Many of my clients like the idea of having portraits of their key executives made outside, in nature. It seems like an easy thing to do unless you want control over the quality of light and control over your backgrounds. This is a quick post about shooting outdoors in the sunlight.
If clients gave you a blank slate you would probably find a place with ample open shade and a lovely background that was also in open shade. Then you'd have controllable contrast and consistent color in your images. You would also have comfortable portrait subjects because they wouldn't be looking into bright areas that make people squint.
Even though I prefer photographing people in my studio I understand the need for many corporations to stage photo sessions either on their premises or close by. My client was looking for nice, saturated greenery in the background, a location one block from their H.Q. and someplace adjacent to air conditioning and restrooms. We found a location just outside the front door of the LBJ museum in "downtown" Johnson City, Texas.
I had scouted the location previously and had a good idea what a series of portraits, made across the space of four hours might call for, logistically. We'd need a powerful flash to match direct sun falling on the trees in the background. We'd need a large silk panel to cut the direct sunlight as the sun marched up over head and we'd need some black flags to both cut direct light and give the subjects something dark to look at in an attempt to prevent squinting. I also decided to toss in a silver reflector panel to add some fill light to the shadow side of peoples' faces. I knew I would need a medium telephoto focal length in order to get the camera to subject distance we wanted and to render the background sufficiently out of focus. We might as well combine all of that with a high dynamic range camera in order to help prevent blown highlights on skin and grouchy shadows.
Our first subject was scheduled to be photographed at 7am which meant leaving Austin at 5 a.m. If the trip timed out right I'd have an hour to set up and test before we needed to get rolling. A 5 a.m. departure means that I pack the night before. Easier to navigate my checklist when my brain is still relatively engaged.
I arrived to a dark location right at 6 a.m. I set up a Fotodiox 508AS LED panel to use as a work light for the area I wanted to work in and proceeded to set up panels and lights.
My basic lighting was this: One medium soft box, powered by an Elinchrom Ranger RX AS power pack on camera right, positioned high enough to cast a shadow under each subject's chin. The box is about 35 degrees to the right of the camera. That's my main light source. Next I put the silver panel to the subject's opposite side (to the left of the camera) to grab some photons from the main light and redirect them into the shadows. So far, so good.
Once I get this all metered (yes, I still use a meter. It's helpful to know you are in the ballpark before a stand-in is even there to stand in) I start bringing in 4x4 foot flags that are black on one side and white on the other. I want to use one of these panels (with the black side facing the subject) to block any direct light from the sun on the subject. I use a second 4x4 with black facing the subject to give my portrait sitters (standers today....) a place to rest their eyes. This panel goes directly behind the camera.
I put my panels on C stands and used a 30 lb. sandbag on each light stand. The combined weight of the largest C stand and a sandbag is about 50 lbs. That makes for a good anchor against the kind of light (and welcome) breezes we had this morning. The main light in the softball is on my favorite, heavy duty, Lowell stand and it's also anchored with with big sandbag.
The view from the back/side of our temporary set showing all the components surrounded by benches.
Side view of the set. Note the two flags to the left. The lower one just behind the camera is to set to show black to the subject which helps them keep from squinting. The taller of the two blocks any direct light from the sun onto any part of the scene not covered by the large scrim. The silver fill flag is in the middle at the far side of the set.
The main light is an Elinchrom flash head in the softbox. The head is powered by the Ranger RX AS pack. We shot from 7-11:30, made portraits of ten people, twenty to forty images per person, and the pack power indicators still showed "full power" at the end of the shoot. Five years on with the Elinchrom system and not a single failure! (Hope I didn't jinx myself...).
Note the heavy duty sandbags on all light stands with flags and softbox!
Sandbags draped over tall legs on C-stands are easier to set up, easier to take back down. And C-stands don't cost much more that the shitty light stands you get from the regular sources.
Yes. I own multiple sets of radio triggers. Yes, in spite of that the camera and flash are hardwired.
Can you say, "Interference free!"?
The soft silver fill panel. The least sexy component on the set. But helpful in its own way.
This is a view from the left and back of the camera position. We didn't need the big scrim first thing in the morning but it sure came in hand for the sessions we did between 10:30 and 11:30 am. The sun was high up and raging. The scrim blocked direct light and provided shade for the portrait subjects.
The 77 x 77 inch scrim is anchored to the park benches with bungie cords. Before we started shooting I roped the front and back of the frame to the benches as well so it couldn't move even with a stout gust of wind. No sense spending time nurturing a client only to end up clonking them on the head....
The clamps are nice and tight but I like to make sure nothing can slip so the connection to the panel is wrapped in a couple loops of gaffer's tape. Just to be sure...
I like bungie cords because then give a little and then restrain. Nothing held down by bungies ever seems to break. And they disconnect quickly when you are done.
The nice thing about using super powerful, professional lighting gear instead of hot shoe strobes is the fact that half power still gives you nearly 600 watt seconds per flash but you also get pretty fast (1.5 sec.) recycle times. And if you need short duration flash to freeze fast moving executives you can use a Ranger "A" head for durations like 1/3250th of second.
It would be difficult, exhausting and time consuming to try and work with 100 pounds of sandbags, multiple stands and frames, heavy duty flashes and more without the trusty cart. It certainly earned its meager pay today.... (Client: Thank you for the water, the coffee and the lunch. All were needed and just right!)
This is a Fotodiox soft box that I bought from Amazon. It was cheap, can be used with 500 watt tungsten lights, sets up quick, seems impervious to unintentional destruction and also puts out a nice quality of light. Less than $100. Used for well over a year. No wear visible.
Once you get wood you'll never go back. I grabbed my black C-stand and quickly let it go. Sitting in the sun heated it up quickly and well. Not so with the aged, white ash, hand made German tripod. Grab a wooden leg and you find the rig to be "temperature neutral" even in blazing sun. I want another one --- just in case they go out of business and stop selling them. They are that good.
This view is a bit behind where the subjects stand. Just want to show you the collection of flags and reflectors from a different direction. Nice, huh?
Since we kept following the sun we kept changing configurations to make sure we were able to keep our subjects out of direct sunlight. The images above and below show the final settings for the images taken around 11:00- 11:30 am.
We photographed ten different people today and tried to get them in and out quickly so they would not wilt in the heat. After the last person trudged back to the office I took everything back down, took the frames and the softbox apart, loaded the cart up with all my stuff and re-packed the car.
It took about 45 minutes in the early morning to get everything set up and ready for the job and it took about 30 minutes to collapse it all, pack it and stow it for the trip home.
Once I packed my car the art director and I sauntered off to a well deserved lunch.
I always laugh when someone suggests we take a "quick" portrait outdoors. There is no substitute for control sometimes. And that requires some stuff.
Here's an image the client took of me being my own stand in for the lighting:
I should have used the make-up kit.
Below: seen on the way to lunch...
Camera used for project: Nikon D810
files: raw, 12 bit losslessly compressed
lens: Nikon 24-120mm @120mm