Taking outdoor portraits

Earlier we discussed a light setup for a basic headshot shoot. Today we go outdoors and unplugged. Natural light can be your friend or your enemy depending on how you approach it. The biggest mistake people make is thinking that the sun is a giant soft light in the sky. While the Sun is over 92 million miles away, if you hold your thumb up to the sun at high noon, it appears to only be the size of your thumbnail making it a VERY small spotlight which causes very harsh shadows. An overcast day changes this by creating a gigantic softbox, thus, the best outdoor shooting is on cloudy, overcast days. There is also the “magic hour” right at sunrise and sunset that provides excellent light and color.

But what can you do if you just have to shoot in the middle of the day and the sun God’s are smiling on you with a perfectly clear sky? That was exactly the case with the shoot with Alexander, clear blue skies, bright sunlight, harsh shadows. So how did we get shots that looked good? While the sun added lots of ambient light but was useless to actually use directly on the subject. To make this work, we moved Alex behind a wall so he wasn’t in direct sunlight, then used his girlfriend to hold a 42″ silver reflector. Adding a flash to the camera filled in the remaining shadows on the face for a great overall look. Click on the image for more examples from this photo shoot.

The following diagram shows the actual lighting setup that was used:


While beginners will often think that shooting in the shadows is bad, it is actually much easier to shoot in the shadows and reflect light in than to shoot in direct sunlight and take light out. Out in the open sun like on a beach with no shade, the only option may be a large diffuser that can soften the sunlight over the entire shooting area.

Get out and do some shooting and don’t be afraid of the shade.

Happy Shooting


Kerry Garrison lives in Castle Rock, Colorado with his wife and two dogs. With 10 years of experience shooting products and 5 years of experience in the wedding industry, Kerry brings a good deal of technical know-how and can explain topics in easy-to-understand terms.

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1 Response

  1. Thanks for the tips , I have recently gotten into photography and find your tips to be helpful.

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