How I Sometimes Control the Sun by Re-Lighting Portraits Outdoors

How I Sometimes Control the Sun by Re-Lighting Portraits Outdoors

Shooting portrait work during the day outside has always meant that you have to think on your feet and improvise depending on what Mr. Sunshine decides to do. Some days, you get brilliant, bright rays of sol pummeling the entire city with impunity, and other days the order of the day is cloud cover and über diffusion. The biggest challenge, in my opinion, occurs when the sun and clouds start to play games with you and change the game every few minutes, causing you to contend with hard light at 3:54 p.m. and soft diffused light at 4:03 p.m., etc. So, how do I deal with that? 

The solution I prefer also has the double benefit of providing a unique look outside, and the approach can be utilized even in the most cooperative of outdoor daylight shooting days. What I prefer to do when the sun is in and out, or the situation overall isn't ideal in some way and a change of venue isn't in the cards, is to do what I call "re-lighting." Basically, I create my own pocket of diffusion around the subject, then I create my own light modeling on said subject with two or more strobes. When I employ re-lighting, it is almost always with one subject (usually a model) because controlling light in this manner over a group of people is far more challenging.

I received several questions asking me to expand even further on such a setup from a previous article of mine, so let me break it down a bit and explain exactly what I am doing and the different reasons why I do these things.

Pocket of Diffusion

First off, you need your subject to be relatively evenly lit, and that is where some nice, fluffy diffusion comes in. Since you will be adding light modeling/shaping with strobes, you want to start with a reasonably even, almost flat lighting situation on your subject. The easiest solution? A big scrim. Ideally, a two-stopper for bright sunny days or a one-stop scrim or a silk for more diffused days. Note that this is ideal for headshots or half-length and three-quarter portraits. (Full-length portraits gets trickier, though they can be done with re-lighting. That's for another article.)

By default, adding a scrim over your subject (that is, between them and the sun), causes an exposure drop on your subject when compared to the background and even foreground elements of your shot. The good news is, you can then tailor your modeling strobes to give just enough power to balance with the non-scrimmed areas of your shot once you have exposed for the surrounding elements.

As mentioned in my article in November, my associates helped to position the model, Gracie, in the middle of the pool. What I want you to notice on this snapshot is how the bright sun is hitting Gracie, and of course it totally matches the light hitting everything else. It's hard light, as not a cloud was present on that beautiful south California afternoon.

Without moving the model, a scrim was added via a boom arm and held in place by an associate of mine. You can see that the scrim causes our model to drop radically in exposure, but more importantly she is now surrounded by diffused light — and no more of that hard sunlight. This is ideal for a bright sunny day re-lighting setup.

Light Modeling with Strobes

Once you have your pocket of diffusion swathed around your subject, now you have set up your strobes for light modeling. By default, hitting your subject with strobes will raise the exposure under the scrim, which is of course what you want. But as simple as that sounds, I suggest the following considerations:

  • First off, remember all traditional lighting patterns (loop, butterfly, Rembrandt, et al.) apply in this situation. It's as if you're in-studio, and you can control these patterns if you wish.
  • Try to setup your key light with a medium-sized diffused modifier (or if you prefer, a small dish for a harder look), and position it opposite of the sun if at all possible. This is the ideal setup if you plan to use the scrimmed sunshine as your rim light and hit a little bit of strobe up front as your key on your subject. You'll need to expose for just under the rim, more or less, to ensure the key doesn't balance with it too perfectly.
  • If setting up the key opposite the sun isn't possible or isn't desired, ignore the sun's position altogether and balance the exposure of the key to the background. 
  • You can then use a second strobe on a strip box, ideally gridded, to add a rim light the same way you would in-studio. You can add two strips for double rim light if you wish, or even a hair light, in similar fashion.
  • The more strobes you add, the more you have to balance them carefully under the underexposed, scrimmed area that your subject is in. Take your time on this, again as if in-studio.
  • Note that the same can be done without a scrim at all if you happen to have a pocket of shadow created by the environment you're in that day, especially if it's a small overhang or something that allows for the sunny background to be in the shot.

Although this setup was a tad precarious, as outlined in my article from a couple of months ago, the same re-lighting concept applies. Here, Gracie is in a pocket of diffusion, which of course drops her exposure nearly two stops, but she is then re-lit with a medium octobox.

The end result is a studio softness to the light hitting Gracie despite the intense, cloudless Ojai, Calif. day. (Note: This shot did not utilize a second strobe for rim lighting.)

It's Like Studio Lighting, Only Not At All

In a commercial studio, you often light your subject with very little or no concern for the ambient light. Sure, some studios have great natural light areas to work with, but for the most part we light in-studio with no consideration for the ambient. This is especially true when we are at f/8 or tighter in-studio, and ambient light is 100 percent irrelevant anyway.

When re-lighting outdoors, you not only have to consider ambient light, you have to match it to whatever degree you wish, depending on the look you want. And it's that balance that gives your final shot its studio-like look, all done with re-lighting.

For more tips on re-lighting, check out this clip from my Backyard web series where I attempt re-lighting in a simple backyard environment with a scrim and two strobes, working with my co-host Staci Butcher:

​And the final shot:

Staci Butcher, co-host of The Backyard weekly web series. Find it on YouTube.

Happy re-lighting!

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Martin Van Londen's picture

I live in Oregon so quickly changing weather is always a problem. I'm going to give relighting a shot in a test in shooting tomorrow. But I will only have one strobe and no assistants and minimal grip gear in the middle of an industrial area. So I'll do my best.

Andrew Griswold's picture

This is great man, reminds me of the good old days when Nick Fancher was showing BTS posts on his lighting anywhere he was. Just perfect!

John Flury's picture

Why shoot a good looking model in an boring/ugly backyard? I thought the whole point of shooting outdoor is to have an interesting background - maybe even "tell a story". Otherwise why bother, just stay inside.

Justin Haugen's picture

What if the creative brief from the art director calls for photos of a model in a backyard for a fall fashion spread?

That's one reason to bother.

Stephen Clampitt's picture

Come on man-why so literal minded? Backyard means outdoors. A backyard or nearby park is as good a place to start as any if you're learning outdoor work. You can make any location interesting.

Nino Batista's picture

It's an (hopefully) educational segment showing technical approaches, that's why. You think you don't like my backyard; I can't stand it! But therein lies the point. :)

Sean Shimmel's picture

Nino, such simple, yet often overlooked, solutions. And thanks for the peek behind the scenes. Always a joy to see another creative at work.

Here's a simple peek on my end (on simple directing):

Andrew Gerard's picture

Great article Nino! I live in Vancouver and it's always pretty flat here, but I work as a TV Producer in the US and we treat every set like this, control everything! #controlfreaks lol

mitch marmorstein's picture

Quick ? Did you have an ND on the lens?

Nino Batista's picture

No NDs on this shot, no! However, I have a few in the bag, always, just in case.