In the last year or so, I’ve started to work with LED lighting more and more, and for good reason. The LEDs that I use have about 16 million different colours, they have a fully adjustable Kelvin spectrum, they’re incredibly simple to use with their what-you-see-is-what-you-get ambient light, and they can even flash as well if I ever need it. I am, of course, talking about my Rotolight LED lights.
For those that aren’t aware, I’m currently a ‘Master of Light’ for Rotolight. This just means that I’m trusted enough by them to showcase what these awesome new LED lights can do, and although I’ll happily sing the praises of these lights, there is always one question that people still ask me, ‘Are they strong enough to overpower the sun?’
I’m guessing this question is just poorly worded because no, no light can do that, but if you’re wondering whether you can use these Rotolights outside in conjunction with natural light, then yes, yes, you can definitely do that.
The lighting setup itself is simple, just go outside and set up one light as your key light on your model and then let the natural light be your fill light. This is about as easy as it gets, so there’s no need to stress about that setup, and you can give it a go first before you try adding a little creative and colourful flare to it.
To add a little visual interest to that basic principle, I wanted to bring in some extra colour to the shot. For those already familiar with my work, you’ll likely know that I’m very guilty of dominating and overpowering the subject with bold and beautiful colours. This time, however, I wanted to avoid that, so instead, I opted for a more natural and subtle colour effect.
The job was to get some clean portraits for a lady who needed some updated shots to use with her new business. Once I got those, I got some more editorial-looking shots too, but more on those later.
TL;DR/ADHD/Artist Setup Explanation
Setup arty backdrop outside
Seat model and position large scrim between model and sun
Position key-light close to model with a Kelvin value of 3000K
Expose sunlight to be a stop darker than key-light and camera settings, then set camera to 3000K
I opted to have the model sit down outside in natural light, where I then added a studio backdrop as well as an additional light. Getting your subject sat down for portraits is a cheat code for natural-looking shots, as it’s far easier for someone to look and feel natural sat down in a specific spot over trying to stand naturally. Plus, having them seated makes your life of setting up far easier.
You know they won’t be moving about and drifting in and out of the perfect light, so this is a win-win for all involved. Plus, in my opinion, it’s just easier to get better-composed shots of a sat subject with a 3:2 crop over the awkward amount of space with full-body shots. A high stool is perfect for posture and framing, and I just bought a cheap one and painted it myself like you see here.
Concerns with Daylight
I’ve been a studio shooter for over 20 years, and one of the best things about that studio life is the ability to always have complete control of your lighting. Daylight is far from compliant, and if you’re lucky enough to get a day where it isn’t raining, you still need to worry about the huge variance in contrast from direct sunlight compared to the soft contrast of clouds passing in front of the sun at any time.
With this in mind, I just always use a scrim outdoors to shield the subject from direct and harsh sunlight. That way, the lighting is consistent the whole time and although the exposure may go up and down a little, the contrast on the model is always consistent.
The scrim I use is a purpose-built frame and scrim, but you could use any diffusion material in front of your subject to control the light properly, and even a white cotton sheet strung between two light stands will let enough light through to make this work in a pinch. As I said, I use a proper one all the time in the studio and the frame and stand it comes with just makes life a lot easier.
For this shoot, I simply rolled the scrim outside and positioned it between the model and the sun. Job done.
The Key Light
The next most important thing we need to do, is bring in the key light. As I mentioned, this will be the main light illuminating the subject’s face and top half, so I brought it in close and raised it up to allow the light to fall down the body.
As you can see from the BTS and setup shots above, this is pretty simple in practice, and if you just wanted to try this setup of adding a key light to work with natural light, this is a great way to go about it. But what if you wanted to take it further?
A technique that I like to play with a lot when looking to generate interesting colours in the shot without overpowering the subject is Kelvin adjustments. If you’re unfamiliar with what this is, Kelvin is just the colour range often associated with white balance. For many, switching the camera to AWB (auto white balance) is enough to get the camera to take some ‘correct’ looking images, but what is white balance, and how can we leverage Kelvin to make more interesting photos?
Sidebar: I often get asked about my workflow. I’m known for having a very bright and colourful photographic style, so the question often comes up, ‘What’s your workflow to ensure you always achieve accurate colours?’ From here, the line of questioning usually follows up with, ‘Do you use a grey card on every shoot?’, and ‘What colour-checker do you use?’ or ‘How often do you calibrate your monitor?’. I’m not undermining the importance of these aspects in your photography if they work for you, but I never do any of those things.
For me and my work, I’m interested in creative colour, not accurate colour. I want my images to say something, not just photocopy them. Yes, you can check the Kelvin value of the sun on any given day to ensure that your key light is exactly the same colour, and then you can set your camera to the same Kelvin as both of them, but again, I’m not interested in a photocopy of the scene. Personally, I’d like to add a little visual interest to the shot and one of the easiest ways to do that is to tweak the Kelvin values involved.
If you’re not familiar with what the Kelvin scale looks like, here’s an example below of how it relates to photography.
You can see from the images above that daylight is around 5000K to 6000K. Flash is a similar value, but incandescent lights, like the old tungsten bulbs, are far warmer at around 3000K.
We can balance out these fluctuations in colour with our camera, but instead, I’ll be using the variances for creative effect.
Breaking it Down
As I mentioned, daylight is around 5000K, so if I was to take a ‘correct’ image of something lit with daylight, I’d set my camera to a similar 5000K. If I was to set my camera to 10,000K, however, the same shot would look very orange. Alternatively, if I was to set my camera to 3000K, the same image would look very blue. See below.
