus point on her face, and the...

n I changed my lens from auto-focus to manual. Why did I do that? Because I don't want to hunt every single time I take a picture, so we're always gonna focus first, set it to manual. Second, my camera is set to a 1600 ISO. F4, 10th of a second. That's kinda slow for a person, we can't stand still for a 10th of a second, but I wanted the quality of 1600 ISO. So I didn't wanna go above that for the skin, it gets a little broken up. So I'm gonna take one test portrait right now, so Kaitlyn, chin up just a tiny bit, turn your face a little bit towards the light there and then eyes back to the camera, great. Let's take a look. I'm gonna zoom in, check focus. Are her eyes sharp? Yes they are. And what do we have? We have a nice single portrait light here, and it looks great. So what are the pros of this? What you see is what you get. This light looks exactly like you see it. There's no surprises, right? It's also cheap, it's absolutely free. But what are the disadvantages? I don't actually know what color temperature that is, so I've had to manually go through and kind of trust my screen on this, and I ended up choosing a balance of about 4350K or Kelvin. If I was under a different street lamp, I don't know, the orange ones or the blue ones or the green ones, I'd have to choose a different color temperature, and they all have different color rendering indexes that may or may not be good for skin. So while this is cheap and free, it's also not as soft as it could be, and it's only in one place, I can't move the light around. So that's a good idea but let's go find someplace dark over there so we can look at some other light sources. Now that we're in a different location, we're gonna work with our next light source, flashlights. Flashlights come in a variety of sizes and colors and the benefits are they're pretty easy to find, their power is cheap, they're reliable, and they throw a pretty good beam, right? Some of them can focus and some cannot. The cons are, you can't really stop motion with them. When you turn it on, there's different ways to turn it on, buttons, switches, ladders, it's not like a flash where it can arrest motion. You can turn it on and sort of sweep it through, which is what we're gonna do in this next scene with Kaitlyn, so I'm gonna use a flashlight to light up Kaitlyn for this exposure, but first I have to change some settings from over there to over here because number one, it's darker, and number two, I'm using a different colored temperature light source. So first thing I'm gonna do is get a high ISO test to see what the exposure is, so I'm going to set my camera to and I'm gonna go for a little bit more depth of field, we were at a four before now and I'm gonna go up to five, six. Let's see, it's looking like a quarter second. Next I have to focus, so I'm gonna put my lights down for a moment. And I'm gonna use my handy tripod light. Kaitlyn, close your eyes so I don't blind you. I'm zooming in. Perfect. Okay, it's safe now. I want you to focus. I'm checking to make sure that's a manual focus, that's great. And I'm just gonna take a picture. It looks great. The histogram tells me that there's a lot of shadow detail, but we're also losing a little bit of highlight detail in the cityscape behind which is something I want to retain, so let me check focus too 'cause that's ultra important. Okay, so if this is a quarter of a second of five, six, we've gotta work our way down to a higher quality exposure, so we'll do it the old fashioned way. One stop, two stop, three stop on the ISO. And on the time, we're gonna increase it from a quarter to a half to a second to two seconds. Now what happens when you do this? Well you can start to pick up more time elements. So I'm gonna take a test shot. Take a look, it's the same exposure except it's two seconds long. Histogram looks the same, fantastic. So now we're gonna test for the other lighting element that we have. We have a moving person. How's she gonna stay still? Well, let's drop the time down a little bit here. Even a second is a long time for somebody to sit still. So I'm going to bring it down to a second. Bring it down to 400. And I want the background to get a little bit darker, because I want the foreground, the model to pop out. Now I have a really nice, well exposed background but almost no light in the foreground. The exposure is going to be one second long. How do I get in place to make sure I can manage this light? Well I'm gonna set my intervalometer to have another five second delay and I'm going to set it to do a one second exposure. How do I do that? Well, from here instead of the camera saying one second, I'm gonna have it say bulb. Now I give it control over the length of the exposure from the camera to the intervalometer, so I can control the length of every exposure from here on out from here instead of there. And then leave ISO and aperture here. You'll learn why it's important as we do this more and more. So, I'm gonna grab a flashlight and I'm gonna go move it into portrait position about 45 degrees over, 45 degrees up just to start with and I'm gonna take a picture and I'd