Monday, February 21, 2011

Outdoor Lighting Techniques 1: Sunset

Much of my portrait work is done outdoors, away from the lighting control of an indoor studio.  However, you can still have a great deal of control over your lighting when shooting outside, and a few standard "packages" can get you quickly set up for most situations, and you can tweak the lighting from these "packages" to suit the subject and situation.  I'm going to cover a few of my "package" techniques (and the tweaks) over the next few posts.  Starting with:  outdoors at sunset.

I'm lucky to have a large yard in the country, with lots of oak and fruit trees, scenic backgrounds, and warm California sunsets.  But my sunset "package" can be used anywhere you find yourself shooting.

The photo above was taken about 20 minutes before actual sunset.  I always look for areas where the subject will be completely shaded from the sun, but where a sun-lit background is visible behind the subject.  That allows you to control the lighting on the subject completely, and then handle the background separately.
My "sunset package" usually consists of three portable flash units on stands, a 42" umbrella or two, various gels for the flashes, and radio triggers.  Here's a lighting diagram showing the setup for the image above:

Two of my portable flashes were ganged into one 42" umbrella, to the left and above the subject, as the key light (both with 1/2 CTO gels to warm the light a little).  A third was behind and to the left, with no diffusion, but with a full CTO (orange) gel on the flash to make it look like sunlight, and used as a rim light.  With the ambient light fading, I could shoot at 1/160th sec. at ISO 100, nearly wide open (at f/4) to give a nice blurred-out background.  That exposure was perfect for the sun-lit background, then I adjusted the power of my flash units to match that f/4 ambient exposure.  Keep in mind that you can lighten or darken the ambient exposure by changing the shutter speed (within your flash sync speed range) without affecting the flash exposure, which is controlled by the aperture and flash power, so you really can control the subject lighting and the background separately!

The same basic "package" was used to light this shot from another location in my yard -- but the same approach was used.  Put the subject in a location fully shielded from the setting sun, but with the background lit by it.  In this case I moved the 2 flashes in the umbrella to camera right, and left the rim light at left un-gelled for a "cooler" rim/fill light.   Here's the lighting diagram for this shot:

Before heading out to do sunset portraits, I make sure my sunset "package" is set up and ready to go -- flash batteries charged, CTO (warming) gels ready to put on or take off, two of my flashes ganged up (on a custom mount) for the key light.  That way, when doing the setups I can move quickly and efficiently -- important when you might have only 30-40 minutes of that gorgeous sunset light to work with!  Standardizing on an initial package also lets me concentrate more on working with the subject to get good expressions, instead of worrying about technical lighting details.  I hope you'll agree that the basic lighting package looks natural and flattering to the subjects.
Next up:  my "beach package."  


  1. I appreciate all the information here on your blog. I am new to photography and, I love it. There are so many talented people out there. Are the lights necessary? There aren't too many nice sunsets where I am. Are you creating the sunset here? This would not be a good setting for wedding photos though am I correct? The poses just aren't done any longer but, I wouldn't mind learning how to set this up. It would give me more confidence taking photos, knowing that I could actually do this.

  2. Wonderful information. This is extremely helpful for photographers out there.

  3. Thank you! It is very useful for me! I am sure that exactly lamps play the most important role for such work! Tell me please, what lamps do you use for studio photos. I heard that bega can make good atmosphere. I looked on its price and it has good price. Have you ever heard about it?

  4. Absolutely loving your blog. We should not bound ourselves to circumstances. You have explained very well about indoor and outdoor scenario. Really looking forward to your work.

  5. Nice blog to gave a form to home.....

  6. Nice knowledge gaining article. This post is really the best on this valuable topic.
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