Lighting on the Road

By Roger (14 Sep 2014)

When you’re photographing people outside, without any lighting equipment, you need to pay attention to what the light from the sun is doing to your subjects. OK, actually, you always need to do that, regardless of the subject, but, go with me on the sun and people thing.

This week, I’m goofing off in Canada for a few days, visiting family and friends and learning the proper time to add an “Eh?” at the end of my sentences. All of the sudden, this cute baby (I know, that’s redundant) comes into my viewfinder, and I don’t have any lighting equipment with me. There’s a nice, late afternoon sun outside, so we decide to put that to some good use to light this cherub. This may happen to you, some day, so how do you handle it? Let’s demonstrate some courses of action and figure out what I think works best. As always, there are exceptions to what my favorite “rules” are in this situation. You decide what will work best for your model.

For some reason, most beginning photographers put the sun behind themselves. This is rarely the right thing to do. It lights up the faces and gets rid of shadows, but that leads to a flat, frontal light and anguished, squinty faces. Ryann – she’s the short one in this family – gives me the appropriate face for this kind of lighting. Yeah, she can’t talk, yet, but her expression says, “This yokel is doing it all wrong.”

Don't put the sun in your models' faces

Don't put the sun in your models' faces

If we change their position so the sun is coming from the side, we get better light. The models’ eyes are no longer squinting into the sun. Go between this photo and the first, and you can see their body language is much more relaxed. Dad has a hot spot on his face that I don’t like, but the highlights are not blown out. I can correct that in post-processing, but the goal is always to get it right in camera.

Light from side is better

Light from side is better

For me, the best solution is to put the models between my camera and the sun. This keeps the sun out of their eyes and puts a nice rim light around their hair. If I was carrying one of my reflectors on this trip, I could use that to bounce some fill light back at them. Even without the reflector, you can see how much better this lighting solution turned out.

I like this lighting the most

I like this lighting the most

For your own safety, always include a photo with Nona

For your own safety, always include a photo with Nona

These are not the only solutions, of course. You have probably heard of people looking for some open shade to block out the bright sun.  This is another option that can work well, especially for these types of “capture-the-moment” shots. However, open shade usually gives you another version of flat (uninteresting?) light. Reflectors are useful here, as well, to put in some shadowing and give more interest to your photo.

In the next two shots, I got some fill light from below, from the patio, and from the side, bouncing off the house. Remember, you don’t need an official photographer’s reflector to put fill light into a scene. You can use towels, shirts, or anything handy to bounce some light into the scene.

Open shade, with light bouncing into the scene

Open shade, with light bouncing into the scene

Unless you are doing a planned photo session, you want to keep things quick, especially with little ones. We knocked out these photos in less than 10 minutes. Most people are happy to cooperate with you when you keep it short.

This is on the road editing (my travel workflow description is here, if you didn’t see it), so I’ll make some changes to the final images when I return home. For now, it’s time to have some tourist fun and head for Niagara Falls at sunset. There may be some photos there, too.

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Don't forget to sign up for the 11 October Worldwide Photowalk here. You can join Mark and I, in Harpers Ferry, WV, at 0930, beginning at the Amtrak station. You can sign up for our walk here. We hope to see you there.