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outdoor portraits

Sharp wide open with great flare control, shallow depth of field (DOF) and deliciously smooth bokeh - the Olympus mZD 75mm f/1.8 is almost perfect lens, here are a couple of mine:

general points

  • in general, the full sun between 10am-3pm or so, casts unflattering, harsh shadows on the face, thus most fashion photographers avoid shooting during these times in full sun, so what can we do to make the most of shooting outdoors?
  • take great care in choosing complimentary backgrounds and ambient light
  • try to avoid bright backgrounds unless it compliments the image:
    • the viewer's eye tends to be drawn towards the brightest parts of the image - in general, you will want this to be your subject - not the background
    • ensure colours of the background compliment the subject 
  • consider using a long focal length lens as this will:
    • compress the background and this enable you to choose a less distracting background
      • if you are lucky enough to have a great background that will add to the image, then a wider angle lens may be the best choice to add drama or a more unique image
    • blur the background more and thus make it less distracting - especially if you can use a wide aperture
    • keeps you a comfortable distance from the subject

cloudy days

  • although cloudy days provide a large light source for soft lighting, the direction is generally overhead which creates undesirable dark eye sockets, this can be minimised by:
    • selecting a location where the overhead sky is obstructed, and preferably only a relatively small section of the sky is visible at ~45deg altitude and thus can act as a soft box
    • use a silver reflector to fill in the eyes
    • use a fill-in flash as near to the camera lens as possible to fill in the eyes, give catchlights but this risks adding an annoying sharp shadow (reduced by having flash close to lens, or better a ring flash, or bouncing it off a large surface behind the camera)
    • pose the subject with face towards the sky
  • a further issue with cloudy days is the colour temperature of the light which you may need to warm up in post-processing

sunrise or sunset shots

  • using the twilight glow to light your subject:
    • usually the glow from the horizon at 20min or so around sunrise/sunset casts a flattering light on a model although it will be very warm and may need some color correction.
    • this gives you reduced contrast compared to direct sunlight at other times, but still directional lighting
    • consider using a reflector to reduce the contrast further
  • shoot into the low sun for romantic lens flare:
    • these shots require a bit of practice
    • degree and quality of flare depends upon:
      • positioning of the sun in relation to the lens
      • how much of the sun is in the frame
      • how low the sun is to the horizon
      • lens itself - each lens has it's own flare characteristics
      • use of filters - extra glass tends to add to lens flare, most prefer to shoot without filters
      • aperture - using a closed down aperture eg. f/16 gives more defined rays
    • autofocus may be very difficult - use manual focus or try shielding the sun from the lens while using AF
    • exposure will be difficult - generally aim to expose for the skin aiming for 1-2 stops under blown exposure
    • white balance - you will be advised to shoot in RAW mode so WB is not critical, but for warm, romantic shots starting with “Cloudy” may be useful
    • experiment a lot but don't expect that the image you see is what you will use - you will need to post-process it to increase the blacks, increase contrast and saturation, and potentially lower the exposure
    • eg. in Lightroom:
      • set WB to warm it up eg 5600K
      • increase contrast to around 95 (or increase blacks and use less of an increase in contrast)
      • set highlights to around -40 and shadows to around +40
      • set clarity to -5 and vibrance to +8 or so
      • soften skin with brush set to somethimg like clarity -47, shadows +7, exposure +0.15
      • then add a touch or sharpening and grain to taste
    • see:
  • the silhouette:
    • this is relatively simple, just expose for the sunset and let your subject become black
    • autofocus may be difficult

shooting in the harsh sun

sun as key light - pose face appropriately

  • tilt chin up so shadows fall in aesthetic manner on the face such as loop or butterfly type nose shadows

dramatic high contrast shots

  • expose for the highlights allow the shadows to be very dark giving dramatic look
  • great with narrow shafts of sunlight
  • or look for interesting shadows on background or on the face or body (eg. from lace hats, etc)

shoot into the sun for lens flare

  • see above under sunrise/sunset shots

shoot in the shade:

