When I completed Strobist as a project in 2021, I promised to check back in when I had something worth sharing. Today, I’m announcing my new book, The Traveling Photographer’s Manifesto, which seeks to do for traveling photographers what Strobist always tried to do for lighting photographers.

Thanks for giving it a look—and for your comments and feedback.

SCL-OE-04: Cheap, Portable Outdoor Light Source

No matter how long you have been doing something, be it lighting or photography or, well, anything, you're never too old to be dumbstruck by a cool new idea.

Take the linens drying on the line above, for example. In the right frame of mind they are essentially super-portable outdoor light sources.

Never Too Old to Learn

Over my newspaper career I completed over 10,000 photo assignments, many of which were outdoor portraits or headshots. Upon arrival at such an assignment (usually a few minutes early) I would make a quick scout of the area in search of two things: good light and a good background.

Often the good background angle is not the good lighting angle, and vice versa. Sometimes you get lucky and they coincide. But a good way to marry the two is to have your own background that is portable. You find the good light, then you erase the crap behind your subject with a backdrop.

I used this quick-and-dirty technique a lot. For instance, this head shot:

... is an available light headshot, done in a doorway where the light is nice. If you pull back a little, you see that the light is driving the location and a piece of poster board gave me control of the background:

My friend Jed Kirschbaum at The Baltimore Sun liked to say that doorways were his soft boxes. And that's true. But if you want to control the angle of that portal-cum-soft-box light, you are at the mercy of the background created by your chosen shooting angle.

By bringing your own backdrop, or scrounging one—Jed often used the door itself—you killed two birds with one stone.

My favorite backgrounds in a pinch were the north sides of buildings, as the shade they generated allowed me to easily work with a small flash without having to overpower the sun. Having a bag of tricks like that allows you to quickly problem solve on location and always come away with something that fulfills the assignment.

Which brings me to today's idea, and my forehead-smacking moment on that walk.

Background in a Bag

So, out walking, I see the linens drying on the line in the photo above and it hits me. A sheet, some clothespins and some para cord is not only a cheap, ready-made backgound in a bag for outdoor shooters, but it is also the light source to go with it. No stands needed, as you can almost always find a couple of verticals outdoors to tie off your line: trees, signposts, fixtures, etc.

Before we go on, did you know that a clothespin is already an official lighting clamp? In the film industry, it is known as a "C-47," (no kidding) and is generally used to secure a gel. But in our case, we are actually going to use it as a clothes pin.

Backgound = Movable Light Source

Outdoors, our light source is generally going to be the sun. And without control of your background, you can't really move the sun.

But if you are in control of your background, you can control your shooting orientation and therefore control the sun's relative position to your subject. For every two points that you can rope off and hang a backdrop, you can shoot into either side of the backdrop.

If the sun is flattering, use it as a key light and shoot with it behind you. If not, put the sunlight behind your backdrop and your subject, and use a reflecting fill board (or a strobe, if you like) to light your subject. But honestly, a fill board is cheap and absolutely beautiful when used like this.

If your background is light and translucent, backlit sun will add a whole new dimension—even blowout white for a real studio look outdoors. If dark, it'll absorb the backlight and give you a backlit subject and a dark backdrop. Add in your fill card and they will look fantastic.

If the light is overcast, or open shade, that's great as well. The softness is very good but the direction will be mostly from the top. You can turn this into classic beauty light by adding the fill card from directly below your subject's face.

The only kind of light that you can't really make work with this setup is pure, overhead light. As in midday at the equinox near the equator. Anything else, you can make work.

So if you find yourself shooting the occasional outdoor headshot, keep a small bag in your trunk with a light and a dark sheet, 50 feet of para cord and some clothespi C-47 clamps. It'll make you a much more versatile photographer.

FROM: Strobist Lighting Cookbook


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