When I say I want to photograph someone, what it really means is that I’d like to know them. Anyone I know I photograph. – Annie Leibovitz
Painters have known for centuries the benefits of a soft, natural light and how to achieve such without needing special equipment. While not appropriate for action shots perhaps, portraits benefit from the softest light we can give them. Photoshop hasn’t been around forever you know, but natural light at its softest works a magic that makeup and software could never achieve so accurately. Look at today’s photo, for example, and notice how soft the complexion is. Did we airbrush her skin in any way? No. First, her skin was quite healthy from the outset. But then, the gentleness of natural light diffused through lead glass at just the right time of day worked a magic that makes any thought of post-process manipulation preposterous.
Good photographers often struggle with finding just the right light for portraits. One needs shadows to help define features, so a light that is too bright or all-encompassing doesn’t work. Yet, too much shadow, or shadow from the wrong direction, can distort features, make a face look harsh and more angled than it naturally is. Light coming in at too high an angle can have the appearance of re-shaping features and is especially tough on noses or anyone with bags under their eyes. Good, soft light rarely just falls onto a photographer’s set. Even chasing that mythical “golden hour” is no promise of good light.
Many different materials diffuse lights at different rates, giving one a lot of choices to get just the right light for just the right portrait. My personal preference is for white cotton, but that doesn’t work as well if the sunlight is not directly positioned at the material. I’ve also gotten wonderful results inside an old taupe canvas army tent, surprisingly enough, and almost always carry a commercial diffuser as part of my reflector kit. Of course, clouds are a natural diffuser and at times can be the perfect answer to a challenging portrait, but they also tend to reduce or eliminate shadows as well as muting color. Other natural diffusers, such as tree leaves, might work depending on the type of leaf, but can also give a green tint to the warm light.
Ultimately, we want a soft light on our subject, though, because it makes them appear approachable, friendly, even kind. Portraits captured in softest light can have that same effect as moonlight did when Romeo saw Juliet, bringing out the natural beauty in a subject. A portrait has done its best when it causes one to feel that someone we don’t know, somehow, has become our best friend. Even Shakespeare couldn’t do better.