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While there are many factors that go into making a professional-looking portrait, most pros would agree that lighting and exposure are the most critical.

After all, you may have a great-looking subject in a beautiful location, but unless your exposures are where they should be and your lighting serves to enhance the shot (and not detract from it), your results will end up being less spectacular than they could have been. And as every pro knows, it can be very frustrating to end up with "almost great" photographs, particularly when you are being paid to shoot a wedding portrait or other special event. Although there are no fail-safe methods for creating "perfect" pictures, there are camera and lighting techniques you can learn that will help you to get the shots you're after.

This lesson is a continuation of an indoor metering and lighting lesson on this site entitled, "Using A Light Meter For Indoor Bridal Portraits". It examines different reflective and incident metering techniques, provides tips on metering for portraits, and demonstrates how to modify and add lighting outdoors.

(Click on any image below for an enlarged view.)

Topics Covered:

  • Comparing Spot and ESP reflective metering modes
  • Multiple approaches for sunlight
  • Using a LitePanel to fill in shadows
  • Why a 5-foot OctoDome creates natural-looking results
  • Using a LitePanel as a second rim light
  • Using an incident meter with strobe power
  • Shooting different perspectives
  • Getting ready for "magic hour"

Equipment Used:
You can click on the blue links below for more info.


Lighting Equipment

  • Photoflex LitePanel 39x72" Aluminum Frame
  • Photoflex LitePanel 39x72" Fabric White/Soft Gold
  • Photoflex LitePanel Accessories
  • Photoflex Litestand 2218
  • Photoflex OctoDome3 - 3'

After taking a series of indoor portraits with our bride in the morning (see previous lesson: "Using A Light Meter For Indoor Bridal Portraits"), we decided to head to the beach in the afternoon for some scenic portraits. It was shaping up to be an ideal day for late afternoon shots: no wind, mostly sunny, and some scattered clouds that would add color to the background sky once they were lit up by the setting sun.

We packed our gear and drove to a west-facing beach (not so common along the east coast) where people often go to take in sunsets. When planning dawn or dusk shots, it's always a good idea to know where the sun will be in relation to your intended frame, because while you can make modifications to the sunlight, you can't very well move the sun to fit your composition (unless you have special powers the rest of us don't know about, or your name is David Copperfield!)

We arrived with enough time to set up our gear and take some test shots before the late afternoon "magic hour" struck. We decided to start with a shot of the water in the background. We had the bride walk over toward the edge, while we mounted an Olympus E-1 digital camera to a tripod in a vertical frame and made some adjustments to the settings (figure 1).

Figure 1

We set the EXPOSURE mode to Aperture Priority (f/4), set the FOCUSING mode to MF, set the ISO to its lowest setting (100), set the RESOLUTION to TIFF, and set the White Balance to DAYLIGHT to match the color temperature of the sun (5500 K).

The reflective light meter in the E-1, as with just about every other camera made today, measures the amount of light that is coming through the lens and automatically determines an "ideal" exposure setting for that situation. But depending on how the reflective meter is dialed in (Spot, Center-weighted, ESP) the "ideal" exposure settings can vary dramatically.

Figure 2

To illustrate, we took a couple of shots of the bride at two different meter settings, Spot and ESP. To set the meter to Spot in the E-1, first press and hold the Meter button. Then turn the Sub dial until the Spot icon appears in the control panel or through the viewfinder (icon circled in figure 4). When you are ready to take a shot in the Spot meter mode, aim the camera so that a middle-toned section of the shot is targeted in the very center of the frame, and press and hold the shutter halfway down. Then re-compose the shot if necessary and press the shutter the rest of the way down to capture the image (figures 2, 3 & 4).

In this first example, we positioned the camera so that the bride's face was in the center of the frame, pressed the shutter halfway down to lock exposure, reframed slightly and took a shot (figure 5).

Figure 5

The result shows a fairly good exposure, given the less-than-desirable lighting conditions. But as you can see, nothing in the shot is tonally optimal. With the sun side-lighting the bride, we see that her face is both too light and too dark, that her dress is for the most part is too dark, and that the sky and water are both too light.

Figure 6

Now let's look at how the ESP meter handled the situation. To set the meter to ESP, press and hold the Meter button as illustrated before and turn the Sub dial until ESP icon shows up in the control panel. In the ESP meter mode, simply compose your shot, fire and the camera will determine the proper exposure settings based on tonal levels of every area of the frame, not just what falls in the center target (figures 6, 7 & 8).

For this next shot, we simply framed up the shot and took an exposure (figure 9).

Figure 9

As you can see, the ESP mode had rendered a very different result. Although the sky and water look better in this version, the bride is considerably underexposed, particularly in the majority of her face. If we had to choose between the two exposures, we probably would have gone with the first, since you can at least make out the bride's expression in that one. But fortunately in this particular situation, we had a third option open to us: light modifiers!

When shooting outdoor portraits, remember that the sun doesn't have to be your main light source. In fact, with its direct, high contrast light quality, it can often be utilized more effectively as a secondary, background, or rim light. That is precisely what we decided to do here.

After reviewing the second exposure, we realized that we liked the exposure levels of the sky, water and rim light on the bride, so we decided to lock in these exposure settings (found by reviewing the exposure info in the Playback mode) by turning the exposure mode to Manual and dialing in the settings (f/4, 1/1000th of a second).

