How to Get the Softest Light Outdoors for Your Photos

Achieving soft, directional light outdoors can be difficult. Sure, you can use an overcast day for soft, natural light, but often, this will not give you the most flattering light on your subject's face. In this video, we use my largest light modifier to see how you can turn an overcast day into a professional looking catalog image. 

Every photographer needs to learn how to use both natural light and artificial light. There really is no excuse for claiming to only be a "natural light shooter," because many times, natural light is just not going to cut it in the commercial and advertising world. When your client expects professional results, you need to use the best tools to achieve their vision. Recently, while shooting some full-length portraits for a catalog shoot, I was reminded how useful it can be shooting with a massive 7' softbox. Normally, when shooting wedding or fashion portraits, a small softbox can add a lot of dramatic shadows to your subject because it isn't large enough to adequately light them head to toe. But if you want to produce a consistent lighting style across your entire model's body, nothing works as well as a large light source.

Natural Light

In the photo below, I simply placed my friend Morgan Morris a few feet away from one of my favorite rustic walls in Charleston. Since the day was extremely overcast, all of the soft light was illuminating her from above with little light coming from the street where I was shooting. As you can see, the overall exposure is not bad and the lighting on her clothing isn't awful either, but the light on her face is less than ideal. Sure, the lighting is sof,t but because so much of the light is coming from above, it has left Morgan with dark shadows in her eyes and most of her hair isn't lit up as well as it could be. The exposure and quality of light is great, but the direction of the light could be much better.

Portrait lit with overcast light from above

Profoto B1 Bare Bulb

Since we know the natural light in the example above wasn't ideal, the next step would be to add some light from in front of Morgan. Many fashion photographers use a single small light to give their images strong highlights and shadows. By using a single Profoto B1 strobe with just the bare bulb and no modifier at all, we can more properly illuminate Morgan's face and help give her clothing a little more pop than we achieved in the previous photo. Keep in mind, we are still mixing a lot of natural light into the photo below, but we are also now able to make the lighting on her face much more pleasing. The overall contrast in her clothing hasn't been changed all that much because of the natural light, but if you wanted to make an even more dramatic photo, you could lower your ambient exposure and use more of the strobe as your main light. Either way, I do like the look of this image much better than the natural light only photo, but I think we can use a softer modifier to achieve better light on Morgan's face and clothing.

Portrait lit with Profoto B1 strobe using only bare bulb

Profoto 3' Octabox

If we wanted to reduce the harsh shadows under Morgan's chin and create a larger catch light in her eyes, we could modify our light by adding a large softbox. In this example, I added a Profoto 3' Octabox to the B1 and placed it relatively close to our subject. You can immediately tell that the light is now much softer on her face, but because of the inverse square law, the transitions from highlight to shadow have also increased. So, while the hard bare bulb light produced shadows with sharper edges, this 3' octabox is producing more shadows because the light is closer to our subject. However, these shadows do have softer edges and are a little more pleasing on the female face. Another issue you will notice when using a 3' Octabox when lighting a full-length portrait is that the light might look great on your subject's face, but because it is still relatively small, it will not evenly light your subject head to toe. In the example below, you can see that her jacket is lit much brighter than her pants, which can be a problem if you are shooting catalog-style images where the entire outfit needs to be lit evenly.

Portrait lit with 3' Octabox on Profoto B1 strobe

Profoto 7' Octabox

As I explained in the video demonstration, we could solve this problem of uneven lighting across Morgan's body by moving the light farther away, but in doing that, our light source would begin to appear smaller in size, which would cause it to start taking on the appearance of a harder light source. If we want to maintain the nice highlight and shadow gradients we achieved with the light close to our subject (again, inverse square law here) and we also want the light to remain soft, the only real solution is to add a much larger light modifier to our strobe. In this case, I used a Profoto 7' Octabox. Unfortunately, it looks like this massive softbox is now discontinued but any 7' octabox will give you the same effect. The key is to keep the octabox close to your subject and positioned so that the entire light is evenly illuminating them. As you can see in the image below, Morgan's clothing is evenly illuminated, and because our light source is so large, the highlights and shadows on her face are both soft and flattering. To me, this lighting setup looks the most professional out of all of the setups we demonstrated. 

Portrait lit with 7' Octabox on Profoto B1 strobe

Conclusion

To be clear, none of these lighting examples are necessarily right or wrong and each one has its own specific advantages and disadvantages. For this photo session, I was trying to produce a catalog-style image on location with mainly soft light, but you can apply these same light modifiers to all sorts of applications both on location and in the studio. Also, keep in mind that because I was blending in the ambient overcast lighting with my strobe light, these images are much brighter and airier than if I had underexposed the ambient light and relied only on artificial strobe light. 

