A Little On Lighting & More Cell Phone Camera Help

This is going to be a basic introduction to outdoor lighting, and about a few things we’ve covered but with different examples.  The subject is an adorable young girl, leaning against a brick wall, with outdoor lighting (flash turned off) -all shot with a cell phone camera.

First, let’s talk a little about natural lighting.  Outside, there are four ideal lighting situations:

1. Sunrise (including up to one hour after)

2. Sunset (including up to one hour before)

3. A heavily clouded day (like it’s going to rain)

4. In the shade (like under some trees or under a covered deck)

Sunrise and sunset are ideal lighting conditions because they produce a warm -toned light that usually doesn’t cause your subject to squint their eyes.  The biggest problem with them is that they are short in duration and one in particular (sunrise), is not a pleasant time to try and get your kids up and about.

A heavily clouded day is great because it produces even, soft lighting (soft means no harsh shadows under the eyes) and it’s usually available all day long.  When I say “heavily clouded,” I don’t mean a black clouded thunderstorm type of day, but rather one of those days where the entire sky is white to light gray.   One of the best things about this type of lighting is that no matter where you position your subject or your camera, the lighting is going to be great.  This happens to be the weather we had when I took the images for this post.

Shade can work well, but it can also be problematic.  Even though your subject is in the shade, if the direction they are looking (towards you and the camera) is in bright sunshine, you can still end up with squinting eyes and complaining children.

The worst lighting of all is direct sunlight (unless it’s sunrise/sunset).  It produces very harsh shadows, creates overexposed skin (faces full of reflected shine), and very unhappy kids, often times crying before you finally give up.

Although there is much to discuss about lighting, these are the basics of using natural light.  It’s good info that you can put to use today.  We’ll hit upon other areas as we address specific subjects in future post, and of coarse, I’ll provide much more in my book.

Here’s a shot I took on an overcast day at about 3 in the afternoon:


Now, before you start questioning my abilities, let me admit there are a number of things wrong with this image…that’s why we’re starting with it.  Overall, it’s not terrible and most Moms would be happy to have it in their scrapbook. (Remember…we’re supposed to print our images), but let’s look at what needs to be fixed to make it better.

1. It’s flat.  That means the image has little to no contrast, which translates to little to no life.  The reason is that even though the sun was not out, the white cloudy day you can see in the background produced lens glare on the camera.  Lens glare sucks the life out of any shot!  I needed to have produced some shading (like with my cupped hand) over the lens.

2. The perspective is terrible (my angle of view).  That’s because I shot this image while holding my phone up at the same level as my own face and I’m about a foot taller than she is.  This made her head appear slightly larger than it is, in relation to her body.  It also made her body seem unusually small.  Specifically, her legs and feet look small.  I know there are some girls out there who would love to have their legs and feet look smaller, but not at the sacrifice of a giant head (I’m exaggerating, but you get the idea).  Another perspective problem is the background.  Everything has a slant to it, especially the large window behind her.  All of this is easily corrected by bending your knees and getting the camera at about the same level as her body’s center (the stomach).  This puts the camera lens on a flat plane with the subject, neither tilted up nor down.  That’s always important, but critical for a very small lens camera, like we have on cell phones.

Here’s a better version of the same general shot:


Much better!  I cupped my hand over the phone, eliminating lens glare and increasing contrast.  Now we have some life in the picture!  By lowering my camera angle, everything is properly proportioned (see, she doesn’t have big feet; now they look normal), and all of my vertical lines around her are much more straight.  I also cropped the image a little to get her out of the center of the shot, as well as not taking up half the image with the brick wall.

But I’m not done yet…


This is the exact same shot we just reviewed, but I spent about 5 minutes editing it – on my phone.  The only time this image was on my computer was to upload it to the blog.  For this one, I used two different apps, Snapseed (free) and Photoshop Touch For The Phone (maybe $2 or $3).  About 95% of what I did was accomplished in Snapseed.  That included things like contrast and saturation adjustments, an overall warming tone, as well as something they call ambiance (I have no idea what this is, but it looks good).  In Photoshop Touch For The Phone, I added some selective blurring (to put your focus on the girl) and I got rid of the metal pipes on the wall behind her, as well as added a cloudy blue sky (from another photo I had).  The Snapseed edits took 2 or 3 minutes and the Photoshop edits took another 1 or 2.  Now we no longer have a cute snapshot, but a great portrait…all accomplished with your mobile phone camera!

These photo editing apps are not difficult to use, though they can be intimidating if you’ve never messed with them.  I can tell you that anyone is capable of doing what I did here.  While a step-by-step written set of directions would seem long and complicated, I’m going to create a few videos of me actually doing them on my phone for my book.

That’s it for now…go take some pictures, and don’t be bashful about asking me any specific questions you might have.

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