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Dealing with Shadows in Portraits

written by: Misty Faucheux•edited by: William Springer•updated: 7/9/2011

Your portrait looks great, except for that harsh shadow right on the face. So, now you are wondering what you can do to fix this problem? You can always remove the shadows with software program. Or, you can learn to take portrait photographs without any shadows.

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    Shadows in Portraits

    In portraits, you want to show off your subject in the best light. Shadows on especially on the face create harsh lines, which are often very unflattering to your subject. You have to get rid of the shadows, or your client may not be very happy with you.

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    Inside Lighting

    You are then left with a dilemma: how to remove shadows in portrait photography. The easiest way to get of shadows is not to create them in the first place. Most portraits are done in studios where you can control the lighting. If you want to take a photograph without harsh shadows, illuminate your subjects face with front, side and perhaps even overhead lighting.

    If this lighting is too harsh, try diffused lighting. Use different types of light modifiers like umbrellas or softboxes to create the diffused, soft lightingPortrait .

    If you don’t have a diffuser, simply set up your lighting, and then throw a light piece of cloth over it. The light will come through the fabric, but it will be softer than standard lighting. Make sure that the person is not standing too close to the wall, which can often increase shadows.

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    Outside Lighting

    Outside shots are a little harder. You can’t control the sun, but you can control the time of day that you Dev Portrait take your portrait shots. Early morning and late afternoon are great times to take outside portrait shots. The sun isn’t directly overhead so that light isn’t overly intense.

    You can also take photographs on cloudy days or under large trees since the light in these shots are naturally diffused. If you do have to take portrait photographs during the middle of the day, consider setting up some lighting around your subject similar to how you would have the light set up in a studio. Experiment with your flash. While it is the middle of the day, you may still need your flash to get rid of harsh shadows.

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    Removing Shadows

    What do you do, however, if you have already taken your shots? Well, you then need to use software programs to clean up the image. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of adding a type of auto-correct to the image, which adjusts both the highlights and the shadows. If the shadows are extremely harsh, however, you really need to do some manual labor with your images.

    One of the best known programs on the market is Photoshop. One of the major benefits of this program is that you can create layer masks. Layer masks adjust your image, but it doesn’t actually change the original image. If you don’t like the way a layer mask looks, you can simply delete the layer.

    To correct shadows on a portrait image, you can adjust the curves if you are experienced with this effect. Curves allow you to tweak both shadows and highlights. Just move the curve in one or another direction to adjust your image. Curves require some advanced knowledge, but you can often still get the effect that you want through some trial and error.

    Another method of fixing your image is with shadow highlight, which does pretty much what it implies. It lightens the shadows. To use this method, follow the below steps:

    1. Click on Image and then Adjustment.
    2. Select Shadow Highlight from this menu.
    3. A popup box will appear with amount sliders. Adjust both the tones and shadows with the amount sliders until the shadow isn’t as prominent.
    4. Hit Alt + the mask icon, which is located at the base of the Layer pallet. A black mask will appear, which effectively covers up the adjustment that you just made.
    5. Select a brush and the color white.
    6. Paint over the black mask. This brings up the shadow and the adjustment that you just performed.
    7. Add a Gaussian Blur to the mask. This filter is located in the Filters menu.
    8. Adjust the mask as often as you need until the image looks correct.

    You can also remove the shadow by using a screen. You must create a duplicate layer, and make that layer a screen. You can do this by changing the layer mode. Now, select Alt + the mask icon. Then paint over the mask with a white brush.

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    Get Your Shots Right

    These are just some examples of how to remove shadows in portrait photography. You can use other programs to accomplish this task, including free programs like GIMP or online programs like Photobucket.

    It’s best, however, to always try to take your photographs without the shadows. Experiment with lighting if you are unsure how the image will turn out. You should also always take lots of photographs. Ten portrait photographs may have shadow issues, but then there may be one that is just perfect.

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