  • the broad lighting of the sky is very soft and when positioned well makes for a flattering photo, but tends to be quite cool and thus often needs color correction.
  • without additional lighting though, the sunlit background will be quite over-exposed and likely to be washed out.
  • ideally, you need to ensure it has some direction to avoid being too flat:
    • consider placing subject near an object (eg. a tree or under a roof of a shelter) which will block some of the light, but still give a nice “wall of light” from one direction as your key light
    • consider adding some directional light by using a reflector
      • sometimes sunlight or sky light bounced from a building can be a great key light, sunlight behind the subject being reflected from red brick buildings can be great, as can open sky light bounced off a white wall 
  • if there is light falling through leaves that creates splotchy shadows, consider using a gobo to block it - this is particularly important for blond hair or light clothing which will end up having blown out highlights otherwise.
  • consider finding a location that gives a 3:1 contrast ratio:
    • use two gray cards at 3:1 difference in tone, hold them at right angles with the darker one towards the light source
    • when both cards appear to be the same tone, you will have 3:1 contrast ratio
  • you may wish to add a silver reflector in front of the subject and below to add more punch to their eyes

wait for the sun to be obstructed

  • use the light from the bright sky around the sun
  • this adds sparkle to the subject's eyes and a nice glow without being too contrasty

shoot with subject lit by the sun, preferably backlit or only partly lit:

  • if backlit:
    • risk of lens flare - ensure sun does not directly hit lens unless you want flare
    • risk of auto-focus failure - check focus carefully
    • risk of dust, flying insects becoming prominent if dark background
    • subject less likely to squint
  • here we have two main options:
    • expose so that the sunlit areas areas of skin are marginally over-exposed (eg. 0.5 stops):
      • ie. test for yourself, but could use ISO 100, f/11, 1/150th (if use a polariser then can open up to f/5.6-6.3)
        • to get narrow depth of field, the options are (more details of comparisons here):
          • camera with ISO 100 and flash sync 1/180th sec, or ISO 200 and flash sync 1/250th sec:
            • f/11 (if use a polariser then can open up to f/8)
            • you will need a 3 stop ND filter to get to f/4, and a powerful flash
          • ISO 100 with a Super FP /HSS flash which can sync up to 1/4000th sec:
            • f/2, 1/4000th but GN of flash is reduced to about 1/10th
          • medium format ISO 100 film with flash sync 1/500th sec:
            • f/6.3 (or f/3.5-f/4 with polariser)
          • 35mm film ISO 100 with flash sync 1/60th sec:
            • f/16-f/20
      • gives good highlights to the subject's hair and anywhere else it falls, while the sunlit background is not too over-exposed (if the background is primarily sky, one could use a polariser to help darken it)
      • requires a fill light to ensure face is not too dark (perhaps aim for 0.5 stops under-exposed):
        • reflector:
          • depending on reflector, will need to be 2-3 feet from subject
          • many use a gold reflector but while this may look good on tanned skin, it may also make the eyes look sickly
        • fill-in flash:
          • adds catch-lights to the eyes
          • but avoid unwanted secondary shadows - consider butterfly lighting - ie. flash in same plane as subject's nose
          • unfortunately, fill flash requires precise amount of fill to avoid it appearing unnatural
    • expose for the shadow areas of skin:
      • sunlit highlights and background will be 3 stops over-exposed and almost certainly washed out
      • risk of lens flare increases
      • needs color correction as shadows too blue

place a diffuser between sun and subject:

  • this creates an effect similar to that of sunlight on a day with high cloud, but the sunlit background will be over-exposed by 0.5-1 stops
  • try making a white diffuser from 5'x12' ripstop white nylon and attaching to two L shaped PVC pipe sections, then place this BEHIND and ABOVE the subject with the sun BEHIND it. This will allow for a HIGH KEY outdoor portrait in the midday sun ala Monte Zucker - see 
  • of course, if the diffuser is quite dense then it becomes like shooting in the shade

shooting a portrait in a car

  • shield reflections on windscreen by using a black umbrella or coat to block the sky being reflected
  • consider focusing with narrow DOF on the rain drops on the windscreen and allowing an out of focus portrait
  • consider using a flash in the car
  • consider bouncing light from a reflector into the car 

more Lightroom techniques for outdoor portraits

Key shifting:

