5 Lighting Tips for Outdoor Portraits

You are a nature photographer! You do that and you do it well. And you don’t wish to do anything else. But things are a little slow right now and not much in the way of sales this month. So you are open to pretty much anything that might come your way and something has.

That photo editor you worked with last fall on the story about a wildlife refuge, where you licensed stock to them, just emailed you and said they need a portrait of a refuge manager on a different refuge in your home region.

You don’t consider yourself a portrait photographer because your interest and business is all about wildlife and you know you will never have an interest in being a portrait photographer, but you are not about to turn down paying work either.

You haven’t used lighting gear so what are you gonna do? Well don’t fret cuz here are a few tips on ways to light and shoot portraits.

Natural Light

We have natural light everywhere and it is free and available to use as we need it. But that does not mean it is perfect. You have to evaluate what your shot is going to be and where you are going to shoot and then decide what time is the best light for your setup.

Like landscape photography, midday light is often the worst and it can be with outdoor portraits as well. So that leaves overcast light which can work, or early or late light that is softer, warmer in tone, and lower in contrast on sunny days. And I feel is a joy to work with.

Rancher Portrait, Oregon Natural light only.

In this portrait of the rancher, the light is fabulous as the sun sits literally on the horizon about to set. It is very warm and the contrast is low making it perfect for this portrait. He is just about back lit or really closer to what they call ‘short lighting’ as the sun rims his face and front side. There is no flash or reflector because the light is so soft that none is needed because there is plenty of shadow detail.

Natural Light and Reflector

One tool that is quite useful and not expensive is the disc reflector. They fold up and easily pack away. These are great when you want to bounce in just a little light for a bump up in brightness or to fill in a shadow. But you need them to be pretty close to the subject as they can only bounce in so much and if it is not enough then you can move to a strobe.

The reflectance value is what’s important here and you have choices that are usually a silver/white combo surface, silver, gold, diffusion, and others. I personally find the silver/white mix to be the best. It’s not as contrasty as silver and has a little more punch than white. It also matters as to where you are shooting: in the sun, in the shade, or in a sunny area with shade.

Couple Camping. Set up and shot for stock. Lite disc reflector.

In this image the couple is sitting in shade but the sun is right in front of them and this is a popular strategy. You place your subject just inside the shadow or shade and then bounce light from the sun into them.

For this shot my assistant holds the reflector in the sun, but only partially. What I mean by that is the disc has half sun on it and half shade on it to reduce the intensity of the bounce light. Full sun on a reflector positioned like this often makes the people squint and begins to look like a flash was used.

Light Panels

A light panel is used like a disc reflector but is useful for full length subjects or when you cannot get the disc close enough and it’s because they are much larger. You can make these out of PVC frames and white plastic shower curtains taped to the pipes. The commercially made panels usually have bungee type cords in them and pop open when you allow them to and then you just attach the material you wish to use. The options for material are usually diffusion material, white, silver, gold, black, and probably some other material.

Light Panel used on assignment for clothing catalog.

In this image shot on assignment for a travel apparel catalog, we placed the model in the shade and the light panel in the sun to bounce directional light into her to create some textured lighting with highlights and shadows.

Strobe and Flash

For times where light is bright and contrasty or the light from a bounce reflector is just not enough, flash or strobe lights may be in order. For outdoor field work I have several options from my Canon 580 EXII flash and a kit with 5 more various flash units and wireless triggers, to a Norman 400B portable strobe, and then regular studio mono lights.

The flash units work great in a lot of situations, but I like the ‘beefier’ 400B for a static setup where subject and camera wont move and there is no power to plug into. The 400B is also great for short shoots that don’t last more than an hour or so where I don’t have to worry about batteries running out. If that might happen I switch to the 580EXII where I can rapidly change batteries.

When I have power available and am shooting a static setup then I will use the mono light strobes and lighting umbrellas for outdoor shoots. One of my buddies who is a preacher of wireless flash says this setup is so fast and that is the advantage. Turns out I can set up strobes and umbrellas as fast as he can, maybe faster.

What you might choose to use depends on what you plan how much you plan to do with supplemental lighting. One flash unit can do many things, but if you are doing more sophisticated setups and for a client, they may expect more sophisticated lighting approaches.

Strobe and umbrella. Shot for Sunset Magazine.

In this portrait taken on assignment for Sunset Magazine, was a cowboy who owns a large dude ranch. I used strobe and an umbrella because power was right there and available for an easy setup. The strobe and umbrella was placed to the left of the camera to create a strong lighting angle. He is positioned up to the edge of the porch shadow and lit with the umbrella so he will be a little brighter than the background, making him stand out from it.

Sky Pinnick, Film maker, on assignment for Bend Living Magazine

In another example of using strobes, this portrait shot for Bend Living Magazine is of Sky Pinnick, owner of Rage Films, an adventure sports film company specializing in extreme skiing films. When we met to photograph at Mt. Bachelor, Oregon ski area, the weather was horrible. White sky and almost drizzly.

My first thought to add drama is to darken the sky with a fast shutter speed and that renders the whole scene dark, so you need to add light to brighten the areas that need it and that you don’t want dark. I added a strobe head on the left with a grid to the strobe reflector and aimed it at his face. I then add a second strobe to light the logo on his van and that one had a red lighting gel added to it.

Learn to light!

Lighting is not that difficult in many outdoor situations, but the light nature provides is often not the best for portraits. If you plan to use all natural light, then use the best nature provides. But if it just wont work then consider reflectors and flash to create your own ‘best lighting’ for your subject. There are great resources for classes to learn lighting on the internet.

If you have any thoughts or lighting ideas of your own, by golly post them here by leaving a comment.

Equipment mentioned in this post:

Lite Disc
Light panel
Canon 580EXII
Nikon SB900
Norman 400B
Light Stand

Related posts: On Assignment-The Portrait in The Forest

Book on outdoor strobe lighting with Joe McNally: