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Outdoor Portrait Lighting for Beginners

5 (super) cheap ways to control outdoor light and transform it into studio quality

I recently decided to quit my day job in pursuit of freelance photography and all its glorious freedom. As terrifying as it has been and despite the looks of trepidation I received from loved ones when I told them this news, these first few months have given me the opportunity to experiment with light, test my various hypotheses, crash and burn, and rise from the ashes an improved portrait-maker.

So if you’ve been asked to shoot some photos of your nephew because your sister heard you bought an amateur-pro camera and “you need some practice, right?” or better yet, if somebody booked you through Kandid.ly for LinkedIn headshots and it’s time to whip out the big guns, fear not because photography school is overrated. Believe me, I’ve been there and I’ve learned more in the last 4 months shooting as a freelancer and working for a commercial studio photographer than I ever did in all my years of overpriced schooling.

Shooting portraits, however, is not quite as straightforward as it seems. Sure, it’s less complicated than shooting a wedding, but there are a few simple rules to follow that make portraits look fantastic as opposed to mediocre. You don’t want mediocrity. That’s what smartphones are for. So here are some tips for turning flat-looking photos into portfolio-worthy portraits. I used my lovely boyfriend as a model to show each tip in action, but any of these helpful tools can be employed with family or group portraits as well.

1. Follow the shade

Shade is a photographer’s best friend and it’s better not to learn the hard way when you go through all of your squinty-eyed, shadowy-faced photos that you wish you could do over. Remember this tip even if you can’t use any of the others.

Shade produces a soft, natural light while giving your customers some respite from the glaring sun. I tend to gravitate towards objects that cast large shadows such as trees, buildings, awnings, etc, during my shoots. On overcast days, you won’t have to find shade but you will meet with other issues that I’ll cover in a bit. Here are some examples to show exactly what kind of difference we’re talking about here:

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2. Follow the (catch)light in their eyes

If you’re ever wondering what makes someone like Richard Avedon’sSteve McCurry’sor any successful portrait photographer’s work so compelling, this is probably their greatest not-so secret. Catchlight is key to shooting a dynamic portrait. It’s the difference between a nice portrait and a stunning one. With just a tiny reflection of light in the eyes, it galvanizes the image. After all, they say the eyes are the “window to the soul.” 

Finding that catchlight is the challenge, along with the task of trying to capture some real moments, so it’s best to set up the lighting situation before you start trying to capture poses. It’s not about creating light with some elaborate studio setup, but is more about finding the right locations and bodily poses that reflect the best catchlight naturally.

On sunny days, catchlight is fairly easy to find because the light source is exceptionally bright and directed. Even if you’re in the shade, the eyeball is a sphere and reflects everything around it, including the bright sun. However, on a cloudy day, this tends to be a challenging task. After a test shoot with a friend one day, I discovered (by complete accident) a way to surmount this hurdle:

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I found some height on him, which is difficult to do considering he’s 5’11”, but this aims the eyeballs towards the sky, reflecting more of the sky and less of the incidental surroundings. The result? Booyah, catchlight! So if it’s cloudy and the shooting situation permits you to get at least a foot of height on your customer (i.e. standing on a chair), this is your ticket to beautiful catchlight.

3. Experiment with a reflector 

This is speaking from experience with a reflector that I purchased online for about $30:

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Its most common use is to add fill light to your photo. Fill light is a sort of “compensation” of light in a shadow. A reflector can aim light from the sun onto any object that you would like to illuminate, including your customer. Expect some squinting to occur, I’ve had a reflector aimed at me before and it’s BRIGHT, so warn the customer first. You will have to find the light first and move the reflector around to angle it onto your customer. This is the effect it produces:

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You can see that this works for correcting harsh sidelight and backlight. Although this might be a nice investment for a career in photography, you absolutely do not have to spend money on making a reflector out of household itemsI prefer the convenience of my reflector’s collapsibility, but it’s incredibly cheap and easy to make your own.

You could also go with a piece of white foam core board, which typically sells for about $7 at any craft store for a 24”x36”. You’ll see a more intense light with the  silver versus the white board, but both are great for brightening up any shadows in your photo.

4. Experiment with backlighting

Early morning and evening light presents a unique opportunity for portraiture: backlighting. Take advantage of these times to your add dimension to your portraits! Sunlight is more sharply angled during these hours, so you can create a studio effect without the setup. There are a couple of varying outcomes you can attain with backlighting:

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These photos contain a gorgeous rim light outlining his head, but look hazy and have faded coloration. This is due to the glare from the sun entering your camera sensor, overexposing the shadows and creating a curiously dreamy image.

In order to achieve this, you must place your customer between yourself and the sun, aiming your camera at both the subject at the light source. Look familiar? This exposure is a popular photo effect utilized by Instagramers and wedding photographers alike. Now you can replicate it on your own! The alternative is this:

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You can do this by holding your hand (or other object) above the lens, blocking the sun glare, to correct for the overexposure of the shadows. You can see the richness of the colors in the shadows once again while retaining that ethereal rim light.

5. Create depth by experimenting with angles, shadows and highlights

Most of the time, for professional photographers creating bold and interesting outdoor portraits, their secret weapon is depth. Instead of posing someone flat against a wall with a cool pattern, try having them angle their body sideways and shoot up against the wall towards them.

This is essentially drawing more attention to your customer’s presence. The idea is to produce variation in the degree of matter in focus. This is better known as “bokeh” and makes for more interesting background and foreground material, especially in portraiture:

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Notice how the shadows vary in different positions. Play around with the reflector to highlight certain areas or move around to test the shadows created by the existing light. I love using the example of Monet’s haystacks paintings because he recognized the power of changing light and how it can alter a subject from one moment to the next. One second you may have bright sun and the next, nothing but clouds. As a photographer, you can capture these changes immediately.

When combining these foundational tools together in new ways, you can start to break the rules a bit. This is my favorite part about photography because who wants to follow a formula anyway? I’m continually astonished by how much I still have to learn, of how much there is to learn, and yet that’s exactly why I love and value it so much. Photography is supposed to fun and engaging, a creative playground for exploring your camera and everything you frame within it.

By starting to integrate a tool set to transform your photos, you will not just end up with better photos; you will become a better photographer. Being a great photographer doesn’t have to cost tons of money, in fact these tools are all potentially free. With time, incorporating these methods becomes more and more unconscious, freeing your focus to what really matters—capturing sincere and candid moments!

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