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Natural light ONLY for backdrops

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Showing 1-10 of 10 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jan 7, 2013 7:22:44 PM PST
Brandi says:
I would like to setup backdrops outdoors and want to know if I will get nice portraits (as if I had studio lights) without the shadows? Thanks for any advice!

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 7, 2013 8:09:40 PM PST

"fill flash" exists for a reason -- to reduce the extreme contrast between sunlit cheeks and noses and the dark shadows under eyebrows and chins.

Diffuse clouds (where you don't really see shadows from objects) can help.

Large diffuser panels between the sun and subjects, along with large reflector panels on the other side, can also moderate the contrast into something desirable.

Formal portraiture tends to use something like a 3:1 ratio of lighting (though I'm always confused if the 3-side is counting 2X main light PLUS 1X fill light [where the two lights both impact the subject] -- or 3X main, 1X fill).

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 9, 2013 11:17:37 AM PST
EdM says:
There are many ways to make fine portraits. with and without backdrops. It depends on your technique. Ditto what Dennis says. To think about the possibilities, consider what you find if you search the internet for IMAGES [in Google, the images tab at the top of the google search page] using the search term "outdoor portrait photography".

It can be as complicated or as simple as you make it. Steve McCurry's famous Afgan Girl photo is an outdoor portrait.

If you choose your location and the lighting is favorable, little more may be required. If the light is harsh, you might use a number of reflectors, diffusers, backdrops and other gear/techniques to shoot despite difficult conditions. However, it is often excellent to shoot portraits with just a touch of fill from a flash, even using a pop-up flash. This is a matter of style, though, as some wish for catchlights in the eyes and others wish to avoid such.

The answer, though, to "if I will get nice portraits (as if I had studio lights) without the shadows?" is that it is up to you and your skills. People do shoot portraits on overcast days or in shade and much more. If you follow links from the images search above, you will also find tips, e.g., such as here:

However, the front page photo was clearly shot with flash to highlight the model/subject and the color contrast. Further in there are tips for natural light on page 3, under "How to make the most of natural light".

Posted on Jan 10, 2013 7:56:41 AM PST
T. Campbell says:
To paraphrase Joe Brady: When I hear someone say they prefer natural light, what I hear is "I have no idea how to control my flash."

Why would you use a backdrop in an outdoor shoot? If you're outdoors for the environment, use the environment. But if you're just outdoors for the light, then you need to control the light. That means you'll need to learn to use reflectors (collapsible reflectors are cheap!) and fill flash.

There are a couple of major challenges when you shoot outdoors. One is controlling the harsh shadows that can result from subjects in sun. The other is the mixed light level problem you get when a subject is in shadow, but the background is in sun. In both cases, a flash solves the problem, although it helps to have a light meter which can display "flash contribution" if you don't want to guess your way into better photographs.

For example, a Sekonic L-358 Flash Master Light Meter (or the L-478 or L-758) can meter in a way that reports "flash contribution". "Flash contribution" is the ratio of flash as a percentage of natural light. The meter checks the ambient light reading and waits for the pulse of the flash strobe. It meters the peak light when the flash fires and compares that light to the ambient light and reports the ratio as a "flash contribution" percentage.

If you take a photo of a subject in full sun, then the sunny parts of their face will be fairly bright. You can easily adjust camera exposure to get a great exposure on the sunny side of the face so that it doesn't look over-exposed. But this causes the shadow parts of the subject to be very dark and the images look bad. What you'd LIKE is an image where the shadows are just a little darker than the non-shadows. To do that you use fill-flash and meter for "flash contribution". The percentage that works is personal taste. I tend to prefer the look of about 30% flash contribution. That means my highlights will be roughly twice as bright as the shadows. At 50% the subject will look fairly "flat" because the flash is filling the shadows with the same amount of light that the sun is putting on the "non-shadow" side of the face. There's so little difference that the shadows are erase. You can't create good interesting light without some shadow. Shadow gives the feeling of a 3D surface and creates texture. So a completely flat image generally wont look as good.

You can also fill shadows using collapsible reflectors, but then you usually need an assistant to stand in the light with the reflector and control the angle & tilt to bounce the light where it's needed on your subject. They do make stands to hold the reflector and let you control the angle... as long as it's not too windy (otherwise it's either blowing over or wobbling so hard that the light is flickering and uncontrolled.)

By the way... the mixed light level problem ALSO occurs when you're shooting indoors but there are windows to the outside in the background. Flash solves that problem as well by creating a balanced amount of light (to do this you have to put the flash in manual mode... using automatic flash metering probably wont work very well because the flash is just trying to create an adequate exposure for your subject and doesn't know you want both an adequate exposure for your subject which is also balanced to the light levels visible outside through the window.

There are some great tutorial videos on how to shoot in mixed lighting, environmental portraiture, and metering flash contribution here: These are long videos (they're pre-recorded webinars... typically about an hour long each). But while they may be long, they are actually pretty good and informative. Well worth your investment in time.

