Shooting Natural Light Portraits and the Art of Improv Pt 2

Shooting Natural Light Portraits and the Art of Improv Pt 2

In addition to lifestyle, I have an affinity for shooting natural light portraits/beauty/headshots - whatever you want to call them. It's not something I shoot often, but when I do, I'm reminded of how much I love it. In fact, you may recall a few months ago, I wrote an article detailing my ideal natural light setup for the black and white portrait / headshot photos that I occasionally shoot. In the article, I explained and illustrated how I “discovered” an abandoned shed in a Los Angeles park and used it as a manmade natural light studio. It was a fantastic place that I used often. Since moving out of the area, however, when the need arose, I found myself without a go-to spot for taking the natural light portraits that I love so much…Or so I thought. 

The setup I had used up until this point was fairly simple; an abandoned shed with three of the four walls and the roof still intact, large, leaf-covered holes near the top of the rear and right side wall which created a soft, filtered rim light, and a wide, light colored cement sidewalk leading up to the entrance which acted like a reflector. The combination of these things created (for me) the perfect setup. And, luckily for me, anyone looking at the graffiti covered shed standing by itself would probably only ever see a graffiti covered shed badly in need of demolition, so whenever I was there, I only had to deal with the occasional hiker, dog-walker, and random child (presumably belonging to either the hikers and/or dog-walkers). 

The Art of Improv

A few days ago, I showed up at the beach with an entire shoot planned. The model I was working with and I had been in contact and had been planning something together for well over a year but due to conflicting schedules, were never really able to get together to shoot. Finally, our schedules matched up and we were able to get together for a fun, lifestyle-type shoot. As soon as we started taking photos however, I realized that something wasn’t jiving. The photos we got were OK, but that’s it - they were just OK. I wanted more than good - I wanted great. We had planned on this shoot for over a year and I felt that we both needed to come away with something that would make all that waiting worth it. Already that morning, we had been through one outfit change, a location change, and still nothing felt any better. 

While she changed into her third outfit, I nervously scanned the location (four or five other photoshoots happening in the area, by the way) and saw something with brought a smile to my face. On the far side of the park from where I was standing, there was a concession stand. While it wasn’t an old shed, it immediately struck me as having some of the requirements I look for. It was a brightly lit cement building with a large overhang which created an area of dark shadow that was surrounded on three sides by somewhat darker cement. The back wall of the “studio,” was a series of glass panels (er, windows). It wasn’t the old shed, but it looked like it’d work in a pinch. When Pharis (my model) came over to me in her new outfit, I told her that I wanted to shoot some portraits. Despite not actually being an old shed, I chose a spot under the overhang, and placed her about three feet from the glass, and began shooting.

Posing and Personality 

A bit of a digresson: When I first begin a shoot, I always like to have my subject go through a number of poses which may or may not be related to what we’re shooting that particular day. This allows me to see a few things. Not only will I see how the light is going to hit them, but I will also be able to see what the best angle for photographing their face is going to be. When I first started shooting people, I would place them in front of the camera, have them look at the lens, and I would begin shooting. As a result of that, I wound up with were some very well exposed, very boring photographs. It’s important to learn what works best for what your currently photographing - some people are going to look good head on, others will look their best from the side, and yet with the majority of the lifestyle photos I take, it can sometimes be both or it can sometimes be not at all. Mostly, however, it’s a combination of the two. As photographers, it’s important to immediately see and understand what is going to work best of the person who is standing in front of your camera at that moment. Admittedly, it’s not the easiest skill to learn - it took me several years to be able to look at someone and know exactly how I am going to want to photograph them and even still, I sometimes look back at a set and realize I should have done it differently. A great exercise for this, I've learned, is to just go out and observe people. Look at faces, imagine you're having been tasked with photographing them. How would you do it? What angle would work best? Maybe even bring your camera and shoot them for real. 

In addition to discovering what angles work best, whenever I teach a lifestyle photography workshop and/or mentoring session, I always begin by stressing the importance of warming up and allowing the subject to come to you. What I mean by that is that while the direction we give our subjects is important (and I don’t mean to undermine the value of that) I believe that having our subject run through a series of poses, allows us as photographers to understand how to shoot their personality, which I feel is perhaps most important aspect to creating solid, photographs. The direction we give our models is important, but allowing the models to bring themselves into the photo is equally as important. The poses I like to suggest (at first) are always fun, silly and somewhat goofy. This allows for a number of things - including immediately cutting the tension and/or nervousness out of the air. 

Back to the Shoot

I took a couple of quick photos and realized something amazing - because of the brightly colored sidewalk that we were standing on (which acted as a reflector to pull shadows from her face), the glass panel behind her acted as a reflector as well! I was able to have that soft subtle rim light that I needed. While it certainly wasn’t as noticeable as the rim light in the shed, it was perfect for what I was looking for. From that point, going through the rest of the shoot was easy and when we finished up and I got the files uploaded onto my computer later that day, I couldn’t have been happier with the results. Using some of the Lightroom presets I created, I did some toning and coloring and then added in bit of skin retouching using the Frequency Separation technique you can find here on Fstoppers. After that, I was done.

Although it wasn’t looking like that in the beginning, the shoot wound up being a great success because I was able to come away with some of the best natural light portraits that I think I’ve ever done.

As always, thanks for reading. 






John Schell's picture

John Schell is a Lifestyle photographer and writer currently based in Miami, Florida

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Pharis! Nice write up, John!

I always myself doing the same thing when looking/staring at people out on the streets. I go as far as to pretend theyre walking around me on a personal level. Im very weird. Anyways, great article. Ihave a similar shot(s) like this where I found a similar location with kickass windows for added reflections. thanks for sharing.

Way to discover, John.

Reminds me of the old, anonymous quote, "And so the sage has his wanderings."

Awesome article! I'm going to be looking for an abandoned shed now haha

Amazing post, always look forward to them

fab post as always. thank John. They are really great images, bet the model was very very happy.

If available, posting a pullback shot of either or both of those locations would be great.

Hey Chad! I don't actually have a pullback shot, but the location is pretty close to my house, so the next time I'm there I'll snap a few and attach them to a new comment for you.

Thanks! I look forward to it.

Same Same :) Would help to get a better feeling of what to keep an eye open for.

Nice writeup, it honestly makes me want to go shoot right now, instead of being behind this desk lol

I'd love to see the pull back of where you shoot as well John. Great piece; where can I find part 1? - can't see a link.