This huge 7' Octabox creates soft light across our entire model

One important point I want to make is that many photographers simply take a small softbox on a monopod and produce images that look very similar to all the other images photographers are making. By taking the extra time to setup a large light source outside, you can make your images look very different than what most everyone else is doing. A huge, soft light like you get with a 7' octabox outside on location is not a very common setup for the majority of photographers, even though it is a relatively simple one to achieve. By understanding how each of these light modifiers works and the final effect they can produce on your talent, you can guarantee your clients will be happy no matter what type of shoot you have been hired to execute. 

All images shot with the Nikon D850 and Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 lens

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21 Comments

Studio 403's picture

Like to know where you store those Profoto Stones, Like to borrow for a couple of years. Well done post for me,. I do have a 7 ft umbrella. But WOW, and wind comes up, I would wind up in Kansas like Dorothy and the Oz

Chris Lawrence's picture

Patrick, I totally agree with your choice of modifier... it appears that you also feather(not 45º but 90º) the large octa.
however, I personally would have positioned the light in the same direction of the natural so it does not look flashed. It is also important to pay attention to the direction of her hair, when you cross light against the part in the hair you create an unpleasant shadow on her face. By doing this you will also create an uniform shadow on the ground, instead of and X shadow. I know this sounds nit picky, but these small details really make a difference. cheers!!

Patrick Hall's picture

You know, I totally agree with the hair comment and normally would have put the softbox to the left of her instead of the right but during the filming of the lesson we were trying to keep the video cameras on that side to hide some cars. Def overlooked that aspect because of the filming.

As for the direction of the natural light, it really was from above because of the narrow street we were in and the oak trees. I could have put the light a little more on camera axis but either way the final image would have looked more strobed despite blending in a lot of ambient light already. The only other place to put the light would have been boomed up above and in front of her but booming that 7' octabox is not an easy task.

Robert Nurse's picture

So, the light should be on the side with the part?

Could I ask what type (brand/model) of lightstand is that?

Cheers,
Eivind

Patrick Hall's picture

It is a manfrotto boom stand. Not sure the model and I can find it when I get back to the studio but the big handle in the middle lets you actually articulate the entire top part of the stand into a boom orientation. It's nice because it's heavy and raises about 8-10 feet high.

Thanks! Yeah I noticed that handle, and got a bit curious since I've been looking for something when I don't have a boom with, but yet could need just a slight tilt or something. So I would be very much interested in getting the type/model from you! Thanks!

Cheers,
Eivind

The best "fake daylight" soft light look I've come across is as huge a scrim as you can find as close as you can, with a bare head as far away as power lets you. Something like a 8x8 scrim with a magnum or an elinchrom long throw (which is what I use).

Patrick Hall's picture

That's def a nice setup as well but requires a lot more production which can be great for big jobs that require the most professional setup possible. I wasn't necessarily going for the most natural looking light here as much as I was going for soft directional light to give the clothing and model depth and shape.

Sure - also worth noting, before I had "big" lights, I did this with 2 speedlights and a bedsheet. You end up at 1.4-2.8 because of power, but it's totally doable. Plus the title is "softest" and separating the source from the mod is the best way to do that.

Jeff McCollough's picture

Another awesome tutorial. Keep em up!

Tomash Masojc's picture

Friends, what do you think about big umbrella with diffusion cloth? I shoot more on location and need something easier to carry, but also big with soft light?

Motti Bembaron's picture

Nice video, thank you.

In my opinion, in a blah day like that a small umbrella would have done the same job, especially if you under expose the scene a bit and let the light do its job.

I have an 80" umbrella and will never use it in open space because I will never see it again :-). My largest softbox is 4' and even that I would not take for an outside shoot.

The thing is, we have to be practical when going on an outdoor shoot. Most of us do not have assistants and going to public places with that much gear is just not practical for me.

Also, in the photo her hair is on the "wrong" side (or the light is on the wrong side). It casts shadow on her face.

Cheers.

mark mil's picture

Was it only me who was waiting for Patrick to pull out a 14ft octa? I enjoyed the vid. Found myself giggling through as you went from small to big. Lots of insight, AND, had a little bit of a Sesame Street feel! "BIG" "small" "NEAR" "far" Well done!

really helpfull tips, thanks a lot for that

Robert Nurse's picture

I've got a question about something you did in the video. You positioned the light itself at head height. Wouldn't that put the hot spot on Morgan's face?

Patrick Hall's picture

You would think but it didn't really do that in the examples (straight out of the camera). Our next video actually tackles the hot spot debate with profoto gear and the results are kind of surprising. Stay tuned for that

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