5 Tips to get great light for outdoor portraits

Aug 3, 2016

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

5 Tips to get great light for outdoor portraits

Aug 3, 2016

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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Shooting outside in bright sunlight scares many photographers. I always see people saying to not go out and shoot portraits when the sun’s high in the sky. To wait until golden hour and shoot in the sunset, or only go out on a cloudy day.

Well, I think that’s nonsense. There’s so much you can do with bright contrasty sunlight. In this video from Shutterbug Magazine, photographer James Patrick shows us five great tips for working with it.

YouTube video

Sometimes, you just can’t find open shade, or you’re in a rush and just need to get something shot quickly. If you’ve thought about having a go at outdoor portraits, give some of these tricks a try.

1. Backlight your subject

1_backlight

Backlighting your subject with the sun is the easiest option if you want to pack ultra light. All you need is your camera and a lens. With the sun behind your subject, all that comes from the front is the soft ambient glow from the environment.

This is a technique that I find a little hit and miss depending on the circumstances, though. Exposing for your subject can blow out the background completely if there’s not enough ambient hitting your subject. When I’m shooting film, it’s not a problem because negative film has great power to hold highlight detail. With digital, though, the highlights can become easily lost.

2. Use a 5-in-1 reflector

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5-in-1 reflectors give us a lot of options when shooting in bright sun. Bouncing light back to the shadow side of our subject allows us to overcome the problem mentioned above. If our subject is brighter, we can tone down the exposure and pull back those highlight details.

Silver produces a kind of harsh light with a very bright hotspot. Gold gives a similar look, but with a much warmer colour of light. Using the white side of the reflector gives a much softer and more subtle tone to our subject. There’s no right or wrong, just use the side which gives the look you want.

3. Strobe with a Beauty Dish

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Adding a strobe gives us a greater amount of control over the light. With flash, we can easily set the position of the light source. We can also control its size via the use of modifiers. One popular modifier in the studio is the beauty dish, but you can also take them out on location.

If you want to use a studio strobe on location, you’ll need some kind of battery pack. You can, however, also use this technique with speedlights. Speedlights may have a tough time keeping up on the very brightest days, though.

4. Strobe with a Softbox

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Softboxes are another studio favourite, and something I often use on location. Softboxes will produce the same soft light on location that they do in the studio. You might need pretty powerful lights with a large one, though, if you want to overpower the sun.

James says he prefers the octabox because of the round shaped catchlight it gives in the eyes. I often use a 4ft octabox myself, but I also use 2x2ft square softboxes with speedlights, too.

5. Add Neutral Density to your lens

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Adding neutral density to your lens allows you to shoot wide apertures for a shallower depth of field. With the number of flash units today supporting high speed sync, this isn’t as big an issue as it once was. There are, however, many flash units out there that require you to be under your camera’s sync speed. Neutral density lets you do that.

Depending on how much neutral density you need to add, you may find it tricky to see through the viewfinder. In such cases, you can switch to liveview, or shoot high speed sync if your equipment supports it. Personally, I find high speed sync to be a much less troublesome way to work.

I have two location shoots coming up this weekend. You can bet I’ll be using reflectors and flash at both. One modifier I’m particularly looking forward to trying out on location is the RoundFlash Ring. It’s amazing in the studio, but we haven’t had enough good weather for me to take it outdoors until now.

What other location lighting tricks can you offer for shooting in bright sunlight? What’s your favourite flash modifier on location? Or do you avoid outdoor portraits completely? Let us know in the comments.

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John Aldred

John Aldred

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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One response to “5 Tips to get great light for outdoor portraits”

  1. Ql Omar Avatar
    Ql Omar

    How sad is to watch people whose sell themselves as illumination experts and they use the lightdish and other light sources in the worst position possible.