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On Assignment: Controlling Daylight, Pt. 1

Last week, I photographed Jessie Newburn, a local blogger and social networking maven. I shot in the middle of the afternoon to use this portrait as an example of how to light an outdoor portrait with a couple of small flashes on a sunny day.

(First step: Cheat.)

Being able to create a speedlight-lit photo like this any day, rain or shine, is a pretty straightforward process, if you take it one step at at time.

Tame the Sun, Then Use It

The first thing to do when choosing a location for a lit outdoor portrait on a sunny afternoon is to get rid of the sun. The Big Shots use huge gobos to shield their subjects from the sun. But those cost big bucks and you have to cart them around. My solution, find some shade.

Being in the northern hemisphere, for me that means finding shade on the north sides of buildings. So that is where I looked when selecting a background for this shot.

As we have seen before, shade is your friend for outdoor lighting. It kills the direct sunlight, and leaves you with diffuse light that is several stops darker. The lower quantity and more diffuse quality of the light both work for you when it comes to combining the ambient with flash.

Looking at this wide shot of the shooting location, you can see how a shade environment helps the cause greatly. We shot under an embankment that leads up to a town fountain.

Unless you live at the equator and you are shooting at noon on one of the equinoxes, you can always from a shady building side to shoot against.

Here's a quick available light test shot, taken at 1/160th of a sec at f/5.0 at ISO 200. I went with a normal, moderately high sync speed that just about any camera could hit. (No special camera hacks today.) Remember, if you can knock down the ambient, you do not need insane sync speeds to do this kind of thing in the middle of the afternoon.

What we are going to do is to use this shady area ambient light as fill light, and then use flash to create the main light. So, as you might be able to guess, the next thing I do is to knock that aperture down however many stops I want the fill light to be below the main light.

This is your choice, based on how much drama you want to add into your photo. I took it down from f/5.0 to f/11, which is two and one-third stops. This makes for a nice, contrasty lighting ratio for some real texture.

You can now see the ambient-light-only photo, shot at f/11 at 1/160th at ISO 200, which shows you what my photo will look like before the flash is added. I consider this process as setting up a "baseline" exposure for the photo. Whatever the flash doesn't illuminate will look like this.

Now, it's just a matter of lighting Jessie. Bringing an SB-800 in close, shooting at 1/2 power in a shoot-through umbrella, I bring her back up to a nice exposure -- with a much better quality of directional light. This is further enhanced with a 1/4 CTO warming gel on the flash, warming her but leaving the rest of the environment cool, for nice color contrast.

(BTW, we had taken a little break from the Lighting 102 course, but we'll be diving back into that very soon -- and the "gels" section is next.)

So we now have a dropped-down ambient and a warm-lit Jessie, which makes a pretty nice photo. But if you have an extra flash laying around, you can use it to add texture and dimension to the background of your photo.

In this case, I shot it at a hard angle against that back wall to splash a little (ungelled) light back there and bring out the wall's texture. Remember, if you are using your ambient as a fill light, at a ratio you choose, you can use your second light to add depth and texture to your environment.

As you can see from this pullback shot of the scene above, I raked the flash across the back wall. In this frame, it is on the right. It was set at 1/8 power and I was using a Honl Shorty Snoot to control the spill. The fact that there is no gel on the back flash allows us a little front-to-back color contrast in the frame, too.

(Click here to see it bigger. FYI, I was shooting from the left side of this frame, towards the wall on the right side.)

Looking at the top shot again, hopefully you can now see all of these elements coming together in a way that allows you to recreate this style in any full-shade environment. Sometimes when you look at a picture with three or four lighting elements going on at the same time, the reverse engineering can be difficult.

Again, the lighting elements being used are:

• The cool, ambient shade light, dropped 2 1/3 stops, becomes the fill light -- smooth and dark for a baseline exposure.
• Then we build Jessie back up with soft, directional umbrella light.
• We warm up the main light for nice skin tones and color contrast.
• We rake a little ungelled hard light across the background, for color contrast, texture and depth.

And while a high sync speed always helps, this shot shows us that you Canon 5D (1/200th sync) shooters can absolutely do this kind of stuff. And for those with a full 1/250th sync, the upshot is that you can shoot at a faster shutter speed, which means a more open aperture to get the same ambient exposure. Which in turn means that you can use the flash at lower power for faster recycling/shooting speeds.

Example: Instead of 1/160th at f/11 at 1/2 power on the flash, you can shoot at 1/250th of a sec, at f/9, and drop the flash power level down to 1/2 power -2/3 stop. (Or, 1/4 power +1/3 stop.)

Same look, faster recycling.

I shot a second look of Jessie at this some location. We'll hit this shoot again for a "Part 2" post soon, and also take a look at how to tame those umbrella and light stands, which pretty much turn to sails on a windy day.

NEXT: Controlling Daylight, Pt. 2


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