Using Strobe Outdoors

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Using artificial light in outdoor settings is one of the most useful techniques every professional portrait photographer should know. There is a common belief among some photographers that artificial lighting is best suited for a studio setting and is mostly impractical in outdoor situations. This untrue belief is often born from the idea that portable power systems are expensive and hard to locate.

In this lesson we will demonstrate how we used a Photoflex® StarFlash® 300watt kit to create this portrait of Paul Figueroa, the executive director at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History.

Topics Covered:

  • Preparation
  • Using the Umbrella
  • Using the LiteDome®: medium
  • Adding a Fill


One of the most important things to do before taking any photographs on location is to go see the location well in advance. This will enable you to see exactly what the natural light is doing at the time you want to photograph your subject. This allows you to plan ahead and bring any additional lighting gear you may need to your shoot.

After our initial consultation with the client, we made an appointment to scout the location. Mr. Figueroa personally gave us a tour of the entire museum and allowed us to take some snap shots to use for planning our shot.

When we got back to the studio, we were able to review each of our interior and exterior shots to see which angle was the best for our subject.

We chose the outdoor courtyard and fountain in front of the main entrance. This seemed like the ideal setting for our shot. We had the museum logo and title above the door and the fountain added a nice foreground element.

Using some basic painting tools in Photoshop®, we sketched in our subject in order to visualize how to compose this image. Doing this helped to direct our efforts during the actual shoot. The more planning and pre-production you can do, the faster, smoother, and more enjoyable the job will be.

Before Beginning

To make your setup more convenient and versatile, we have now included the Photoflex® FlashFire™ wireless kit. Using this equipment allows you to move more freely with your camera instead of limiting yourself to within a few feet of your lights.

Even adding just one trigger and one receiver you can set your secondary lights to slave so that they fire through the infrared sensor. Either way you choose to use the FlashFire™, you cannot ignore its ability to provide your “tool bag” with a great amount of flexibility.

Arriving on Location

The setting was the outdoor courtyard in front of the entrance to the building. The ambient light was mostly flat due to the large open shade provided by the tall buildings on either side.

One of the challenges in photographing a portrait such as this is that the subject (the museum director, CEO of a company, or any public figure) is not often willing to spend a lot of time on the set. Some may only give up about 15 minutes of their time to take a picture, if they’re being generous. Therefore, preparation, consistency, and the right lighting tools are crucial to achieving a good result.

We arrived on location about an hour before we were scheduled to shoot so that we could set up our equipment and do any necessary tests prior to the shoot. We set up a StarFlash® 300watt strobe with a 43 inch silver umbrella.

Then we positioned a 39×72 inch LitePanel kit on the opposite side to bounce light back in as a fill. We had our assistant stand in for the model, so that we could do some lighting tests.

One of the biggest advantages of using strobes over hot lights is that the strobes are daylight-balanced (5600 degrees Kelvin). This allows you to effortlessly mix ambient daylight with artificial strobe light.

Also, remember that daylight is usually much brighter than any continuous light. Therefore, it is necessary to use strobes to match or exceed the light intensity of the outdoor light.

We were able to borrow some electricity from an adjacent café to power our strobe. We remembered to bring plenty of extension cords just in case the nearest power outlet was farther away than we expected.

The image on the left was our best result from the lighting test. The umbrella gave us a nice soft, yet directional light on the subject and the LitePanel added just the right amount of fill on the opposite side.

We knew that we had to use a small aperture (f/16 in this case) in order to maximize depth of field. Doing this also enabled us to use a slower shutter speed (1/15th of a second), which caused the water in the fountain to have a nice, elegant blur.

At this point we were confident with our setup and exposure. Now we were ready to bring in the director and carry out a few lighting variations in the short time we had available.

Using the Umbrella

For the first shot we decided to use the umbrella, but leave out the fill. We positioned the model in about the same place as we had our assistant. We asked him to raise one foot on to the step of the fountain in order to add a bit of a casual feel to this portrait.

The umbrella produced excellent results. The light was soft and covered the entire subject. The direction of the light produced some good shadows, which helped to add dimension to an otherwise flatly lit subject. Some of the light even reached the fountain behind him and added a bit of a sparkle to the wet surfaces.

Using the LiteDome®: Medium

Next, we wanted to compare our result with the umbrella to what we might get using a Medium LiteDome®.

The quality of light produced by the LiteDome® is different from the umbrella. The LiteDome® has a narrower spread, which means that the light reaches only the subject and not the fountain.

Moreover, only the upper portion of the body is fully lit and the light drops off towards the lower torso and legs.

Then we brought back the 39×72 inch LitePanel to add some fill light to the shot.

The LitePanel produced just a slight amount of fill light for the shadow side of the subject. This has reduced the contrast of the light on the model just a little bit and helped the artificial light blend a little better with the ambient light.

Adding a Fill

We still felt that the LiteDome® was a little bit too soft and diffused for this situation. With the ambient light being so flat and diffused already, we wanted to create some sense of depth in the shot. Based on our previous result with our stand-in assistant, we decided to switch back to the umbrella while leaving the LitePanel in the same position.

This combination felt just right. The umbrella spread the light nicely across the subject and the fountain. The extra bit of contrast provided by the silver umbrella interior added a sense of depth to the photograph, which is exactly what we wanted.

The LitePanel added just enough fill to the shadows so that the lighting would not seem too directional or too artificial.

Check out the progression from start to finish.

As mentioned above, we prefer the result attained with the umbrella and fill. However, we still liked some of our other results for other reasons. For example, the narrow spread of the soft box provided a more natural, or less obvious kind of lighting, which might be preferable to some.

As you can see, many studio lighting tools and techniques can greatly benefit the photographer in outdoor situations. When consistent results are a must and time is limited, make sure that your system is dialed in and predicable. This way, your shoot will proceed smoothly and your client will thank you for your professionalism. Click here to visit The Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History.

Basic Lighting,

Outdoor Portraits,

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