Available Light for Street Portrait Shooting

When shooting on the street, I prefer to deal with available light, mainly for simplicity and easy execution. As abundantly available as the sun light, it is still very crucial to take into considerations lighting aspects in a photograph. The quality of direction and quality of light can significantly affect the outcome of any photographs, and this is especially true for portrait or people photos. It always pays at the end of the day if extra effort and attention were placed in making sure the lighting was right in the first place. It is true that there is not much that can be done about available light, not much control can be done, but if you watch closely how the light hits the subject, how best to position your subject (if you can) and from which angle and side to shoot from to bring the best out of the given light, the results can be rewarding. 


To most people, even lighting can be very boring and flat, appearing mundane especially on portraits. As usual I always go against the norm, and to me even lighting is possibly the easiest to achieve, and you can rarely go wrong with this kind of lighting on people photos. To accomplish this, the best way to shoot is to have the people stand underneath heavy shade. This is the safe approach, and the default for most of my street shooting, as I avoid shooting my subjects directly under the sun. The subject's facial skin tone usually will come out very pleasant, smooth and portraits appearing flattering in this light. The bonus point of shooting subjects under shade besides even light, is the more natural expression, usually because they do not have to squint their eyes under harsh sun. You also can avoid highlight burns such as shiny nose or oily skin. I use even light mostly to emphasize the sense of warmth and friendliness, which I portray a lot in my street portraits of strangers all this time. If the original image appear too flat, a little bit of contrast can be added to boost the depth of the image in post-processing. 


Photography rules always advice against shooting against the light, or having backlit condition. It is easy to understand why, the difficulty to balance the exposure, as you get very bright background and dark foreground subject, which can result in very imbalanced image. Nevertheless, this kind of lighting condition may work for subjects that do not require very "balanced" output. Furthermore, not all photographs have to look balanced, as tension is also a very effective way to create interesting photographs. It depends on how the execution is done, too much tension may not be good, and it is up to the photographer to decide how much tension and imbalance he decides to induce in his photograph. I would say in a presentation of a series of images, a little bit of tension can add a lot of dimension and depth to the whole story. Shooting backlight subjects can result in very three-dimensional look, especially if the bright background can help accentuate the subjects, giving it a glowing edge or "halo", which I often find very attractive. Of course it also helps if you do not shoot directly against the light, by placing your subject slightly to the side, you will see different effects being accomplished. 


One of the light that I always look for, but find myself difficult to get is side, directional  lighting. This is the kind of light that will create a lot of depth, adding very crucial contrast to the image, by highlighting one side of the subject and casting shadow on the other side of subjects. Many photographers will tell you to avoid harsh highlights and heavy shadows in your photos. I actually do not abide by that rule. To me, I am perfectly ok with having highlights and shadow clippings in my photos, but I do watch very closely where the highlight and shadow fall on my main subject. They should not be distracting and do not take away the most important focus of the frame. The strategically placed highlight and shadow clipping can create a very dramatic photograph, and this is actually not easy to do! To have a successfully executed side lighting portraits, there are only a short window of opportunity (at least for tropical country) and shooting in early morning or late afternoon only can make this happen. By far this is my favourite, though they do not happen as frequently as I like. 


It is difficult to find a condition when it is purely side light, or directly under shade, or having no light coming from behind. In this blog entry, for most photos, it is a mixture of 2 or more kind of lighting effect. In pursuit of more interesting outcome, I always find myself looking for side lighting, but I cannot prevent the light coming from all other directions as well (unless it is a studio setup), and often you find more light coming from the back, having a slight backlit condition, which is not a bad thing actually. The most important thing is to judge the lighting condition on the spot, see how the light falls onto the face. 

When you shoot out on the street do you have any special way of looking at the light, or any techniques to make street portraits shine? Do share your methods and thoughts!


  1. Heh. Gotta admit, the light was really good today.

  2. Hi Robin, what camera and lenses did you use for these fantastic pictures?

    1. Sebastiano,
      It was OM-D E-M5, and mixture of 45mm F1.8, 75mm F1.8 and 17mm F1.8 lenses.

  3. Robin, Great tutorial. Thank you. What are your thoughts on the "best" metering mode for these kind of shots?

    Best, Peter

    1. Hey Peter,
      I used Multi-Pattern for this set, usually I set to center-weighted though. It does not matter really, because I judge my exposure as I see the live preview through the electronic viewfinder, and if it appears underexposed or overexposed (with tricky lighting) I will just dial the exposure compensation dial accordingly.

  4. Hey Robin,

    Nice shots, as usual.

    One thing that interests me about your photography is the way you process your black-and-white photos. I think they have a very nice look to them. Have you done any blogs on post-processing? I, for one, would be interested to know how you process your B&W pics.

    Sorry I haven't posted for a while - I have been in Africa for the past three months and have only just returned to Malaysia (living in Ipoh now).

    I'm glad to see you're working for Olympus - that must be almost like a dream job for you.

    Hope all is well.
    Good cheer,

    1. Hey Scott!
      I did blog about my black and white processing. you can read it here: http://robinwong.blogspot.com/2012/06/my-custom-black-and-white-processing.html

  5. Hey Robin, nice pics as usual - btw do you ever buy any of your groceries while you're out and about in Pudu?

    1. Hey David,
      I did not! Usually I would just have empty hands so that I can fully control the camera.

  6. I've always liked your photography for a number of reasons - one of which is the fact that you look for the light; meter for the subject and "to heck with the highlights". Far too often I see and hear about the "exposing for the highlights" mantra, predictably resulting in flat, boring or even underexposed shots. Which of course then requires many (lost) hours fumbling around in photoshop and post-processing. I believe in getting it right in-camera: expose for the subject and I think that's what you do as well, as much as possible.

    I tend to use fill-in flash a lot in street or reportage photography (which I think you don't do so much, except perhaps for macro work) even in full daylight, and also in shaded environments. Fill-in flash is easy with today's almost perfect automation, but even without automation it's easy - just keep it a stop-and-a-half under the ambient. I like the extra "pop" it gives to the pictures, and the better skin tones it gives me under difficult light. It also prevents harsh shadows in portraits during strong daylight.

  7. My favorite is the subject under an overhang with indirect light outside it, hello giant directional softbox! http://www.flickr.com/photos/misterzach83/9836394775/ is an example :)

  8. this helps me so much in my photography career, thanks!
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