During our recent trip up to Far North Queensland our Akademie group had the opportunity to shoot some careful portraits at Mossman Gorge of a local Kuku Yalanji man, our guide for the day, Skip. He was extremely patient with us, giving our group the chance to shoot for over an hour so we could get a wide range of angles, backgrounds, and most importantly, different qualities of light.

The key to these kinds of portraits is being aware of what the light is doing. In this case the sun had not yet risen over the hills either side of the river so the only illumination was the bright sky directly over the river. Sunlight would have been almost impossible to shoot in.

We were under some trees next to the river so the main light source was a large patch of sky high and to the right, plus a smaller patch of bright sky to the far left as we looked at the river. Being big and bright this upper right patch of sky was our soft ‘key light’ so all we had to do was orient our subject accordingly – you can clearly see the light cast by this source in the following photo:

Once the light direction and quality is assessed – you can do this by looking at how shadows fall on your outstretched hand are you move around – the next most important decision is the background. In this case the dark green foliage of the far bank made the subject stand out nicely, but you still have to watch for odd lines (trees) intersecting with the subject.

Then it’s a case of directing your subject into a position and pose that looks right. One thing to watch out for, the catch light in the eyes is often critical. It makes eyes look alive and so the best orientation of Skip was looking slight to camera-right so that the high light source passed across his face and just glinted in his eyes.

This last image (below) reverses the situation and goes for a rim-lit look, bringing out Skips profile and making the background go very dark. Be careful not to over expose the overall image – just the highlights are needed.

Remember, we didn’t control the light in any of these shots – it’s all about placement of the subject relative to the light source.

All these images were shot on a Leica CL with the 35mm Summilux lens at f1.4.