One thing I enjoy as a full-time photographer is getting out of the studio to take Location Portraits. An easy way to think about cool location portraits is that you’re Adding People to a Landscape Photograph. In my last two articles I talked about landscape shooting and one of the tips I shared was shooting during “golden hours”. I love shooting Landscapes and I also love shooting portraits. Location portraits are like a chocolate peanut butter cup – it’s OK to combine two great things together to create something really special.
Location portraiture can be super easy or it can be a huge production. For a simple location portrait you just need a great location, a person to photograph and your camera. I know photographers who shoot senior portraits, engagements pictures and family pictures with minimal gear. If you have a great location and the sun is in the right place then all you have to do is place your subject(s) and be in the best place with your camera to get the shot. Here’s an example:
There’s really nothing complicated about this shot. I used a wide angle lens (a 28mm f2.8 prime) on my A900 body and nothing else. The location and the happy couple did all the work.
Here’s s something to be aware of – the sun can be a really harsh light source. You need to always be aware of what it’s doing to your shot. And it’s not just harsh light you need to look for, you need to be aware of shadows. In the shot above I had Tom and Julie turned slightly so that Julie’s face wasn’t hidden by a shadow created by Tom. It was a small move that’s almost impossible to see in the final shot but that little turn made a big difference.
Another easy solution for avoiding harsh shadows is to position your subjects in shade. Shade can allow enough brightness to get a good exposure but it does so with a much softer look. But sometimes your location and the time of day works against you and shade is impossible to create. That’s when I break out a collapsable reflector to create my own shade. Here’s a look at a family shot I took in some super harsh sunlight:
In this shot you can’t tell that the sun was extremely harsh (and blinding for the family) because I had an assistant blocking the sun with a 40″ translucent collapsible reflector just outside of the shot. For this shot I used one of my 5-in-1 collapsible reflectors from Westcott. Without the reflector shadows are super harsh and everybody in the shot is squinting (both look awful). With the reflector I get light that looks like a large softbox was used. The great thing about the 5-in-1 reflector is that it’s super flexible and it can do so much in one simple (and very portable) package and they don’t cost much money. For less than $50 you can take control of light both in your studio or when you’re on location. I’ll talk more about collapsable reflectors in a future article. If you’re interested in picking up some reflectors of your own the best deal I’ve found is the two pack of Westcott 40″ 5-in-1 reflectors like these.
On my biggest shoots a 40″ reflector isn’t big enough to get the job done. In those situations you need something even bigger to control the sun. That’s when I use 6 foot by 6 foot light panel frames with a fabric installed. These are the same panels that you see photographers using out on the beach when shooting swimwear models. The goal is to calm down harsh shadows and allow your subject(s) to comfortably keep their eyes open.
Shooting During Golden Hours
Taking pictures outdoors during daylight hours is fun and easy but I’ve always preferred to shoot when the sun is just coming up or it’s approaching sunset. Just like shooting landscapes during golden hours you can get some great location portraits during these special times of the day.
To make a shot like this work you need to use a flash. Without the flash your camera can capture the background but your subjects will be too dark to see or you can capture the person but the background will be completely blown out. This is due to the limited dynamic range of most cameras compared to the massive dynamic range of the scene you’re trying to photograph. That’s where flash comes in. By adding flash to the shot you can capture the scene and even add a little creativity by using colored gels (which I’ll talk more about later).
The trick is to start by setting up your shot as if there are no people and find your camera setting for the background. For this shot my camera was in Manual mode and set to 1/90th of a second at f6.7 (ISO 400). Where do those settings come from? Mostly experience. Unfortunately there is no one perfect camera setting that always works. Further complicating matters is that you’re shooting at a time when the ambient light in the background is changing. I start by choosing an aperture setting first and finding the shutter speed that will get me the exposure I’m looking for. The aperture setting I use depends on the type of flash I’m using. With a smaller speedlight I use a higher sensitivity (ISO) and a lower aperture setting but I’ll need a longer shutter speed (which could add some blur to the background if the shutter speed gets too slow). If I’m using a large strobe with a battery pack I can lower the sensitivity (ISO) or increase the aperture to get a faster shutter speed (great for handholding the camera). Every situation is a little different so you’ll need to practice or bring a light meter to help you find your settings.
With the aperture and sensitivity set you can set your camera to Aperture Priority mode use the camera’s internal metering capability to find a starting point. With the camera metering mode set to “wide” you can take a test shot and see how your background looks on the camera’s LCD. If it looks good then you can check the display to see what the camera used for a shutter speed and dial that into your camera in Manual mode. If it’s too dark then you can dial in that shutter speed and then lower the speed (this leaves the shutter open longer and that gets you a brighter image). If the image is too bright then dial in the shutter speed and increase the speed (this closes the shutter faster which give you a darker picture). I lock the settings in with Manual mode so the camera doesn’t try to meter each shot and come up with new settings.
With the aperture, shutter speed and sensitivity (ISO) set you can now bring in the people and a flash.
