If there is one comment I hear the absolute most at my studio lighting workshops, it's "Nino, I need to learn studio lighting. That stuff is hard. I'm a natural light portrait shooter and that's much easier." This is a statement I could not disagree with more, and here's why.
For one, outdoor photography in general has one obvious, main variable that no human being can control: the weather. When the glorious sol decides it wants to be awesome for you, it asks its cloud friends to bug off and let the scene be covered in glorious swaths of photon beams that you can manipulate at will. But when our resident star decides it wants to jack with your shoot, it sends messages to the clouds saying, "Screw this guy, let's keep him guessing." Sometimes these messages end up on your portrait client's phones, it would seem, usually with the suggestion, "Be sure to book him for noon to 3:00 p.m."
And if you're really lucky, the winds also pick up and knock all your shit over five minutes after you set up.
When shooting outside, I try to bring more gear than I may ever actually need, and usually the same stuff. Sure, this is to be prepared for anything the weather and set throws at me, but also because I like to keep my options consistent. I don't want to find myself needing my 2-stop scrim, for example, but am screwed because I decided to not bring it because it was "inconvenient" at the time.
My usual "minimalist but ready for anything" outdoor portrait gear kit:
- 5-in-1 reflector pack (medium or large) for easy access to white or silver reflectors.
- 1 and/or 2-stop scrim (larger is ideal for me).
- White foam core board panel ("gatorboard").
- Strobe and white beauty dish with diffuser at the ready (with requisite battery, triggers, stands, cables, etc.).
- 50mm and 85mm primes, and various ND filters.
Stop Thinking About Gear
OK, so since we've quickly reviewed the usual type of assorted goodies I prefer to have in the kit when shooting outdoors, it's time to forget about equipment and move on to what really matters: the final shots. This is not to say that you should ignore gear, of course, and some unique outdoor locations require some foresight and planning regarding specific pieces of equipment that you may not normally use, or even own (Large group portraits often benefit greatly from large sunbounces or multiple strobes, for example).
When you are accustomed to one style of lighting, or have found the most success with it, you tend to gravitate towards it more often than not, which makes total sense of course. As I mentioned at the opening of this article, when the experienced natural light shooter who wants to learn studio lighting starts out, their assumption is often that studio lighting is complex or difficult. Studio lighting stalwarts would agree that lighting sets indoors can be complicated at times, but the upshot is that you are allowed total control of the light in every minute, painful detail.
Studio shooters with minimal experience shooting portraits outdoors often cite the sun, wind, heat, cold, rain, snow, dead batteries, driving distance, mosquitoes, bear attacks, volcanoes, and a host of other outdoor-only factors when discussing the annoyances, nay, difficulties of outdoor portrait photography. Lack of total control is the name of the game in natural light shooting, make no mistake. However, you can learn to capitalize on these variables by changing how you see things — literally.
Sounds obvious enough, but if you change the way you look at things on set, you can find successful images right in front of you that you may otherwise have missed before. Frankly, I was awful at outdoor portraits for a very long time, and I attribute my multiple epic fails shooting outside to me not seeing the proverbial forest for the trees when it came to seeing the light, scene and options around me on set. There are so many suggestions, half-truths, and flat out myths about natural light portrait work out there, and it can all be a bit daunting when you are new to shooting outdoors. I myself fell into the trap of blindly adhering to all the classic cardinal sins of outdoor portrait photography for far too long.
First and foremost, forget the tried and true idea that you should not shoot portraits outdoors midday. Second, eschew the idea that you always need diffused light outdoors. Finally, remember that bright, clear sunny days afford you the most flexibility as long as you're prepared (see above).
See Your Shot
When I give workshops on outdoor lighting, I always start the class by asking the attendees to grab their camera and a lens, and nothing more. We begin the first part of the curriculum doing absolutely nothing to light a shot. Instead, we explore the surroundings for locations, angles, cool areas of light perhaps in pockets or with unique fill being caused by natural or incidental elements, etc. We physically move around the area, seeing the set from all angles, paying attention to where we might place our subject, the background elements from said multiple angles, and occasionally potential foreground elements and how it all plays together. Our cameras remain at our sides, and not one piece of lighting equipment is considered. My initial challenge to the class is to "see" the scene in every way possible, and determine how to make an amazing portrait out of whatever has been arbitrarily given to us.
This can stump some students simply because it can sometimes feels "amateur" to just take shots of your subject in available light, with no strobes or modifiers or reflectors, and just a camera. This misconception most often leads to a mental block which causes you to overlook or dismiss potential options for your shot.
Utilizing natural light in a productive, useful, and artistic manner for model photography is less about gear, and more about seeing your shot. Specifically, pre-envisioning your shot based on the options presented to you on set.
On the outskirts of a beautiful mountain range in Albuquerque, the path leading up the foothills was bathed in broad open sunlight (like everything else on the scene). While walking up, I saw a pocket of shadow caused by a brushy tree next to the path. I worked with Taylor, seen above, to have her stand directly in the shady area because I wanted her diffused and even, despite knowing that the surrounding scene would be overexposed in comparison.
But that was the look I was happy to accept, and wanted, so all good by me, and I am glad that shadow pocket presented itself there.
Sometimes the light is too good to be true. In the case above in rural Nevada, an open air barn type of structure had a huge opening behind Alessandra, and a door behind me (causing a natural fill light), plus dozens of holes in the walls. Yes, these holes created hot spots all over the place, but between the two giant openings and smaller holes allowing full tilt sun to pour in and reflect the warm toned wood in every direction, a conveniently beautiful pocket of awesomeness was created. Just diffused enough to be amazing, but with enough sun reflected into the scene to create some nice dynamics.
