What do I need for a portrait outdoors?

If you want to take portraits like mine outdoors, like the one below, in conditions of bright sunlight, what do you need?

After the click, I shall outline it all for you. Good news: it’s not expensive.

As you know by now, if the sun is out, you get pictures like this (and what else I am wearing in these pictures I will leave to you to decide):

Not terrible, but also not very very creative. The background looks washed out – “washed out” meaning “overexposed and hence lacking saturation”.

So we expose less? Yes – by a couple of stops – but then we get this:

Nice background – look at the trees and the sky, which is actually blue now – but the foreground is dark.

So you put the subject in the sun? No. Sunlight is harsh, and makes people squint as well. So instead, you use a flash. In this case, a big one, battery powered:

Combine this with the dark exposure above, and now we get what we came for:

Good! So what do we need?

  1. An off-camera flash (small speedlight or large strobe, like I used here).
  2. A way to fire this (a cable, or two Pocketwizards, or light-fired TTL if it is a speedlight).
  3. A modifier – am umbrella being the cheapest, or a softbox.
  4. A light stand with a bracket to mount the flash and modifier.
  5. When using strobes, ideally also a flash meter.

That’s all!

When do you use a big light, a strobe?

  • When you need a lot of light, like on a fully sunny day
  • or when there is distance between your flash and the subject
  • or when the modifier eats up a lot of light
  • or when you want extra darkness in the background.

When do you use a small flash, a speedlight?

  • When you do not have a power source (battery or wall outlet)
  • When you do not want to carry heavy stuff
  • When your modifier will not eat much light
  • When you do not have to shoot in bright sun
  • When you do not need darker backgrounds.

So what was I using in that shoot?

  1. Camera, Canon 1Ds Mk3.
  2. A 24-70 lens.
  3. Bowens 400 Ws light on stand.
  4. Bowens softbox.
  5. Battery travel kit (controller plus battery) to power the light.
  6. Battery power cable.
  7. Two Pocketwizards (one on camera, one connected to flash).
  8. A cable from Pocketwizard to strobe.
  9. Light meter (Sekonic flash meter) to ace the exposure.

Not complicated – and often I do it with speedlights, as in the shot at the very top.

I encourage you to learn this stuff. I am teaching ta Vistek (dates soon) and at the Niagara School in august, as well as privately – a few hours with me, and you’ll be able to produce great artistically lit images. Go for it!


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