How to shoot portraits outdoors with a DIY dappled natural light background

Nov 18, 2021

Jake Hicks

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How to shoot portraits outdoors with a DIY dappled natural light background

Nov 18, 2021

Jake Hicks

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

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I’ve posted a few natural light setups and techniques recently and although this setup isn’t as tricky or as involved to achieve as those, this is a nice little idea to play with if the occasion arrises. The good news is, you barely need any kit to make this work and truth be told, I was actually packing away my lighting gear when I saw this natural light pattern form on my scrim after a shoot. I quickly asked the model back and decided to grab a few frames as the naturally formed dappled light background looked amazing. Here’s how to get the same look yourself…

Note: This article is not one of my normal, overly-drawn out and detailed lighting setup articles *(audible collective sigh of relief can be heard from the community)* due to the originally scheduled article for today containing a lighting modifier that is now sold out. And although it makes no difference to me whether the aforementioned modifier is purchased or not, I did think it was a little annoying to read an article for an item you couldn’t purchase if you wanted to. When the modifier is back in stock, I’ll post the article, but until then, here’s a quick and easy lighting setup to play with next time the sun comes out.

The natural light background created in-camera here, looks an awful lot like a cloudy day, when in fact it’s not created by clouds at all…

What do you need?

  • A white sheet or bounce board
  • Another thin white sheet or scrim

Yeah, that’s honestly all you need, so to all those people who moan that I only post articles for people with a full studios worth of kit, this little setup is for you guys.

…additional Kit

  • Bright, sunny day

Sorry, there was one more item I forgot to mention and that’s the sun. Sadly this last item will prevent most of us Brits from pulling this setup off for 51 weeks of the year, but if you get lucky and the sun does indeed come out, this is a very quick and easy look to achieve.

The setup

The setup itself involves you placing one white sheet or bounce-board behind you and then you place the other thin sheet or scrim behind the model. To be clear, yes I am using a purpose-built scrim here, but a single cotton sheet will do just as well for the look we’re after. When positioning the two sheets, be sure to also position your model with the sun behind them.

Lastly, try to set the whole thing up in front of some bushes or trees to get the desired dappled light effect on the scrim behind your subject. Take a look at the diagram below to see what I mean.

The setup works as the hard sunlight shines through the trees behind the subject and essentially projects the dappled light and shadows onto the white sheet behind them, resulting in this beautiful pattern on the background.

The same sunlight is also so strong that it hits the white sheet behind you and bounces back onto the model which in turn bathes them in this beautifully soft light as well. Effectively you’re getting two lights in one here as the same light is illuminating the background as well as the model too.

The Final Look

There are some clear benefits to this look and firstly, of course, is its ease of implementation. Sure, you need the sun to be out, but if you live in a region where the sun isn’t revered like a mythical creature like it is here in England, this isn’t too much to ask for.

Secondly, the look this light gives to the model is extremely flattering as the bounced sunlight hitting the sheet behind you and illuminating the model is extremely soft. Plus, when the model is stood close to the scrim sheet behind her, a little light bleeds through and delicately lights the edges of her face and body to further add dimension to the body too. Look again at the images here if you missed it at first glance. See how the edges of her body and jacket are highlighted?

Lastly, I was particularly impressed by how the dappled light effect on the background actually looked like clouds on a sunny day behind her. This is of course just an illusion thanks to the dappled light from the trees behind, but its an interesting way to achieve this effect if that’s what you’re after.

Closing comments

Ultimately this is a very easy setup to achieve as long as the sun is out. There are a couple of things I want to mention though that are worth bearing mind when setting this up.

Colour contamination

Be mindful of your surroundings when doing this and by that I mean be aware of what the sun is actually bouncing off around you. Sure it will bounce off the white sheet behind you and light the subject beautifully, but the sun is also bouncing off of everything too. In these shots I had a red-brick building to my right and as a result I was getting a red cast on the right of the model (her left). I reduced it in post so its not too visible here now, but its certainly worth being aware of it. I talk more on how to avoid that colour contamination in my pervious article here Lighting Setup: Modifying the Sun for Natural Light Portraits. The article linked here is what I was originally shooting and only noticed the dappled light on my scrim when I was packing all of that kit away.

Adjusting the amount of dappling

One other thing to play with is adjusting the amount of dappling you get on the background behind your subject. I liked the blurred and out of focus dappling I was getting on my background, but you can choose to make it sharper or more blurred depending on how close you position your setup to the trees and foliage behind you. Placing your setup quite close to the trees will result in very blurred mottling and puling the setup further away will get you sharper dappling effects. Just something to play or at the very least be aware of if you’re not getting the desired effect when you try it yourself.

Good luck and have fun playing with this one. Be patient though, as the scriptures have foretold the return of the sun in due course, let’s just hope we can remember where this article was when that great day does indeed come to pass. ‘Praise the sun’ ?

Featured model: Annabelle Strutt

Thank You

As always, thanks for checking out this article and spending a little bit of your day with me here. I hope you found it useful and if you left with a little more knowledge than when you arrived, it’s been worth it.

If you have any questions or comments, or if something doesn’t make sense, by all means, fire away in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer what I can. Thanks again and I’ll see you in the next one.

About the Author

Jake Hicks is an editorial and fashion photographer who specializes in keeping the skill in the camera, not just on the screen. For more of his work and tutorials, check out his website. Don’t forget to like his Facebook page and follow him on Instagram, too. You can also sign up for the Jake Hicks Photography newsletter to receive Jake’s free Top Ten Studio Lighting Tips and Techniques PDF and be sure to download his free 50-page studio lighting book. This article was also published here and shared with permission.

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