Next, our assistant set up a 39x72" LitePanel frame with Soft Gold/White panel fabric attached (Soft Gold side facing), and mounted it to a LiteStand via a Crossbar and Main & T Clamp. Once the LitePanel gear was set up, our assistant positioned it so that it bounced sunlight into the shadow areas of the model (figures 10 & 11).

Without making any adjustments to the camera, we took another shot (figure 12).

Notice how the lighting of the shot has greatly improved over the last two. Our background is well exposed, as is the bride and her dress. The Soft Gold fabric of the LitePanel has also warmed up the skin tone of the bride, lending a very summery feel to the shot.

Looking closely at the shot, though, we realized that the lighting wasn't quite where we wanted it to be. The LitePanel, while filling in the shadows, was still bouncing hard light undiffused onto the bride, as was evident in the shadows of her face and neck.

Figure 12

So, we decided to replace the LitePanel with a softer light source: a battery-powered strobe and soft box. In order to light the bride evenly from head to toe, we needed to light her with a soft box that was approximately as tall as she was, which is why we decided to use a 5-foot OctoDome. Because this light source is as wide as it is tall, it produces beautifully soft wrap-around light, perfect for full-length portraits on location and in the studio (figure 13).

Once the OctoDome was set up, we took a few test shots and reviewed the results on the camera's LCD screen to determine how much power we needed to expose the bride's right side properly, and finally arrived at the 1/2 power mark. (For a more in depth look at how to set up a battery-powered strobe and remote slave, check out the lesson on this site entitled, "Shooting Great Portraits With Portable Strobes".)

Figure 13

Once everything was in position, we reframed the shot (this time without a tripod) and took another shot at the same exposure (figures 14 & 15).

The result shows a dramatic improvement over the previous shot. The bride's face and dress are beautifully exposed with soft light and she is lit evenly from head to toe.

You could stop at this point and have a beautiful final result. However, here we wanted to use the LitePanel as a secondary rim light to add more definition to her outline against the sky and water. Our assistant brought the LitePanel back in and positioned it back toward the water so that is was bouncing sunlight across her right side. To see exactly what the LitePanel was doing, we disabled the strobe in the OctoDome and took a shot (figures 16 & 17).

The result shows a rim lighting effect that balances the rim light of the sun. As you can see here, the direct and indirect light from the sun and LitePanel creates a defined shape of the bride, and helps to separate her from the background.

Finally, to make sure that the power from the strobe was exactly where we wanted it, we used an incident meter to measure exactly how much light was being projected through the OctoDome.

Figure 18

To get the light meter to sync with the strobe head of the OctoDome, we removed the sync cable from the camera, plugged it into the PC connection on the light meter, pressed and held the MODE button on the meter, and turned the SET dial until the Flash/Cord setting was displayed. Once everything was ready, we held the meter in front of the model and pressed the blue Measure button to trigger and record the light levels of the strobe (figures 18, 19 & 20).

(To see this strobe and metering process in greater detail, see the lesson on this site entitled, "Using A Light Meter For Indoor Bridal Portraits".)

Based on the incident meter reading of the strobe output level, we decided to bump up the power by a half stop. Once this was dialed in, we recomposed and took another shot (figures 21, 22 & 23).

Now our lighting and exposure levels were exactly where we wanted them. The bride's face and dress were just a little bit brighter than before and she contrasted beautifully against the water and sky in the background. The sun was not yet low enough to add a lot of color to the clouds, so in the interim period, we decided to walk the entire setup up to the dunes for a different perspective.

Figure 23

In this situation, the sun served as a rim light to the right side of the bride, while the LitePanel bounced light across the left side. The OctoDome, as before, was brought in close and filled in the shadows cast by the sun. With similar camera and strobe settings, we took a few more shots (figures 24-27).

The results came out better than we expected. The light from the OctoDome lit the bride beautifully from head to toe, the textured clouds in the sky accented the lace in the bride's dress, and the lighting overall looked completely natural, as though there were no lighting tools used whatsoever. Even though it was a casual stance, Figure 27 ended up being one of the bride's favorite shots.

After finishing up this series of shots, we saw that the sun was setting, and so we rushed back to the water's edge, repositioned the OctoDome and LitePanel and took some final shots before the sun went down. Here is another one of the bride's favorites (figures 28 & 29).

As you can see, the quality of light at "magic hour" lends an almost surreal quality to the whole scene, a great finish to a successful bridal portrait shoot.

Written and photographed by Ben Clay, contributing instructor for www.webphotoschool.com
Assisted by Ana Adlerstein
Modeled by Anna Hayden

Equipment Used:
You can click on the blue links below for more info.


Lighting Equipment

  • Photoflex LitePanel 39x72" Aluminum Frame
  • Photoflex LitePanel 39x72" Fabric White/Soft Gold
  • Photoflex LitePanel Accessories
  • Photoflex Litestand 2218
  • Photoflex OctoDome3 - 3'

Recommended Links

  • To learn more about Photoflex equipment, go to www.photoflex.com
  • For more tips and techniques on lighting and cameras, visit www.webphotoschool.com and sign
    up for access to the Member Lessons.

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