Pacific Coast Highway

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In this lesson, photographer David Cross and the Photoflex crew take a drive up the Pacific Coast Highway to an old agricultural equipment warehouse to photograph a beautiful fashion model.

If you’ve ever wondered how location photographers get great results under harsh sunlit conditions, this lesson will show you one of the ways in which it’s done.

Topics Covered:

  • Getting good results under harsh, direct sunlight conditions
  • Shooting in the shade with strobes
  • Balancing the brightness of a strobe and the sun
  • Tips on posing a model in a warehouse environment
  • Creating a window light portrait with direct sunlight and a strobe


Good lighting doesn’t have to be difficult. Sometimes the simple solutions are the best. If you’ve tried using a portable flash in sunny locations and have been disappointed with your results, you're not alone. This lesson offers guidance and hopefully a little inspiration to help you succeed in such a challenge. And keep in mind that while it's nice to work with a fashion model, you don’t need one to produce good photos with these lighting techniques. Why not take friends or family out for a picnic and photo session?

In this lesson photographer, Dave Cross takes us through a location shooting session with model, Vanessa. I’m Jeffery Luhn and I came along as 2nd photographer and writer. Our setups are intentionally simple. We spent about 40 minutes on each of the four location setups and limited ourselves to only two light sources for each setup:

1. The sun
2. TritonFlash™ in an extra small OctoDome®.

On three setups, we used direct sun and on the last, we used a 39x39-inch LitePanel with a silver fabric to reflect the sun. This approach is very common for location, fashion, wedding, and editorial shooting. The techniques described in this lesson are the preferred approaches for many professional photographers that specialize in family and portraiture assignments.


It was a warm and cloudless day on the central California coast. We chose an old agricultural equipment warehouse on Highway 1 near Santa Cruz for our session. The barn we chose was similar to a typical two car garage in many ways, and as you read this lesson, you’ll probably realize that you have a similar structure in which to replicate these results.


We arrived at our location at about 2:00 PM, which is a challenging time of the day to shoot because of the overhead sun and harsh shadows. You can’t always delay a photo-shoot until the ‘golden hour’, so it’s important to have workable strategies for tough lighting situations. As you’ll see, we used some clever posing and lighting techniques to make the conditions work for us. The first step was to move the model into the barn and shoot for a while.

Setup #1

This wide shot shows the location and the harsh lighting. This shot was taken at about 4:00 PM and was done during our second setup, but I’ve inserted it here so readers will have a sense for the location. (figure 1)

This shot shows Dave shooting the first setup. At his direction, we had Vanessa stand on the truck bed in the deep interior of the barn. The soft lighting is provided by sunlight striking the truck bed. The defined lighting is supplied by a single TritonFlash™ in an extra small OctoDome® mounted on a LiteReach™.

The full length result below shows the split lighting pattern created by the side lighting of the strobe. Split lighting divides the face equally between shadow and highlight and is often used to make a subject’s face look narrower than front lighting patterns such as loop or paramount.

This lighting also makes the model look taller and reveals more texture in garment surfaces than flat lighting. For that reason, it’s often used for edgy or bold fashion photos.

Here were the camera settings David used:

• Camera: Olympus E-3 with 35mm lens (70mm equivalent)
• Exposure mode: Manual
• Aperture: f/8
• Shutter Speed: 1/80th of a second
• ISO: 100

The close-up black and white shot of Vanessa below shows how the motion of a moving subject is frozen by the strobe. Photos taken with two light sources, such as the sun and a strobe, are essentially two images recorded at the same time onto the same frame. The right side of Vanessa’s face (camera left) is sharp because the strobe exposure only lasts about 1/1000th of a second.

However, the shutter in this shot remained open for 1/80th of a second and continued to record the rest of the scene, including the left side of her face (camera right) as it moved slightly. As you can see, the result shows slight motion blur. Slower shutter speeds result in more motion blur if the subject matter is moving.

This next close-up shot below reveals more of the shadow side of Vanessa’s face and gives us a clearer view of the lighting ratio, which is about a two stop difference between shadow and highlight (approx. 4:1). The camera settings remained the same as the previous photo with the exception of the lens, which was an Olympus 40-150mm set at 150mm.

