Shooting Models Outdoors

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Ever wonder how those clothing catalog shoots are done? In many cases, the production is very simple with respect to lighting and camera work. Simpler than you might expect.

This lesson takes a look at some straightforward tools and techniques for photographing models and clothing outdoors.

Topics Covered:

  • Dynamic Range and Exposure
Bouncing Light with a MultiDisc

  • Reflecting in the Wind

  • A Note on Positioning

  • Notes on Lenses and Focus

  • Coming In Tight

Dynamic Range and Exposure

When it comes to catalog work, it's all about the lighting on the the clothing and the model. But the biggest challenge a photographer faces, particularly outdoors, has to do with contrast and exposure, which can ultimately make or break the shot.

On bright sunny days, it can be difficult determining the best exposure settings for your subjects. This is because your camera, unlike your eyes, is relatively limited in its ability to capture a broad dynamic range of light. And because of this, it's easy to overexpose certain areas and underexpose others, even within the same shot.

Below, you can see two different exposures of the same scene. On the left, the exposure on the model and clothes is at an acceptable level, but the overall shot feels too washed out, especially with the background as overexposed as it is. On the right, the background is fairly well exposed, but the model, and particularly her clothes, are far too underexposed to work for this type of photography.

The examples above were the initial test shots for this shoot. For the actual lesson, though, we decided to go with clothing that wasn't quite so dark. But even with this brighter outfit, you can see that I was riding the fine line of having the background overexposed and the clothes and model underexposed.

The easiest way to deal with this limitation of the camera is to try and compress this broad dynamic range of light enough to properly expose all—or most of—the areas in your compositions. So how does one compress the dynamic range? There are a few options, but one of the easiest ways is by using reflectors and/or diffusers.

Bouncing Light with a MultiDisc

There are many reflectors and diffusers on the market, but one of the most versatile is the MultiDisc®, which boasts five different surface options: four reflective and one diffusive. The main Disc is essentially a White/Translucent disc that allows you to diffuse and soften harsh sunlight or strobe light. There is also a specially designed cover that fits over this Disc, comprised of four reflective fabric sides: White, Silver, Gold and Soft Gold (which is a 50/50 zigzag pattern of Silver and Gold).

Different situations and people will require different reflective options, but the one fabric side I tend to use most when photographing models, or when taking portraits, is the Soft Gold side, which is great for warming up skin tones. This is what I decided to use here.

Reflecting in the Wind

In this situation, I decided to have my assistant, James, reflect sunlight into the shadow areas of our model, Rebecca, using a 42 inch MultiDisc. Photoflex®'s 42 inch MultiDisc Kit includes a LiteDisc Holder and a Large LiteStand. But since it happened to be extremely windy on the beach this day, we decided to forgo using the LiteStand, as it just would have blown over, even with the added stability of sandbags. (Keep in mind that any reflector can act like a sail in the wind, and it's good to count on having someone hold the Disc if the wind becomes too strong, as it was here.)

James clipped the LiteDisc Holder to the MultiDisc for added stability and angled it to bounce the sunlight into the shadow areas. Here, my wife Tamara, a professional clothing stylist who was helping us out on the shoot, and our daughter, Nola, look on.

Once James found the right angle to reflect the MultiDisc, I took a few more shots at the lower exposure level. Here's one from that series.

As you can see from the result, the MultiDisc made all the difference in terms of exposure. There is a nice level of warm light reflected into both Rebecca's face and her clothing, and the exposure on the background is neither too bright or too dark. Below, you can see a side-by-side comparison with and without using the MultiDisc.

A Note on Positioning

When using reflectors like this, it's usually a good idea to have the sun back-lighting your subject for a couple of reasons:

The first is to keep the harsh sunlight off of your subject's face. Direct sunlight can create unflattering shadows and high contrast, which can ultimately detract from the impact of the shot. Bouncing the light back into the shadow areas with an even light source like the MultiDisc keeps the contrast and shadows to a minimum.

The second reason for back-lighting has to do with separating your subject from the background. By having your subject stand between the sun and your camera, you allow the sun to rim-light your subject, which can add dimension to your shot. Rim-lighting can be particularly effective against darker backgrounds. Notice the rim-lighting effect on Rebecca's hair against the dark pine tree background as compared to her sweater against the bright water.

Notes on Lenses and Focus

One other must-have for catalog shots like this is a telephoto lens. With a telephoto lens, your angle of view is narrower and requires you to be positioned a good distance away from your subjects (for these full-length shots, I was about 50 feet away), but your optical distortion is low, which is important for rendering proportions with clothing.

Telephoto lenses also allow you to create a more limited depth of field so that you can throw the background out of focus. By doing this, you can draw more attention primarily to the clothing and/or the model. Keep in mind, though, that it can be all but impossible to lock down precise focus with a long lens, particularly if your subject matter is in motion and you are shooting with a limited depth of field. Here, I set the focus mode to AF to ensure that the shots of the model would be crisp and sharp.

Coming In Tight

While James stayed right where he was with the MultiDisc, I decided to come in a bit closer for some tighter shots. Even though the wind was making it a little challenging for James to keep the reflection steady on Rebecca, he managed pretty well as I took a few more shots.

Here's one of our favorites from this series.

As you can see from the result, the effect of the telephoto lens is even more pronounced when coming in tight. Rebecca is still rendered accurately with respect to proportion, but the background is even more out of focus, allowing you to concentrate more on her clothing, face and hair.

And as with the previous shots, the MultiDisc did a great job in reflecting warm, natural light into the shadows. A simple lighting tool that works wonders for shots like this. As always, remember to experiment with your lighting and have fun in the process!


Written and photographed by Ben Clay.