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The Ultimate Guide to Dramatic Skies in Portrait Photography

The Ultimate Guide to Dramatic Skies in Portrait Photography

Portrait photography is very diverse. While some enjoy the comfort of studio portraits and the flexibility it brings, others prefer the variety of backdrops the outdoors provides. While it is totally realistic to create all kinds of weather moods in the studio, it often involves a bigger budget, whereas one can achieve similar results for free by relying on the weather forecast and proper equipment choices.

There was a time I enjoyed all-natural feel portraits and used to shoot with just natural light at a specific time of the day only. It limited me, and as time passed, I got very tired of it and accepted it was the time for new techniques and equipment. At first, I invested in a cheap reflector from eBay and two filters: neutral density and circular polarizer. This was not a big hit on my budget, but was a big change in my photography. Now, I not only could be flexible with time, but also could produce a variety of moods with this minimal gear.

This is all natural light, but it might be boring when all your images turn into this mood.

Out of all my favorite for camera setups on location, this minimal gear has remained the same: preferably a wide angle lens with the two above mentioned filters and a light modifier based on the final mood I want to achieve or geared towards the specifics of the location.


The most budget friendly setup is one with filters; at this point, ND is optional, depending how much light is passing through your lens. If you want to cut some of it, ND will be your friend. A CPL is a must; this will make the bluest and deepest sky on camera you can dream of. The most important note is the sun position: it should be somewhere behind your shoulder, or from the side. A 5-in-1 reflector might a very handy thing to have, either to use it as a scrim, or a fill light if the sun is from the side.

Filters, sunlight, and a reflector. 

Filters and Modifiers

My on the go and most flexible setup is a speedlite attached to a medium-size, indirect umbrella-octabox and a wide angle lens with ND and CPL filters. This always delivers the softest, yet most defined light in the pictures. The combination of the filters allow me to fire the flash at proper strength to achieve a beautiful separation with the deep sky and wide open aperture. The CPL allows me to get desired results by a simple rotation of the filter ring.

Speedlite in a regular indirect umbrella-octabox, Canon EF 28mm f/1.8 USM lens with CPL and ND filter, which did its job in this picture, giving me the night effect, even though it was around sunset time. 

Some might argue for ND selection over HSS, but I, being a minimalist, will review HSS in the coming future, when I decide to finally buy one. I think it is totally worth it, but at the moment, if you have these babes in your bag, go out and try this setup.

Elinchrom setup. 

When I am not in a hurry and have extra help on set, I like to bring my Elinchrom BRX 500 Monolight attached to Elinchrom Softlite 17'' Reflector, as it has more power, meaning I am more flexible under the sun, while the beauty dish delivers the most beautifying, commercial, and defined light.

​Light setup of cover photo. 

Post Production

This is the shortest step. There is basically almost nothing to do at post production. If you need more control over the sky, simply play with the luminosity and the saturation of blue in Lightroom or Photoshop Raw converter.

Lightroom edit mode.


Final Tip

I have owned CPL filters of different brands, and believe me, expensive doesn’t mean the best in this kind of photography. I get the best (meaning dramatic) results with my very old and cheapest Tiffen 58mm Circular Polarizing Filter, rather than the most expensive Zeiss 77mm Carl Zeiss T* Circular Polarizer Filter.

Bare speedlite with affordable filters on lens. 

If you have similar setups or not so common ways of using filters, share in the comments!

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J Cortes's picture

Emma , thanks for the post. Do you sometimes use both filters at the same time? Just curious.

Emma Grigoryan's picture

hi there! Yes, 80-90% of the time, when I am outdoors and it is pretty sunny I use both stacked together. I will share my thought once I put my hands on HSS , I guess the ND will have a break that time

Code Trick's picture

Good advice. Thanks. When you use filters,What system do you have to put the ND + CPL?

Emma Grigoryan's picture

hi Ernesto, thanks for the comment. I use circular ones, just rotate and go !

Clayton Richards's picture

I have seen some of the cheaper CPL's have a color cast if you're not shooting or converting to B&W.

Emma Grigoryan's picture

that might happen at times, but since I always shoot raw and color is a must process in my work it doesn't bother me at all

romain VERNEDE's picture

hello, is it a tronix mini you use with your 500Brx?
it will be my next purchase to go outside
Thank you for this post!

Emma Grigoryan's picture

yes, Tronix Explorer mini, it gives me around 200 flashes on pretty high power, haven't checked exactly at what power, but usually I shoot at higher power

romain VERNEDE's picture

thank you for the answer!

Travis Alex's picture

Great Post!

Jay Jay's picture

These photos are incredible. I just bought a pair of Elinchrom ELB400 HS, for the express purpose of shooting in high speed sync, in order to capture the skies. I found out it has severe limitations, such as overheating when near full power. After seeing your shots, i think i might invest in some filters and use them as an alternate means of capturing the full range of my shots. :)

Don Fadel's picture

I'm curious about the HS.

I have a Quadra, but with the A head, and end up using the Singh Ray Vari ND filter to shoot wide aperture and/or key shift. However, stopping motion isn't feasible as there isn't enough difference with the ambient, so camera shutter speed is required.

Hence my interest in HS, but I'm wondering if in your experience 400 WS is enough?

I'm lusting after a "regular" Ranger with the S head, but wondering how an older unit would work with the HS transmitter (if it will work at all). That'll give 1100 WS - about a stop-and-a-half more power. I'm thinking used as the new units are pricey.

Jay Jay's picture

Don, the Skyport HS is optimized for the new ELB 400 HS heads (they use bulbs designed for longer flash duration to take advantage of HSS), but they will work with other Quadra units, to various degrees of success. They have a chart of what models work with HS:

Is 424 WS enough to overpower the sun? I'd day yes, but just barely. I shot a sunset shoot at 1/640 at 5.6/ISO200 and that required almost nearly full power from my head attached to a softbox without front diffusion. (Which caused an overheat shutdown, even though i wasn't shooting fast). My 640 WS Paul Buff Einstein can easily overpower the sun without breaking a sweat. I'm looking at silver beauty dishes right now, so that i can increase my light output without taxing the units. I have some 4 and 5 foot Buff parabolics i'm going to test with the ELB 400's eventually. I will say, it's really nice to be able to stop motion as well as control the sun over 1/250 sec without using anything but your strobe.

And personally, the new units aren't pricey- they're overpriced- along with every single thing Elinchrom puts out. Such is life. :/

Don Fadel's picture

Thanks. I don't agree with your last statement, though. The MaxiLite is a great mod and will add about a stop of efficiency, and it's about $90.

My question was more aimed at stopping motion.

Emma Grigoryan's picture

Thanks for sharing the information, will take into consideration :)

Anonymous's picture

Hi Emma, thank you for all the great tips! proud to see such a talented armenian photographer here.
What's the density of your ND filter?

Emma Grigoryan's picture

hey Sonya, thanks you so much. ND is 0.9, but I might invest in a variable one to have more flexibility soon

Mike McGevna's picture

Thanks for the info Emma. I guess when you use the ND filter, your flash power has to increase to make up for the lost light transmission- so a speedlight generally wouldn't have enough power to use in bright light?
(Especially with a modifier)

Emma Grigoryan's picture

actually it works pretty amazingly with just 1 speedlight in a modifier, I just mostly use a scrim to control the sunlight and fire the flash pretty close to subjects. Of course you work mostly either full or 1/2 power, but still speedlites are the most flexible light sources.
here is an example of bright sunlight - scrim and a speedlite in a modifier: