Seeing the light: tips for the portrait iPhoneographer

Do you ever wonder why some photos look so great? It’s not just about the composition of a photo, although that certainly has a lot to do with it. Why does that portrait you’re looking at have that extra something, that sparkle? I’ll let you on in a little secret — it’s the lighting!

Lighting is a very important aspect of photography and is often overlooked. Lighting is what makes a photo come alive and feel three dimensional. It makes or breaks a photo. In mobile photography it is especially important as the quality of the photo will be dramatically affected in poor light. Personally, I do not like to use the flash on the iPhone as I don’t like the quality it produces. You are more prone to getting “red eye” in your photos as the flash on the iPhone is directional in that it can’t be bounced off a ceiling or wall to make it less harsh. My favourite type of light and what I prefer to rely on is the natural light that is around us and more specifically, open shade for outdoor photos and window light for indoor photos.

Open shade from the sky all around and directly in front of the subject, on the porch


Open shade is light that is not direct and it is soft. It is easily found in the shadow of a large building, under leafy trees, on a porch, in a garage or on a cloudy day…anywhere where you are not directly in sunlight. Simply, it shields your subjects from direct sun. One way to find it is to stand on a veranda for example and ask your subject to turn slowly (a full 360 degrees) as you look into their eyes and watch the light change. No, this is not some scene from a romance movie, you’re looking for that little sparkle…in their eyes. That sparkle is called a catchlight and is produced by the light source such as the sky or a window if you are indoors. Catchlights are the reflection of the light in the eyes and can range in size.  It is the sparkle that you are searching for. You will notice the best light comes when your subject is facing the light source (open sky).

Open Shade from the open sky behind me, subject is  on the side of a building

One note of caution, if you are under trees, the lighting can change quickly and you need to beware of dappled light. While you may be in open shade for the most part, some dappled light could come through and affect the outcome, making the portrait less desirable.

Sometimes, the light may fall short (not reaching the subject fully) so you can position the subject or wait for your subject to be closer to the edge of a porch, the trees etc. If your subject is wearing a hat, you may want to try and get them to look up a bit more or wait until they do (depending on the age of your subject). Notice the catchlights in the eyes on the portraits displayed here.

Window light is my favourite indoor natural light. You can use the window the same way you’d use the open sky when outdoors, with the window right in front of the subject and at the back of the photographer. Another way to use window light for a more dramatic affect is to have the window on one side of your subject. The side of the subject that is away from the window will be darker and thus more dramatic and moody. It’s a great type of light for portraiture. Again, have your subject move slowly so you can see how the light appears in their eyes as to find that sparkle. The window light changes significantly in varying degrees. You don’t need to worry about the exact angle, just see how it falls when your subject moves and what you prefer. If the light source is at a 90 degree angle to the subject you will find a very dramatic look, at a 45 degree angle you will find a softer feel.

Pay attention to how the light falls in your home over a day or two. Natural light is constantly changing so look at it at different times of the day. That way, when the opportunity comes to catch that perfect moment, you will know how to deal with it. As a photographer, I see the light very differently. If I see the light is particularly beautiful in one area of the home or outdoors, I will wait patiently for the right moment when my subject(s) enter that area.

Window light from in front of my son. This was taken inside our car.


Hopefully this gives you a bit more insight into two types of natural light. Caution, you may find yourself seeing catchlights everywhere.

Until next time,

Andrea… and my wandering iPhone



  1. Bags and Accessories October 14, 2012 at 10:52 am

    Thank You for this post and keep up the good work. Cheers!

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