Adding a Flash to Your Shot
My preference is to use an off-camera flash triggered by a radio trigger/receiver system. You can use a built-in flash or a shoe mount flash but the results will look different. I wrote an article about using of-camera flash over on my personal blog that you can check out here if you want to learn more. When I’m on a location shoot I can either go with a large complicated setup or I can use a simple hot-shoe flash on a stand with an umbrella. Here’s what my basic off-camera flash setup looks like:
For a stand, sandbag, umbrella, umbrella bracket and cold shoe adaptor I spent less than $100. The most expensive part of this setup is the flash (the one pictured cost under $200 but you can spend over $500 for a top of the line branded flash). This particular setup is light and folds down for easy transport to a location (that’s super important when you’re working solo and the shoot ends after the sun sets).
To trigger my flash I prefer to use a radio trigger system (it’s really reliable) but there’s other ways to get the job done. Because triggering off-camera flash is a pretty involved topic with lots of choices it will have to be the subject of a future article.
Now all you have to do is get your flash into position and get the power level set. This is also something I set based on my personal experience so you may have to play around to find a setting you like. I always set the flash to manual power and I choose a setting like 1/2 or 1/4. I use Manual flash mode so that the power level stays consistant (in other modes the camera could make small changes based on numerous factors). After a test picture you should see if the power level of your flash is too high or too low. Once you dial in the power setting you can start the serious part of the shoot, working with your subject. Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at a shoot where I used a single flash on a stand with an umbrella to light up my subjects out on location:
By setting my camera to expose for the background and using a flash to fill the couple back in I created this image:
In the final image I underexposed the background to get the most drama from the sky and to really darken the tree line (this keeps viewers attention on my couple). With the camera and flash settings dialed in all I had to do was find the best angle to capture the shot and then instruct the couple to help them look their best.
Adding Gels to Your Flash
Something you need to keep in mind when you’re shooting during golden hours is that the world looks really colorful. In a perfect situation you have plenty of orange in the sky. But you need to be aware of the color of light that comes out of your flash. In most cases it’s pretty neutral to cool in color. That’s fine if the light from your flash can light up everything but we’re using the flash to light up just our human subjects. Here’s an example of my couple in a great location during golden hour but lit only with my flash:
It’s a fine looking shot but I can tell that my couple are lit with a different color of light than the light in the background. According to Photoshop the RGB values of Toms grey shirt are all equal to each other (meaning that the couple have accurate white balance). To me that doesn’t feel right. If I shift the white balance to be warmer then the background starts to really go crazy. I could use Photoshop to separate the couple from the background and do a color shift of just them, but that’s time consuming.
It turns out there is a super fast and relatively cheap way to make the shot work while you’re on location. The answer is using a colored gel on the flash. In this case I used a flash gel called CTO (for Color Temperature Orange). Here’s a look at a full cut of CTO gel installed on my flash:
You can buy a gel like this for less than $10 and hold it in place with a rubber band. Because I use these kinds of gels all the time I use a velcro system called a “Speed Strap” from Honl Photo. It allows me to change gels quickly or to use other types of flash modifiers like grids, bounce cards and snoots. What it’s doing for the shot is changing the color of light from the flash from cool to warm and that helps the shot feel much more natural. Here’s another look at my couple but this time I have the orange gel installed on the flash:
In this final image the couple has the warm color I’d expect to see if they were being lit by the light of a setting sun. Because I created the look with orange gel on the flash I can show the couple the results during the shoot. You can’t do that if you need to separate the couple and change their white balance in Photoshop. By showing your subject how the shot looks during the shoot they have confidence in what you’re doing. If you don’t show them anything then they will think somethings going wrong.
I know that I’ve simplified things to put this article together and I skipped a whole lot of little things so I could talk about the big things. For example, this kind of photography is happening in much darker conditions than the final images imply. You can’t always see your subject’s expression and they may not be aware of how they look to the camera. Your camera may not be able to focus because it’s too dark (a small flashlight can be really handy when this happens). You may choose to add in an additional flash to add a rim light to your subject. The whole time you’re shooting the ambient lighting is changing and that means your settings need to be adjusted as you go. And the best part of this kind of shooting is that you are on a very strict time limit. When the color is gone from the sky you’re done shooting. You get 30-60 minutes to pull it all together. You need to have the right stuff with you, you need to know how to use it and you have to have the confidence in what you’re doing or it’s all going to fall apart. And when the shoot ends you have to break things down and pack up your stuff in the dark.
But just because things can go wrong doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give it a try. The results you can achieve during golden hours can really separate your photography from the people who choose to stay in the safety of the studio (or on location in the middle of the day). I think it’s a lot of fun to shoot location portraits during golden hours and the more you do it the better you get. The lessons you learn from working with gels and off-camera flash apply to lots of other types of photography (I use colored gels all the time to give me different looks, for example). I wrote a bunch of blog entries over on my personal blog about working with gels and I’ll share a few links at the end of this article.
I’d like to end this entry with a quote from a photographer I really admire. On his blog he wrote that he was teasing a world class landscape photographer when he said:
“I never met a landscape I couldn’t make better by putting a person in front of it.” – Joe McNally (on his November 3, 2011 blog entry)
That’s an incredible outlook and a winning attitude to have when you’re photographing people on location and it’s something I always strive for whenever I have people in front of my camera.
Good luck and I hope this inspires people to go out and try something new and share some great location portrait shots here on the Sony Alpha Lab forums.
Do you want to learn more about using gels on your flash? Check out some of my blog entries here:
Do you want to get your own colored flash gels? This is the system I use: