SHOOTING DAWN TO DUSK IN HARSH OUTDOOR LIGHT
Natural light can provide some of the most beautiful light possible for photography, from that which spills in through windows to gorgeous sunsets. It can also produce some of the ugliest too. The difference is knowing what to do and when to do it. We understand the Sun rises in the east and sets in the west. We can look up sunrise and sunset times. Weather, although unpredictable, can be forecast to let us know what to expect on any given day. But how do we actually deal with the light we are faced with?
How often have you gone out on a beautiful sunny day with clear blue skies and gotten heinous lighting from your photographs? I bet quite a few of you. It almost causes confusion in us. "Its such lovely weather so why do the images look so bad??" The reason being is hard light, caused by the Sun and our failure to adapt to it.
If you look back to those horrid photos I imagine you'll see some of the following :
Overexposure in the backgrounds or skies
Overexposure on your subjects
Underexposure on your subjects
Dark shadows under the eyebrows
Reflections of yourself in sunglasses
These are all symptoms of high contrast light, which is caused by small light sources or more correctly, relatively small light sources. Although about 1.3 million times larger than the Earth, due to the fact its almost 150 million kilometers away, it appears very small in the sky. Likewise, a flashlight is a small light source when compared to the size of a human but, shine it on a bug from just a few centimeters away and all the shadows underneath it will be gone. Why? Because relative to the insect, the light is huge. You can see examples of this in the Shining Light On Lighting article.
Okay, so how do we go about solving these problems? There are a couple of answers which we will look at and depending on your equipment and logistical capabilities, you should find a suitable solution for your photography. We'll divide it into two. Shooting light and shooting heavy.
No one likes humping loads of gear around. Well, some people do but they generally have other people carrying it. Sometimes the camera bag fully loaded with two bodies, a few lenses and sundry items can really weigh us down, so the prospect of carrying tripods, light stands, flashes and modifiers and the like can be physically too demanding or unfeasible to many of us. Even if you can fit all the gear in a car, you still need to transport it to the actual location the other end.
The good news is that to solve all your lighting problems you don't need any additional equipment. Yes you read the right and no, I'm not bonkers. Well just a bit but, that's beside the point. All we need to do is be consciously aware of and adapt ourselves to light. Simples!!
So what are we looking for? Well we know that the nicest light often comes at dawn and dusk for three reasons. One is that the light isn't as intense and contrasted. Secondly, it's highly directional. Sun up, its coming from the eastern horizon. Sun down, light is coming towards us from west. Thirdly, we get nice warm tones at those ends of the day. "But directional light still gives us highlights and shadows on our subjects faces and makes them squint."
This is true, which is why we get around this by having them face the opposite direction from the Sun. Right then and there we have solved all exposure issues on faces by simply back lighting our models. All we need do then is meter for their faces and voila. Gorgeous light. No squinting or unflattering shadows and we didn't spend a penny either.
We can of course take it beyond this and get creative and play with the light. Turn the model to the side and profile them, silhouetted against the sky. Moving our position to face them again with the light coming from the side, we have split lighting on our subject. Rotate them slightly more towards the light and we have short lighting. Rotate to the left we have broad lighting. Learn about these lighting styles in the aforementioned article for dramatic looks.
All of this achievable by doing nothing more than making use of directional light and positioning our model and ourselves relative to it. No expensive purchases, no other equipment to carry! The tools we used were our eyes to observe the light and our brain to tell us where to situate ourselves. Of course, try this late morning to mid afternoon and you'll be right back to square one again. Squinting, overexposure, high contrast lighting. Blahhhh!
"So.... on sunny days we have to get up at the crack of dawn or wait until the evening to photograph models outside? "
While it would be a lot easier, we're not afforded this luxury and are dictated to by the time our clients are available. What we need to be able to do is shoot around the clock in all lighting and weather conditions to get the shots we need. If the client is only available from 11pm to 2pm, then that's when you shoot. This is the hardest time of day to shoot at. So what's the shooting light solution to this one? That's right, we don't shoot in it. We go find some shade. This could come from a tree, a building, a door way, a bridge or a tunnel. Just go and find yourself some shade with an appealing backdrop.
By doing this, we again eliminate all high contrast light and have nothing unsightly to ruin the image. We can still make use of directional reflective light by rotating our model and moving out position as mentioned earlier to produce some lovely images. We just have to go looking for the right type of light.
I'm classing shooting heavy as using anything other than the camera itself, even though some of the ancillary equipment is very lightweight. I'll only list the actual light modifiers themselves, some of which will require additional gear like light stands, sandbags, etc.
The Reflector - The humble reflector is one of the best tools a portrait photographer can possess to help overcome exposure issues. It can be a source of directional light or to even out exposures and lift shadows. They are cheap and widely available. Lightweight and highly transportable, where they collapse down to a fraction of their full size.
Deployed against the sunrise or sunset light, they can help even out the exposure, by returning light onto your back lit subject. This means they are brighter than before and you can use a higher shutter speed or aperture, which will darken the sky, revealing more detail in it. Just be mindful of the cheap silver and gold reflectors which tend to be too specular and cause people to squint. Either use white or splash out on a more expensive reflector that has a satin finish, like the California Sunbounce.
Used in the late morning to mid afternoon, we could have our subjects out in full Sun and use the reflector to life the shadows under the eyes, nose and chin caused by the overhead light. We may still suffer with squinting though from intense sunlight though, in which case we again need to head for shade. If doing headshots we can have the model holding the reflector at chest height to lift shadows. We may also be able to position the reflector in the Sunlight and use it to throw directional light on our subject in the shade for a very gentle and natural look.
The Lastolite Triflector - This is one of my favourite bits of kit in the studio and it can be deployed equally well outside. It is lightweight, collapsible and is like having an assistant with you out in the field. It works exactly the same as the reflector above except that there are 3 of them, creating a larger light source and you and angle them precisely - something you may struggle with if you're trying to use a reflector in one hand and camera in the other.
The Lastolite Uplite - Another very handy piece of kit for use in the studio or out in the field, the Uplite is another reflector that is lightweight and portable. It can be angled to reflect sunlight to act as a fill or key light, depending upon its position. It comes in two flavours, the warm tones and cooling ones. I prefer the warm one as it works well on summer days and returning evening light on your subject. It obviously works in the same manner in both scenarios as the standard reflector would.
The Lastolite Skylite - Yes another Lastolite product. Hey, they make some great stuff. I don't own the Skylite but can fully appreciate its abilities and applications having seen it in use though. Its not as portable as the other equipment and requires two support stands as well. It is great for outdoor lighting though. For the sunrise/sunset lighting, it would enable you to have your model facing into the light for a change and the diffusion would most likely prevent squinting.
Still, I'm a sucker for that rim light look and wouldn't use the Skylite in this manner, instead opting to place the Sun behind the model and use some CTO gel covered strobes to fire through the Skylite as a softbox to even exposure. Mmmm yummy!
For harsh lighting of the Midday Sun, its equally proficient. Again, simply place the Skylite between the big bright ball in the sky and your subject and you have yourself a nice big softbox. The hard shadows disappear, giving you soft directional light. Add reflectors on the far side you have a completely wrapped look. Just be careful on breezy days. A 2m square panel will easily take off unless well anchored and you don't want it smacking your model or disappearing across the park either. It'd then be a Lastolite Poopscoop!
The Shoot Through Umbrella - A large white brolly can be an excellent tool for outdoor photography and we can use it in much the same manner as the Skylite. Deploy it as a fill against the setting Sun - preferably with CTO gelled flashes to keep the colour temperatures in sync. During the harsher times of the day, placing the umbrella between the Sun and our model turns it into a softbox, which we can also fire strobes through. Which leads me on the technique of overpowering the Sun with flashes.
The Speedlite - The last technique (which can be employed with modifiers like the Skylite, Umbrella or a variety of other softboxes and shaping tools) involves using flashes to produce more light than the Sun. For some flashes, even full power and placing it close to your subject won't cut the mustard, so you need a strobe with a high Watt second output. You may even need a couple of them. Using a flash on full power and adding a second also on full power, only gives you 1 extra stop of light. Add another two to give you a total of four, gives you 2 stops of light more than a single strobe. And so on.
We are looking to reduce the ambient light by way of maximum shutter sync and aperture to a point that our subject is sufficiently silhouetted and the ambient light isn't affecting the photo. Essentially they become a blank canvas to which we can add our own light.
This requires that we throw enough light on them to expose them correctly. Lets say for arguments sake that at ISO 100, 1/250 sec f/16 our model was sufficiently dark. What we need to do is throw somewhere in the region of f/32 or higher's worth of light from strobes. As you can imagine this can be a tall order and will also is dictated by the inverse square law, of distance to subject.
Certainly this is a lot easier to do on a sunrise or sunset, due to the lower intensity of the light. Under midday sunlight its asking a lot more of the strobes and batteries but it is doable, provided you have enough juice to play with.
So there you have it. Lighting solutions to suit any wallet. Shooting light is highly effective, provided you can identify and access shade when you need to and position the model and yourself well in relation to the Sun. Some may see it limiting but if you enjoy the challenge you can be rewarded with some truly fantastic light. If you can, aim to shoot at either end of the day but failing that, choose locations that offer these features, or keep them as back ups if a primary location desired by the client doesn't deliver. Preempt this by scouting it out before the shoot. You don't want any nasty surprises.
Shooting heavy certainly gives you more freedom in terms of how and where you shoot but it comes at the monetary expense and also may be restrictive in terms of transportation and physical deployment. Its all well and good being able to drive to a shoot with the gear but, if it needs hiking half a mile on foot up a mountain side or rough terrain, it will be a nightmare to do, without an assistant or two. When it can be used though, the equipment can give you a greater array of shots and allow you to shoot under conditions where there is no physical shade at any time of day.
Whatever you do, seek out the light, manipulate it and adapt to it to the best of your ability to give you the most rewarding images. The solutions are more about observations and reacting to those, than the gear. So use your noodle 100% of the time!
Good luck and happy shooting.