better get there in five seconds, so here we go. Five, four. What we have is a fairly sharp photograph of Kaitlyn. It's very blown out and it has one stripe of light going up her body, which is kinda cool, we've got a dramatic shadow. The background's darker and she pops forward. But it's a little too bright, right? So let's look at the flashlight now. The flashlight zoomed all the way in. So I'm gonna pull the flashlight back so that it's a wider beam of light and we're gonna try it one more time. Five second countdown. Five, four, three, two, one. All right. Let's see how that came out. Gorgeous. Especially nice, soft light. She moved a little bit which of course, who can stand still during a second? But I like it, it's a good portrait light, but we have the disadvantages that I talked about, you can't freeze action with somebody. But we made a pretty good light. If we wanted the exposure to be less, we could bump the ISO up but like to get as low down in ISO as possible, so just for the home audience, let's do that, let's show it one more time, and then we'll move onto a flash. We'll go up an ISO to 800. We'll open up the aperture to four, so we just picked up two stops. What do I do with that information? Well, I'm gonna give control back to this, 'cause this only goes in increments of one second. So half of one second is a half a second, and half of a half a second is a quarter second. Means I gotta have the light on the whole time, I can't sweep it through listening for the shutter to open and close, so I'm gonna count five down, the light will already be on, it'll be a quarter second, which is easier for Kaitlyn to hold. Here we go. And there we have a sharper portrait than before. You can see the differences there. I like that, all right. So now that we've explored flashlights, let's move onto another light source. I've set these aside and we're gonna look at a speed light. Here I have a Nikon SP910. I've set it to manual power. Right now it's set to one to one, which I know is gonna be way too much, but I can now change my ISO down to its highest quality. Remember we did that high ISO test before? Well, now it's gonna come in handy. Now I can go to two seconds at F2. And I can try and sync the flash, which I can do manually, because it's gonna be open for two seconds. I could use wireless triggering, but right now, I don't wanna get that complicated, so let's change the power. We'll start at a quarter power. I'm gonna keep my finger on the test button and I'm gonna go back to the same portrait position with the same five second countdown. Here we go. Lots of light. It'd be good right now if I started using the flash meter. (chuckles) So let's do this, we'll get some more depth of field, we'll bring the aperture up which is a benefit of having flash. Let's bring it up to F8 and see what happens. I'm still at a quarter power of the speed light. Test. So this is beautifully exposed flash exposure and you can see when I zoom in, Kaitlyn's face is crisp, her eyes are brilliant. We go back two pictures to the flashlight pictures and although it's well exposed, you don't see that crispiness, so now we're demonstrating the advantage of having a flash exposure over having a flashlight. Flashlights are generally good for things that don't move. In a pinch you can use it for a person and with some other creative application I'm gonna show you in the next section, but for right now let's all agree that flash is the best place to start to make a portrait because you can freeze action and people look nice and sharp. What else can we do with a flash? We'll explore more of that later. Next thing we're gonna do is say all right, well, not every speed light like this can fill up a nice modifier, right? You need more power sometimes to do that, or, if you wanted to have a really long exposure, let's say longer than two seconds, as I look at this, I say there's some traffic behind her. I'd like to have more depth of field, and I'd like to have that traffic really, really smooth out and show a longer sense of time. So let's work on that and we'll bring in the big guns, the big gun being a battery powered monolight. First I'm gonna work on making a bigger exposure. So I was at ISO 100 which is great. I'm at F8 which is great. Let's go up to 16. How much power and I gonna need? A lot more. We'll turn on our pro photo B1 over here. Got this handy dandy little modeling light. I'm gonna check focus one more time, because I now have something the speed light doesn't have, and that's a modeling light, so I can zoom in, power back and forth and yep, I still have great focus. All right? Slide this transmitter on here. And next thing, we're gonna check out energy. So now I've got a beautifully exposed flash exposure, and I left the modeling light on which is interesting, but we don't need to do that. Great. One other thing that you have, it's a huge benefit of monolights is, well, speed lights have, let's say, this many light shapers. monolights have this many. So you can get giant umbrellas, you can get all sorts of soft boxes that are smoother and larger, you can get better beauty dishes, you can get lots of things that