With this knowledge then, how can we manipulate that for creative effect?
Rotolights Kelvin Control
One feature of the Rotolights that I love, is their complete and fully adjustable Kelvin range. As you may well imagine, this Kelvin range is easily adjustable via the lights’ touchscreens.
It’s with this knowledge and the adjustable Kelvin range of the Rotolights that I was able to create these shots.
Camera – Nikon D850
Lens – 24-70mm f2.8
Shutter Speed – 1/400th
Aperture – f2.8
ISO – 30
Kelvin – 3000K
Focal Length – 70mm
I’ve explained the settings, and I’ve explained where everything is positioned and the Kelvin’s they need to be, but what do we need to bear in mind whilst shooting? One big tip here is to underexpose the daylight by about 1 stop. We should probably aim to do this first as this is the one light we cannot control, and my golden rule for any shoot is to always adjust your settings around that one light you cannot control.
To do this, I took a few shots and adjusted my camera by eye, and you can see that the sun was pretty bright as I was shooting at 1/400th of a second at ISO 30. Again, remember that I want the sun (fill-light) to be a little darker than my key light. Many of you may not have ISO 30 on your camera (it may read ‘Lo 1.0’), so alternatively, you can increase your shutter speed instead. For example, ISO 30 is roughly 2 stops darker than ISO 100, so if your camera only goes to ISO 100, you’d need to increase the shutter speed 2 stops to 1/1600th.
The reason we’re going through all this trouble is to maintain the aperture value of f2.8. If you’re happy to shoot at higher apertures to limit the light, then you needn’t worry about the ISO values as much.
So now, with our camera set to the correct values for a darker fill-light in the form of the sun, we can now bring in our key light and expose that ‘correctly’ for the subject’s face.
This all sounds far more complicated than it actually is, essentially just underexposure your daylight however you see fit and then correctly expose your key light.
Thankfully, one huge benefit of the scrim, in my experience, is how much that permanently soft light on the subject doesn’t fluctuate too much from clouds drifting in front of the sun. You’ll still need to watch if it gets too dark, but for the most part, the exposure on the subject will stay the same. In fact, in some of the shots I shared here, you can see the sun casting harsh shadows on the background occasionally, but the subject remains fairly unaffected thanks to that diffusion.
To Sum Up
As I mentioned, this is a simple one-light setup, the only tricky part is playing with the Kelvin adjustments, but to be fair, you certainly don’t need to know the technical nonsense behind what’s happening to get some cool-looking shots. Simply go outside, set up a key light in from of your model and set that light to 3000K. Then just set your camera to the same Kelvin value and shoot away.
You’ll notice that any shadows cast by your key-light should now appear blue-ish as they are filled in by the now blue-ish daylight. If you missed it, look again at what I mean in the image here.
In terms of post-pro, I actually brought the final images back to be a little warmer than 3000K, and these final shots that you’re seeing here are closer to around 4500K.
One reason for this adjustment was simply that it was very bright on the day, and I struggled to get an accurate read on the back of the camera colour-wise, but the other reason is simply personal preference. At 4500K, this gave a nicer skin tone for what I was after, but again, this is purely personal preference, and you may prefer a cooler final look or maybe even a warmer one. Don’t be afraid to experiment with it.
Lastly, and I know I’m going to get this question, so I thought I’d answer it here in preparation for it, but no, you don’t need the big Titan X1 Rotolights to make this work, and yes, this is just as possible to achieve with the AEOS lights as well.
I love the Titan X1 lights, and they look cool as hell on set for clients and BTS etc., but they are not mandatory for many of the shoots I do and for the most part, the AEOS lights can do what the Titans do, albeit at a fraction of the cost.
I think one misconception about the Titans is how bright they are. They are phenomenal lights and have tons of useful features, but they’re only marginally brighter than the AEOS lights, and to prove that, I did this quick test to show you.
The above shot shows the AEOS 2s and AEOS 2 Pros alongside the Titan X1. All of these shots were taken with the exact same camera settings, and you can see that the Titans are maybe about 1/2 a stop brighter. So yes, in short, if you own one of the AEOS lights, you can absolutely achieve this same setup and use your lights in conjunction with daylight, just like I did.
Obviously, styling is always key with any portrait, and although I think it’s easier to showcase the Kelvin colours on white and pale colours that have a texture like cotton, you can still achieve the same thing with darker, shiny styling too.
Just look at those gorgeous steel-blue highlights on that black trench!!!
Featured Model: Hayley Mathews
Although I am sharing my own personal thoughts and findings about the lights mentioned in this article, many of you will want to know that I am now an ‘‘Master of Light’ for Rotolight. As such, I have been given a discount code to share with you when purchasing any of their products via the Rotolight website. Use my code ‘JAKEHICKS10’ when purchasing, and you’ll save a bunch of money, and I will enjoy a beer in your honour for doing so.
Arguably one of Rotolight’s flagship products, this light does everything you could possibly imagine, including tint control and their very cool electronically controlled diffusion, SmartSoft. This is an awful lot of light and is often found on TV and film sets.
With the AEOS 2 PRO, the world is your studio. Combining the shoot what you see benefits of powerful continuous light with a High-Speed RGBWW strobe, AEOS 2 PRO offers unmatched versatility for photographers and filmmakers. Uniquely lightweight with an ultra-thin design, it’s never been easier to achieve beautiful soft light on the move.
I originally got this for cinematic studio lighting, but now I nearly use it on every shoot that requires a soft light. This scrim produces noticeably cleaner and softer light over simply using a softbox alone.
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. On Jake’s Facebook page, you can also tune in for a live stream every other Tuesday night. 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.