Posted on Jan 10, 2013 8:33:37 AM PST
Tom Martin says:
These AdoramaTV YouTube videos should help
Digital Photography 1 on 1: Episode 46: Using Natural Light
Find the Light: Ep 233: Digital Photography 1 on 1
Parking Lot Studio: Ep 236: Digital Photography 1 on 1

Posted on Jan 10, 2013 9:55:24 AM PST
A few examples of the difficulties of using outdoor lighting:

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 10, 2013 10:02:34 PM PST
EdM says:
TC > To paraphrase Joe Brady: When I hear someone say they prefer natural light, what I hear is "I have no idea how to control my flash."

And yet, master photographer Irving Penn did just that, shoot via natural light in a portable studio/backdrops. So, it is a matter of style, although for some it might be a matter of not knowing how to use artificial light proficiently.

Worlds in a Small Room

from the review, "Irving Penn takes us on a journey while he photographs the people of the world. Using a portable studio in remote locations, Irving Penn is able to capture cultures like the Kirdi of Cameroon ...

"The photographs in the book are astonishing. All of the photographs are lit with natural light and are shot in a studio..."

Of course, in his varied commercial work, he also used studio light sources, but for location shooting where power might not be available or unreliable, he shot via ambient light. Consider Penn's great photo of Picaso, shown here:

"While a master of the studio flash, most of Penn's portraits are lighted with window light. For travelling to New Guinea and other locations to photograph indigenous people, Penn created a portable studio with a skylight deployed facing north with impressive results. These pictures had the same feel as his portraits of celebrities; fully adorned, naturally lighted, yet placed ..."

Just a thought, that the OP might have this kind of photography in mind ... One could do far worse than emulate Irving Penn in some sense, for a photography style ...

Posted on Jan 11, 2013 11:32:32 AM PST
Note the emphasis on a portable studio...

North light means no direct sunlight on the subject; rather all lighting is diffused lighting from the distant sky.

That brings us back to portable diffusers (to block direct sunlight, and diffusing the light source -- meaning no sharp-edged shadows) and reflectors (to angle some of the most direct light back up under shadowed regions).

Or setting up a large white campsite canopy with side walls on the east/west/south sides. The side walls and roof will act as diffusion panels.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 11, 2013 6:27:38 PM PST
T. Campbell says:
Ed, I agree that natural light is also an excellent way to light a shot. My point is that you should be able to control the light whether it's natural or flash.

I'm of the opinion that lighting comes only second to the skill of the photographer with respect to the results possible. I've often responded with my list (1) photographer skill (2) lighting (3) lens (4) camera in order of how much impact it'll have on the results.

But so often I hear people say they prefer natural light because they get poor results when using flash. You should be able to get good results either way if you're controller the light rather than the light controlling you. Even in natural light situations, I recommend photographers have collapsible reflectors in their bag.

I don't think any of this makes Joe Brady's comment less valid. I'd agree with him that in most situations, when a photographer says they prefer natural light, it's because they struggle to get good results with flash. Considering Irving Penn ALSO did considerable work with studio flash, I'm not entirely sure it'd be accurate to say Irving Penn prefers natural light. The into on the book seems to indicate that he did it because electricity wasn't always available. That sounds like a skilled photographer making the best of the resources available.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 11, 2013 9:46:51 PM PST
EdM says:
"hear people say they prefer natural light because they get poor results when using flash."

I agree that this may be so, and that this may well be due to poor strobe skills, such as just using pop-up or shoe mounted flash, and where the flash is the main/sole light.

Still, If people want to use natural light, they might also be making a stylistic choice. One of my first really fine photos was from long ago, over 30 years. I used natural, indirect light from a window to the side, plus a crinkled aluminum reflector, and I still have and cherish that photo which has a great light ratio to soften/lighten the shadow areas. So, yes, reflectors, diffusers and such are at least helpful and sometimes necessary. Still, the desired style should drive how the light is used, rather than letting the light dictate the results.

I had the pleasure to see the Irving Penn exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in DC, and his photo of Picaso with the hat and one side of his face in deep shade was illuminated essentially from one direction, but with soft light. This is apparent from the photo. A great amount of his work was for Vogue or similar, for which he used studio lighting with great skill.

Yet, in the narrow corner studio of his design in his New York space, he often used no artificial light, to produce photos with that style. Some of these later were printed superbly in his platinum prints, some of which were also in the NGA exhibit. For example, note the second image of 17 in this series for a shot in that narrow angle [less than 90°] space with only indirect natural light.

For a considerable amount of his personal work, he really did prefer natural light, as opposed to his fashion photography, e.g. OTOH, I believe that someone said that Penn proved that there was no difference between fine art photography and fashion photography. In his NY studio in that narrow angle space, for example, he clearly could have used studio lighting had he desired. Instead he followed a style that he preferred. I believe that I may have also seen another exhibit of Penn's work at MOMA during a visit to NYC. The resulting monochrome shades could provide wondrous source material for his platinum prints.
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Discussion in:  Photography forum
Participants:  5
Total posts:  10
Initial post:  Jan 7, 2013
Latest post:  Jan 11, 2013

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