are more favorable to making a portrait. And we'll use some of those later but right now I'm demonstrating just the differences between the light sources. Now this exposure that I got has a really perfect flash exposure with a really tight grid on Kaitlyn's face, but I wanna draw out more of the background. So now I wanna go from this exposure where you have a little bit of flash, which is great on the face, and a little bit of the city lights and really accentuate it and draw out that exposure so we're gonna go from two seconds to one minute. And I'm changing that on my intervalometer here. And I'm not one minute instead of two seconds, but we're gonna see how the ambient light affects falling on here, and Kaitlyn I'm gonna ask you to turn your chin up just a little bit to the light and eyes back here. Chin down a little bit, a little smile. Hold that for five seconds. Perfect. Now stay like that for a whole minute. And while this is happening, other things are also happening. We have cars driving by. They're providing side light and background light. We have cars driving behind her. There might be some cloud movement that's going on. And this is where the magic of night portraiture starts to happen. It's not just some light and a person and a scene, it's a light and a person and a scene in time, which we can't comprehend with our eyes, but the camera recording it all on a single frame compounds it into one frame and it makes something that you just couldn't imagine until it's done. And it's one of the last forms of photography that still has that mystery to it where you don't know what you're gonna get. And I find that very exciting. And now we have four, three, two, one second left. Let's take a look. So we have a nice, sharp flash on Kaitlyn's face. Soft around the edges where the wind blew her hair and she moved. We have the city lights, we have all these cars moving behind her and then the curve is lit up behind the cars that went by and now I think we have a much, much more powerful portrait than we did with any of the previous light sources which is why I prefer to use high powered battery flashes. Just because I prefer it doesn't mean it's right for everyone. So let's tick through the list again. First we started with available light, whatever's near you. Let's say street lights could be something else, could he head lights. We have head lights too. You can't control it but they're free and they have this element of surprise and perhaps color surprises too. Moving up from that, we talked about flashlights. Flashlights are great because they're portable, they come in lots of sizes and lots of colors, but they don't freeze action. Speed lights, speed lights do freeze action, and there are some great light shapers for them, but not the really big, beautiful ones. You might have to add three or four speed lights to get the same power as my favorite one, which is battery powered monolights. When you have that, you have access to all the light shapers that really compliment portraiture and the craft of portraiture, and that's why I think those are best for night portraiture. I hope that you experiment with these and I hope that this helps you set a frame work to start to understand which ones work when, why and how, and when they don't. So, I hope I see you in the field and submit some of your images. Thank you.

Class Description

Learn to capture amazing environmental portraits at night and incorporate a starry landscape or beautiful urban environment with your subjects. Get started in night portraiture by knowing what gear to choose, what to look for in locations and how to use your friends as subjects. Incorporate lights into your night photos and bring life to a long exposure. In this class you’ll learn: How to take self portraits at night without losing any of your background or subject How to choose a light source and add life to long exposures What to get right in camera and how to develop your images further in lightroom How to safely use pyrotechnics to take your portraits to another level  



I learned some techniques in Matt's class, which were helpful, but believe this was for the advanced photographer and i was a little confused at times. i would've liked to know the "how to" with the lights, showing how to program them with more detail. I am just learning how to set my camera for different lighting situations. But a very interesting course and glad i went through it.


Great class! Liked it so much that I booked a trip to Colorado to work with Matt and Lance on one of their National Parks at Night classes. Highly recommend.

Peter Mackenzie

I don't understand the negative reviews. This class feels less hands-on than the other classes in the series, but the information is useful and makes sense. You also need to understand that all classes out of the night photography series will cover the basics in one way or another, so there is some repetition. Whichever class out of the night photography series you view last will feel like it has more repetition, especially if you have some skills before taking those classes. Just skip the intro and move on to the tricks Matt has to share.