By X-Mun

Let’s start with the lens. It has nothing to do with outdoor portrait, but it has a lot to do with “What type of portrait?” you are getting. I am using my good “old” 70-200 mm/F4 Canon lens. By far this is the best lens I have used for portrait shots. When setting the aperture to F4 and maximizing my zoom to 200mm, I am able to get a relatively shallow depth of field. To those readers that are new to photography, what it means is that I am able to “pop-up” my subject and creates a effect of blur background. Of course, if you have a regular automatic camera, it has a “portrait mode” that try to produce such photography effect. Why outdoor photography??!! Well, it is because I don’t have a studio and it is also cheaper. The challenge of shooting outdoor  is the weather, you are at the mercy of “god”. Before we start, I want to clarify some misconception of  “Hey!! It is bright and sunny, let’s go take some pictures..!!”, that is not totally correct. Under a strong sun, most likely you will get a hash shadow on the face. To make it worse, if the person is wearing a hat.  You will get a dark shadow over the forehead. So what is the best condition to shoot a perfect portrait shot?

If you did some search on the internet, many articles will tell you about defuse light or place the model under a “big” canopy. It is true to the extend of where to find such places or light condition? I noticed that most of the “big/tall” building structure has this perfect type of lighting condition; example the airport, some tall financial building with huge open glass wall or big and tall trees. But most of the time, we don’t get such wonderful environment. So I turned to my faithful flash and reflector.

If you have noticed that most or almost all of the outdoor wedding photographer uses the flash all the time. It is because, that is the most secure way of ensuring each of the pictures are well lite. In most of the book you read, the flash is used as a filled in. But it didn’t tell you how? For a point and shoot camera, like an iphone, it does not allow the user to adjust the “power” or the intensity of the flash. This might result in the flash too weak, in which the subject might not get light up. The result will look like a picture without flash, the person will still appeared to be over “shadowed”. The quick and easy way is to move closer the person or ask he/she to move closer. The other condition is the person may be to close and his/her face appeared to be “white” or wash-out. Of course, the next thing to do is to move away from the subject. The perfect shot would be the intensity of the flash is just strong enough to light up the subject.

A friend of mine has described to me, that “throwing” a flash is like throwing a ball. The strength has to be just right that the receiver is at the right position to “catch” it. With a more advance type of camera, it allows the user to adjust the flash intensity. Now you have more control, and you don’t really need to ask you subject to “walk” toward or away from you. You can reduce the flash intensity if he/she is a bit too close or boost up the flash power if the model is slight too far. You may ask, how many time I need to try before I get the perfect shot. Honestly speaking, I don’t have a solid answer. I uses the approach of adjusting my EV (Exposure Value) to compensate for the lighting condition. Based on the reading on the camera, I will either increase or decrease my EV number, usually it is with a +/- 1 stop. These might takes me about 2-3  try. As you already know some of the those advance camera has a metering system built-in, which you are able to take the reading of the light condition surrounding the model and take a reading of the model. And make a comparison to see how much light you need to “fill-in”. The quick rule-of-thumb is the light “difference” should not be way off like 2 F stop or more and the best is to have it within the 1 F stop range. What does that mean??!! With reference to the shot taken under the plum tree as shown, I used a strong “fill-in” flash. I knew that the surrounding environment is too bright, comparing with the subject under the tree. I honestly do not remember how many time I tried on this shot, for sure, it is not one time.

I also uses a reflector during my shoot. In fact, I prefer the reflector over the flash. One of the major reason is that the reflector is able to produce a wider and softer light than a flash. The tone/color is more natural. I have a double sided reflector, one side is silver color and the other is golden. I normally use the silver side, which give me a cooler tone to my portraits. In the shot shown below,  I used the golden side of the reflector. It enhance the mood of sunset and gave the model golden skin tone. The good thing of using a reflector is that you don’t need to guess where the subject is well lite or under expose. You can see it right off your camera. It work s great on those point and shoot camera. Of course, it has it’s good and bad. Let talk about the “bad” first, you need some way to position your reflector. If you can afford an assistant, that will be perfect. But for me, I too poor to hire one. So I used a “heavy” tripod and tied/hang the reflector over it. Being my our assistant, I will have to move the reflector and redirect the light on to the model correctly.  What is correctly??!! Again, the same principal applied. The light can not be over power or too weak.

The other disadvantage is you really “NEED” the sun!!! On a cloudy and overcast day, it will be useless. You can’t reflect any light from it. Another bad thing of using a reflector is the light might be too blinding to the model’s eyes. If your model is giving you that blinding look, re-position the reflector. Otherwise, the shot will not look good. One more thing about using the reflector on a tripod, it sucks on a windy day. Since nobody is “holding” it, the reflector tends to “fly” like a kite. Overall, most of the bad thing happened because I don’t have an assistant. Haa!! Haa!! Haa!!
With all the “bad” things I mentioned earlier, here comes the “good” stuff. The reflector acts like an outdoor studio light. No worry about hash shadow on a mid-day photo session. By adjusting the distance of reflector between the model, visually you are able to tell the light is enough to fill-in the shadow and not over powered. With that, you can carefully control you light source to produce a soft  shadow cast on the face of the model. Most importantly, adding a sparkle on the eyes of the model. It works best under a back-lite condition, showing on the right is a shot done using the silver side of the reflector under a back-lite condition during sunset. The major advantage of a reflector is that you can “place” your model under a tree or tall building structure acting as a canopy, where the lighting dim, and using the reflected light as a “spot” light; like the shot shown below on left. The ideal is to have the model “pop-out” from the shadowy background. I wouldn’t leave home without my reflector……

Last by not less, the subject has to be dressed “correctly”. What??!!
Yes, the dress has to be a near complementary colors/texture of the surrounding environment. It is easy said then done, the ideal is not to have your model camouflage into the background. The other thing I kept telling my friends/model, “if you want your picture to look good, you will have make yourself look good first”. What I meant is make-up, most friends would say that it is so troublesome to put on make-up. But without any make-up the picture will look flat. The minimum requirement is have some kind of eye shadow or eye liner and a good colored lips and that will the highlight of the face, which impact the result of the shot.
Outdoor shoot is not limited to a simple flash and a reflector, the professional uses portable strobe light to achieve the perfect light condition. Honestly, I have not done that before. Right now, I only have a simple flash and a reflector. I hope this article will help you to jump start your portrait photography.
For the time being, let’s go out and take some pictures!!!
P.S. Thanks to all the models from ModelMayhem(MM).
Here’s a few more shots I did some time ago.

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