Note that no fill card or reflector was used here. The fill light came from the open door and the windows. This lighting scheme is very easy to achieve, but looks dramatic in comparison to the flat natural light in the location. Motion blur existed in this photo too, but I increased it in Photoshop by using the Motion Blur Filter under the Filter menu.

Digital Motion Blur

The blurring technique is easy to do and with practice can be accomplished in about 10 minutes:

  • Duplicate the original background layer and name it ‘blur layer’
  • Apply motion blur to the blur layer
  • Use the erase tool to remove the portions of the blur layer to reveal the sharp original layer below.
  • Copy the blur layer and darken it slightly to minimize distracting highlights in the background.

Alternate Angles

Dave did a good job working with the setup to get an alternative angle. In this shot, he directed Vanessa to lean back so he could get a strong diagonal angle from her body. This angle made use of the light coming in from the window on the right side of the shot, which added a soft highlight to the model's face. The exposure setting remained the same as before. The same lens was used, but the zoom was moved to 80mm.

For the final shot of this setup, David used the following camera settings:

• Lens: 35mm
• Exposure mode: Manual
• Aperture: f/13
• Shutter Speed: 1/80th of a second
• ISO: 100

Some background elements were later digitally removed or darkened in Photoshop. Slight Gaussian blurring was added to select areas of the image and the color balance was warmed up to simulate a late afternoon feel.

A wide-angle view of this setup gives us an interesting look at the environment. Alterations in Photoshop include darkening and blurring selected areas, and adding color to the tail lights of the truck.

In our next setup, we moved to the window to get a strong hair light from the sun. Dave used the TritonFlash™ with an OctoDome® extra small on a LiteReach® as the key light to achieve a split lighting pattern.

The camera settings for this shot below were as follows:

• Lens: 35mm
• Exposure mode: Manual
• Aperture: f/7.1
• Shutter Speed: 1/200th of a second
• ISO: 100

There are strong horizontal lines in this composition and Dave chose to tilt the camera to give the shot a dramatic diagonal feel. This effect is often called a Dutch Tilt, in honor of Dzinga Vertov, the Hollywood cameramen who made the technique popular in the late 1920s.

The last setup of the day was a complete change of pace. We went to the shadow side of the barn and placed Vanessa in the open doorway. Dave directed me to put the silver fabric onto the 39x39-inch LitePanel and place it in the direct sun. The beam of the LitePanel was aimed directly at Vanessa to create a strong directional key light. The TritonFlash™ was placed inside the barn and used to produce a rim light.

The following shot shows how the sunlight from the LitePanel and the TritonFlash™ are well-balanced.

Camera settings:
• Lens: 35mm
• Exposure mode: Manual
• Aperture: f/7.1
• Shutter Speed: 1/100th of a second
• ISO: 100

The TritonFlash™ was set on 3/4 power and positioned approximately 10 feet from the model.

In the close-up, Dave stepped into the barn and shot a reverse angle. Because the TritonFlash™ was well-balanced to the strong sunlight reflection of the LitePanel, no exposure changes were necessary. One of the advantages of having a powerful flash with quick recycling times is that the photographer can move around and "work the scene" without pausing. Even though the lighting setup was simple, it allowed for a lot of creative freedom.

In this two-shot comparison we see how the same lighting setup can produce dramatically different results by moving the camera to capture a different angle.

To finish the session, Dave scaled a ladder to achieve a higher angle. Vanessa is already pretty tall, but standing on stairs with tall shoes, it’s almost 7 feet to the top of her hat! A photographer needs a ladder to get above her eye level! Here’s a final parting shot from the end of our session.

We hope this lesson provides you with some insights and useful strategies for your next location project. As we’ve said a few times in this lesson, the lighting doesn’t have to be complicated to be good. Matching your flash output with the ambient sunlight only takes a few test shots to get balanced. After that you’ll be free to explore posing and composition.


Written by Jeffery Jay Luhn and photographed by David Cross.