  • here we reverse the usual flash-ambient ratios (ie. key shift), so that the flash becomes main light and ambient is under-exposed and acts as a bit of a fill.
  • now this can be difficult in bright conditions due to the limitations of flash output and flash sync speed.
  • let's take an easy example, on a overcast day:
    • ambient light reading (incident from clouds) gives ISO 100, f/4 at 1/180th sec (the fastest flash sync speed for most cameras)
    • now, to under-expose ambient we are forced to either:
      • use an aperture smaller than f/4, eg. f/5.6 or f/8, but this may result in too much DOF for our liking, although it should be fine for edgy, everything almost sharp editorial style portraits.
      • use f/4 with a polariser filter which will reduce flash and ambient light by about 1.3 f stops
        • let's say we use a ND4 filter instead, as it reduces light by 2 f stops, this now means the correct aperture for ambient light exposure is now f/2, but if we want to under-expose ambient, we must use f/2.8-f/4 depending on how much under-exposure, but at least now we have more limited DOF for a more sensual, intimate portraits.
  • for an edgier effect:
    • try putting an orange filter on the flash and setting WB to tungsten, this will give almost neutral skin tones while creating a nice blue under-exposed ambient background.
  • now, for a sunny day we run into problems:
    • sunny 16 rule for ambient sunlit scenes gives exposure ISO 100, f/16, 1/100th sec approximates to f/11, 1/180th
    • now we really do need to resort to using a 2 stop ND or polariser, which will give ambient exposure of f/5.6, 1/180th sec
    • now we need to underexpose sunlight, so need to set actual aperture to f/8-f/11 depending on desired amount of under-exposure
    • now to calculate flash output needed, if we set aperture to f/8, this is really f/16 taking into account the filter, and if using direct flash 2m from subject, this means flash output GN must be at least 2×16 = 32(m) at ISO100, easily within the realm of most external flash units, but in-camera flashes won't have enough power (they usually have GN 11-13 in metres).
    • the difficult starts to arise when using flash to bounce or through softbox or at a distance, then you really need more powerful flashes.
    • the other difficulty is if you really want to use a wide aperture, the solutions to this are either:
      • use a medium format film camera with flash sync at 1/500th sec, this will allow aperture of  f/6.3, 1/500th for ambient light exposure, but with polariser, this becomes f/4.5 and thus to under-expose ambient we can set an aperture of f/6.3-f/8.
      • use a camera-flash system that allows use of high-speed flash sync mode (although the higher the shutter speed, the less maximum flash output is available - so move it closer or get the highest output flash).
        • most current digital SLRs with dedicated flash units allow this mode which was 1st invented by Olympus.
        • shutter speeds to 1/8000th sec are possible allowing wide apertures even in sunlight.

an example

  • Canon 580EX II flash set to Manual at 1/2 + 0.7 output with full CTO gel and placed in an Orbis Ring Flash unit set at ~4-5 foot from subject
  • Metz macro flash as a fill flash with 1/2 CTO gels set to PC Sync, Manual at 1/16th mounted on camera lens to give ~ 1 stop under-exposure compared to Orbis flash
  • Camera with 90mm equivalent lens at 4-5' from subject with polariser filter
  • Custom WB for the Orbis flash (the Metz will be more blue but that is how outdoor sunny day shadows are naturally)
  • f/1.8-2.4 at ISO 200 will give an approximate exposure for this set up - if too dark, move in closer.
    • if you need a wider aperture, use a ND8 filter instead of the polarising filter, or drop ISO to 100
  • with a subject backlit by full sunlight, you may need to push shutter speed to 1/500th to avoid blown highlights - but remember part of your image will not get lit by the flash!
  • on cloudy days:
    • set shutter speed to desired degree of ambient exposure - usually 1-2EV under-exposed to give a nice deep blue ambience
    • can also open up aperture more and/or raise ISO a little to allow either:
      • reduction in output on both flash units for faster recycling time and longer battery life
      • greater flash to subject distance for groups, or environmental portraits
photo/portrait_outdoor.txt · Last modified: 2019/08/09 09:36 by gary1

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