Soft Light in the Middle of the Day

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Many photographers prefer to shoot outdoor portraits either at dawn or at dusk to take advantage of the “magic light” that occurs during those times. But what if your schedule (or your subject’s schedule) doesn’t permit you to shoot then? Can you still capture your subjects in soft, beautiful lighting conditions? The answer, of course, is yes.

Experienced photographers tend to find ways around less-than-ideal photographic conditions. Shooting portraits in the middle of the day can be difficult due to harsh shadows and high contrast, but if you’re armed with some light modification, it can also be a breeze.

This lesson, which spotlights the Photoflex Large 77×77 inch LitePanel Kit and 3-foot OctoDome®, takes a look at some straightforward lighting techniques for outdoor portraits at any time of day.

Topics Covered:

  • The Concept
  • The Back-lit Approach
  • Issues with Side-Lighting
  • Diffusing Sunlight
  • Coming In Tight
  • A Secondary Light for Added Dimension

The Concept

For this lesson, I coordinated a daytime photo-shoot at a local nature reserve with my model, Mattie, and assistant, James. We hiked around a bit until we found a field with a few background options.

The Back-lit Approach

I started off by taking some test shots without any lighting equipment. For the first series, I had Mattie stand with her back to the sun so that it would serve as a hair/rim light, while simultaneously preventing harsh shadows from being cast across any part of her face.

Due to the time of day, this also meant that the field was to her back. I dialed in an exposure that bordered on having her face too dark, but I couldn’t help but overexpose her blond hair.

Issues with Side-Lighting

Next, I changed direction and had Mattie stand with her back to a grove of tall trees in dark shadow, rather than an overexposed sky. While the exposure on Mattie’s hair and the background were good here, the side-lighting was problematic across the features of Mattie’s face.

Notice the specular highlights, dark shadows and awkward tonal shapes that appear on Mattie’s face as it’s illuminated by the harsh light of the sun. Even after activating the camera’s built-in fill flash, the results were still poor.

Another element of these shots that was distracting was the high level of detail in the background. So before doing anything else, I switched to a telephoto lens and took another series of shots at a further distance so that I could better throw the background out of focus. As you can see from the results, though, a telephoto lens still doesn’t help resolve the issue of side-lighting.

Diffusing Sunlight

The first thing I wanted to do with respect to the lighting was to diffuse the harsh sunlight. So James and I set up the Large 77×77 inch LitePanel Kit we had brought along. We each set up a Large LiteStand and attached a GripSwivel and GripJaw™ Clamp to the top riser of each LiteStand. Then we weighted each one LiteStand with a RockSteady® Weight Bag in case the wind picked up and wanted to knock over the LitePanel.

While James set up the main frame, I located the Translucent Panel fabric and attached it to the frame. After adding a Crossbar to the frame for added stability, we mounted each side of the frame to the GripJaws. Finally, we angled the LitePanel so that it was perpendicular to the angle of the sun’s rays. Here’s a shot of the LitePanel Kit before we moved it into position.

Once the LitePanel Kit was set up, James and I each grabbed a LiteStand and walked the Kit over where Mattie would be standing. It was pretty warm this day and Mattie appreciated the protection the LitePanel offered. While it didn’t cut the sun entirely, it did diffuse it to a comfortable level. When Mattie was ready, I took another series of shots.

As you can see, the LitePanel made a dramatic difference in terms of lighting compared to those of the previous shots. With the sunlight now diffused, the shadows across Mattie’s face were soft and gradual. The LitePanel also created nice catch-lights in the eyes, making them appear brighter.

Coming In Tight

Next, I decided to move in a little tighter for some closeup shots. Notice how the tighter I came in, the more the background got thrown out of focus.

In reviewing the results, I was happy with the soft, natural quality of light illuminating Mattie. The results were lit without looking lit.

A Secondary Light for Added Dimension

To add a little more dimension to Mattie’s face, I added a Small (3-foot) OctoDome® powered by two Photoflex StarFire shoe mount flashes and mounted to a LiteReach.

With everything synced up, I asked James to set each flash to approximately half power so that they could recycle quickly, which would allow me to shoot at a faster pace.

Once everything and everyone were in position, I took a final series of shots. Here’s one from this series.

The look of the shots ended up being what I was going for. The LitePanel and Small OctoDome worked beautifully to modify the sunlight, to create added dimension to Mattie’s features, and to illuminate her eyes, which were also accented by the soft green tones in the background.

Written and photographed by Ben Clay.

Outdoor Portraits,

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