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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.