I was on the hunt for ideal spots to work in that didn't require I drag any gear with me, and upon entering this building I immediately became giddy and called to Alessandra to come work with me inside before the sun changed. This was a case of easy seeing of my possible shot.
Naturally, the overcast and semi-overcast type of days, as seen above in the shot of Renee Robyn, again in Nevada, make for easy decisions on sets, angles, and posing. With a wildly diffused sun situation, just about any angle works, and your task is simply to compose a shot with decent composition, intent, styling, and posing. What gets sacrificed when shooting sans strobes or modifiers in overcast sunlight is light modeling, or dynamics. Everything is so even that depending on your vision, or how you see your intended shot, it could be a huge benefit or a detriment.
With Renee, we were shooting some fairly dramatic wardrobe pieces in the desert that evoked a type of ethereal vision in my head of perhaps an understated fantasy vibe. So I was very happy to find a diffused and semi-diffused environment when we arrived on set. I had freedom to use almost any angle, composition, and posing (the latter of which Renee provided in spades) during the fully overcast times of the day.
The clouds that day were not in short supply, but occasionally the sun made perfunctory attempts to break through, and we had to jump on those moments forthwith in order to diversify the sets we were capturing. I discuss that a little bit in a recent Backyard episode, seen here:
Other days, the sun is in full effect, and the minimal to no cloud cover means that shadows and clarity are the name of the game. When shooting Valya near a dry lake bed in Jean, Nevada (as seen above), I not only had to contend with open sun in the mid-to-late afternoon, but said solar rays were also particularly punchy, creating an ISO100, f/14 type of situation in the light meter. Squinting was the activity of choice, and I decided it was time for the strobe and diffused dish at close range.
Knowing I was going to deal with sync speed limitations (I was using an Einstein with Buff triggers) I decided to put the ND filters away, reasoning I would balance the strobe and sun with whatever f-stop was necessary. While I knew this was going to mean expanding depth of field significantly (due to needing f/14), I wasn't worried about going hyperfocal because I was using my trusty 85mm. Some separation was to be achieved because I opted for a solitary prop miles away from the most obvious background elements: the mountains. The highly textured, decrepit fence post also helped your eye to separate Valya and the foreground elements from the slightly soft background, again despite f/14.
I went in with the idea in my head of seeing ultra hyper-clarity for the set, and was not let down by the Nevada sun.
On occasion, all the planets align just right when shooting outdoors outside, and you find yourself in the right place, at the right time. Such as the shot above, featuring Staci shot in Miami. This was very-close-to-but-not-quite the official time of golden hour, but was also not overcast nor broad sun either. The clouds were a wispy type of semi-transparent, and hovered right in front of the low hanging sun behind and slightly to camera right. Upon seeing the situation, I hurriedly explored set options, going up and down the beach trying to see how the light was hitting what, and where would work perfectly. Time was against us, and I knew the semi-transparent clouds could move at any moment (they eventually did). Down the beach a ways, I found this lifeguard tower and loved how the light was smacking it point blank. The result is a soft look that isn't completely hazy, overcast, diffused sun but also not specular, hard sun either.
Minutes into shooting the set, the clouds moved, the sun came out, and golden hour began to make its presence known. We were glad we acted quickly!
Unless I want a specific look that requires a somewhat complex setup outdoors, I tend to gravitate towards the simplest solution that still looks great, especially if my review of the situation yields an opportunity to exploit. In the case of the pool shot of Caitlin above, shot in Houston, there was nearly open sun by the spa area, and mixed/dappled sun on the rest of the pool behind in the distance. I noticed there was a step on the perimeter of the spa, just enough under the water to prop her up for a 3/4 style shot. Rather than light her, I had Joseph position a large 2-stop scrim directly over her to create a patch of diffused light around her. The background was being hit by less sun than the area I had Caitlin standing, but the scrim reduced the exposure on her too. The end result was a nearly balanced exposure between the two areas, with a minimal (but noticeable if you really look) shadow line where the scrim edge is on the water. Final image finds the subject diffused and even, and the background sunny and a tad specular.
And don't discount direct sun! In fact, when I'm out in bright sunlight, I tend to try for direct sun whenever possible lately. Sure, not every project calls for it or would even work well with direct sun, but it's a look that's as old as photography itself. In certain contexts, it's not only possible, but ideal, as seen on the dry lake bed shot of Alessandra once again in Nevada, shown above. And with no sync speed limitations to deal with, I could also ramp up the shutter to 1/3200s so I could pull off f/2 for some drama in the world of depth of field. I also find I prefer to expose for highlights in direct sun when shooting monochrome, and then noodle in Capture One a bit to either intensify or bring back the shadows.
The specular reflections on the derelict camper trailer behind Alessandra, shown above, added to the intense hard light look that day, and I overexposed 1/3 stop from what I considered correct exposure to help exemplify said intensity. I saw the brushed metal camper sitting directly in the late afternoon sun while exploring the mining town in Nelson, Nevada and knew I had to give it a go. I was curious as to how such a massively reflective surface would react with a subject directly in front of it, and thankfully was pleasantly delighted at the result.
Finally, sometimes you just want to complicate things and create that specific look you simply cannot get any other way, and that's when I sometimes relight. Rather than review it again, I'll just send you to my article discussing it in detail.
So remember, there is a time to drag all the cases out on the field and play with all sorts of toys, and there is a time to bring only a decent camera and lens, and see your way around to creating glamour and fashion images outdoors that you truly love.