The great outdoor (portrait)

Another assignment I remember from my old photo-student days was the outdoor portrait and it, like the front, side and back lighting assignment, was a lesson in light. You would think that shooting outside would be pretty easy. There is plenty of light, so worrying about having a fast enough shutter speed to eliminate camera shake and small enough aperture for a lot of depth of field is not a problem.

Photographing on a bright sunny day can harbor a number of concerns. Having your subjects facing into the sun can cause them to squint, making them scowl with a furrowed brow. Side lighting helps but can cause deep dark shadows on one side of the face. And while that may be a dramatic effect that you might be going for, most portraits would like to see some detail in the shadows. You could wait for a cloudy or overcast day, which would cast soft and subdued evenly spread light, but here in sunny California that could mean waiting for weeks maybe even months.

For the easiest remedy, consider two words: Open shade. Open shade can mean the world of difference in an outdoor portrait. It means finding the shade of a tree, building or some other structure, natural or man-made, that casts a shadow and placing your subject within it. Although there will be less light than out in the open, there will still be enough of it so you shouldn’t have to worry about depth of field or camera shake. Be aware that if you use a tree for shade that some sunlight may dapple through breaks in the leaves and branches and cause light spots on your subject. Simply rotating your subject 180 degrees so that the sun spots will be on their backs will solve the problem.


If there is no shade readily available, then just simply turning the subject’s back to the sun can work, but there is a possibility of light flaring into the lens if the sun is low on the horizon, causing a dramatic decrease of contrast in the picture.

As mentioned before, front lighting usually isn’t desirable, so what’s left is side lighting with its deep shadows. There are two main ways to relieve the problem. The first is to use a reflector to bounce light from the sun into the hard shadows.
He goal isn’t to make the dark side of the face as light as the sunlit side, but rather just enough to be able to see some detail. The remaining lightened shadow will help to give depth and modeling to the face. There are many kinds and sizes of reflectors (also called bounce cards) that you can purchase, but they can also be as simple as a piece of white paper or cardboard. Just have someone (or place it on a stand) hold the reflector at an angle to bounce the light onto your subject from the dark side and — voila! Instant fill light.

If you don’t have a bounce card you can use a light-colored building or other structure. Just stand your subject next to the sunny side of the building and position him or her so that light bounced from the wall fills in the shadows.

Another technique is to use your flash to illuminate the shadows. You may think it a bit odd to use a flash during the day, after all most people only break out a strobe for indoor or nighttime scenes. But it can be used in a technique called fill-flash. Some point-and-shoot cameras and DSLRs have special settings for fill-flash. Check your camera’s menu or owner’s manual to see how to access it on your camera. The method calls for using the highest shutter speed your camera allows and still sync with the flash (usually 1/250th of a second) with a daylight exposure. The flash will fill in the shadows while leaving the sunny side alone.

Most photography is about controlling light. With the outdoor portrait it’s also about that and controlling the shadows as well.

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